When Human Life Begins, It’s a Question of Politics, Not Biology | News, Sports, Jobs
A Texas law that seeks to eliminate almost all abortions in the state is part of a long-standing national movement to restrict the right to abortion.
Texas law came into effect on September 1, 2021 and severely limits the right to have an abortion in that state.
But the anti-abortion movement is targeting more than Texas and betting very heavily on a case set to be argued this fall in the United States Supreme Court, known as the Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
In this case, the state of Mississippi is asking the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of any sort of ban on elective abortions before the fetus is viable outside the womb.
If the court finds these kinds of prohibitions unconstitutional, it would overturn the long-standing ruling in Roe v. Wade that women have the right to have an abortion.
A recent friend of the court brief in this case implicitly claims that biology – and therefore biologists – can tell when human life begins.
The file then explicitly states that a large majority of biologists agree on the particular point of fetal development which really marks the beginning of human life.
None of these statements are true.
The role of science
As a biologist and philosopher, I have watched for many years those involved in the national abortion debate make statements about biology.
Opponents of abortion rights know that Americans have very different religious values and beliefs about abortion and the protection of human life.
They therefore seek to use science as the gold standard in any discussion of the constitutionality of abortion, establishing a definition of human life that they hope will be free from any counter-argument.
While perhaps well-intentioned, this appeal to scientific authority and evidence on discussions of people’s values is based on flawed reasoning.
Philosophers like the late Bernard Williams have long emphasized that understanding what it is to be human requires much more than biology. And scientists cannot establish when a fertilized cell, embryo or fetus becomes a human.
Public figures have in recent years prominently asserted that scientific knowledge on the subject of human life is final.
In 2012, for example, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, presidential candidate, claimed the “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart:”Biologically, life begins at conception. It is irrefutable from a biological point of view.
Likewise, in his 2015 presidential bid, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said: “I believe the science is clear … when there is a conception that this is human life in the early stages of its development.”
The most recent and high profile example of this claim can be found in this amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in the Mississippi case.
The dissertation, coordinated by University of Chicago graduate student in Comparative Human Development, Steven Andrew Jacobs, is based on problematic research conducted by Jacobs. He is now seeking to get it into the public record to influence US law.
First, Jacobs conducted a survey, believed to be representative of all Americans, researching potential participants in the Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing marketplace and accepting the 2,979 respondents who agreed to participate.
He found that most of these respondents trust biologists rather than others – including religious leaders, voters, philosophers and Supreme Court justices – to determine when human life begins.
Then he sent 62,469 biologists who could be identified from the lists of professors and institutional researchers a separate survey, offering several options for when, biologically, human life could begin.
He got 5,502 responses; 95% of these self-selected respondents said that life begins with fertilization, when a sperm and an egg merge to form a single-celled zygote.
This result is not an appropriate survey method and has no statistical or scientific weight.
It’s like asking 100 people about their favorite sport, finding out that only 37 football fans bothered to answer, and declaring that 100% of Americans love football.
In the end, only 70 of those 60,000-plus biologists supported Jacobs’ legal argument enough to sign the amicus brief, which is a complementary argument to the main case.
Perhaps this is because there is neither scientific consensus on when human life really begins, nor agreement that this is a question biologists can answer using their science.
Several options possible
Scott Gilbert, Howard A. Schneiderman Professor Emeritus of Biology at Swarthmore College, is the author of the Standard Textbook on Developmental Biology.
He identified up to five stages of development which, from a biological point of view, are all plausible starting points for human life. Biology, as science now knows it, can distinguish these stages, but cannot determine at which of these stages life begins.
The first of these stages is fertilization in the egg duct, when a zygote is formed with complete human genetic material. But almost every cell in everyone’s body contains that person’s complete DNA sequence.
If genetic material alone makes a potential human being, then when we lose skin cells – as we do all the time – we separate potential human beings.
The second plausible stage is called gastrulation, which occurs about two weeks after fertilization. At this point, the embryo loses the ability to form identical twins – or triplets or more. The embryo then becomes a biological individual but not necessarily a human individual.
The third possible stage is between 24 and 27 weeks of pregnancy, when the characteristic pattern of human-specific brain waves appears in the fetal brain.
The disappearance of this model is part of the legal standard for human death; by symmetry, perhaps its appearance could be taken to mark the beginning of human life.
The fourth possible step, which is the one approved in the Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion in the United States, is viability, when a fetus generally becomes viable outside the womb with the help of available medical technology.
With the technology we have today, this stage is reached in about 24 weeks.
The last possibility is the birth itself.
The overall point is that biology does not determine when human life begins. This is a question that can only be answered by appealing to our values, by examining what we consider to be human.
Perhaps future biologists will learn more.
Until then, when human life begins during fetal developments is a question for philosophers and theologians. And policies based on an answer to this question will remain the purview of politicians – and judges.
Sahorta Sarkar is professor of integrative biology at the University of Texas.