The question of when life begins is back in play

The question of when life begins is back in play

Last week the Alabama State Supreme Court ruled that embryos are children and destroying them opens the door to a wrongful death charge. Of course, critics of the ruling immediately opined that the decision will cripple IVF (in-vitro fertilization) and its related technologies, leaving Alabama women struggling with infertility issues to seek care elsewhere or worse yet, to never realize their aspirations of becoming pregnant and being a mother.

In reality, the recent ruling brings the question of when life begins back to center-stage. 

In a 2021 article entitled, “The Scientific Consensus on When a Human’s Life Begins,” it was reported that peer-reviewed journals encompassing the issue believe human life begins with fertilization, or the union of a human gametes (the male sperm and the female egg). 

Polling data indicates a split in the beliefs of those polled – 45% view it as a philosophical or religious belief and 46% view it as a biological and scientific fact, whereas 38% of Americans view fertilization as the starting point of human life. 

Further, the report stated that biologists from 1,058 academic institutions around the world assessed survey items on when human life begins and 96% affirmed that life begins at fertilization.

In all of this debate, does a woman, upon learning she is pregnant, ever wonder when life really begins? 

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In nearly 40 years of providing obstetrical care, I can’t recall ever being asked the question, “Dr. Holm, when does life begin?” That doesn’t mean the issue wasn’t or isn’t ever pondered. But if my experience is valid – and I have every reason to believe it is – why then is there so much written about the topic as if it’s the number one issue confronting every woman with a newly discovered pregnancy?

Roe v. Wade changed everything

I believe I know the reason. Prior to 1973 and the United States Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, the question of when life began was never really an issue. Everyone (men and women) intuitively knew it was at the time of fertilization or conception. 

It wasn’t until the late 1970s and into the 1980s that ultrasounds played a role in obstetrical care. Early ultrasounds could not confirm a six-week pregnancy. It wasn’t until the late 1980s and well into the 1990s that the technology of what ultrasounds are now emerged. 

And, of course, prior to the ability to visualize a six-week embryo, it was not definitely known when the human heart actually began to beat. In fact, without ultrasounds, obstetricians were unable to detect or hear fetal heartbeats, and he or she had to rely on a modified stethoscope (DeLee stethoscope) to hear the heartbeat, usually at around the 18th week of pregnancy, which was about the time a woman would feel fetal movement for the first time (quickening).

Further, I’ve come to realize that the “when does life begin” debate arose when the frequency of abortions began to increase and the abortion industry, in an attempt to assuage the guilt women were expressing at the time of and after an abortion, created this narrative: “You aren’t actually killing your baby because life really doesn’t begin until X number of weeks. Afterall, it’s just a clump of cells.” 

As early as six weeks, a “flickering” can be seen in the embryo of a pregnant woman at the time of an ultrasound. This cardiac activity, or heartbeat, affirms the presence of life within the womb. A common question asked of any pregnant patient following a visit to her obstetrician is, “Did you get to see your baby’s heartbeat?” thereby affirming the belief that life actually does exist in the womb. 

ACOG moves the goalpost

All the while, the gestational age of termination began to evolve beyond 12-14 weeks. 

Sadly, ACOG (the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists), in 2022, released a statement entitled, ACOG Guide to Language and Abortion, that read in part, “…Until the chambers of the heart have been developed and can be detected via ultrasound (roughly 17-20 weeks of gestation), it is not accurate to characterize the embryo’s or fetus’s cardiac development as a heartbeat.” 

Therefore, if there’s no heartbeat, then presto-chango, there isn’t any life. And if there isn’t any life, how can having an abortion result in the taking of an innocent life? Total absolution has been assured. 

Interestingly, in ACOG’s revised statement in 2023, the reference to formation of the chambers of the fetal heart was removed.

A modern example of The Emperor’s New Clothes if ever there was one.

Ignoring the pundits and ACOG’s obvious attempts to guide the narrative, the question remains, when does life really begin?

Despite what the pundits or the media (or ACOG) – or the Hollywood actor with the most Twitter followers – would have you believe, the answer as to when life begins is not a theological or philosophical dilemma. The answer doesn’t lie in debate. It is a simple matter of biology. The phrase made famous by Dr. Anthony Fauci comes to mind: “Follow the science.”

Tweet This: Despite what the pundits, media, or ACOG would have you believe, the answer as to when life begins is a simple matter of biology.

As the Alabama State Supreme Court has correctly affirmed, life begins when a male gamete (sperm cell) encounters or joins a female gamete (egg or ova) and fertilization takes place. 

From this fundamental union, a cascade of events take place, all resulting in the formation and subsequent development of a baby.

Editor’s note: Dr. Lloyd Holm is a retired OB/GYN who is currently the Executive Director of Options for Women/River Falls, a pregnancy resource center in western Wisconsin. A previous contributor to The Federalist, his writings have also appeared in The Omaha World- Herald, Obstetrics and Gynecology, the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Iowa Medicine, The Female Patient, and most recently, the on-line networking platform for medical professionals, Doximity. This article is a Pregnancy Help News original.

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