The Implications of Life Begins at Fertilization

Forty years ago, in its landmark decision Roe v. Wade, the US Supreme Court ruled:

unconstitutional a state law that banned abortions except to save the life of the mother. The Court ruled that the states were forbidden from outlawing or regulating any aspect of abortion performed during the first trimester of pregnancy, could only enact abortion regulations reasonably related to maternal health in the second and third trimesters, and could enact abortion laws protecting the life of the fetus only in the third trimester.

Since Roe v. Wade, right to life groups, some Christian sects, and numerous pro-lifers have tirelessly worked to outlaw abortion. The methods used by these protectors of the unborn have evolved over the years. Realizing that they have no chance of overturning Roe v. Wade, they have tirelessly worked at the state level to make it almost impossible for a woman to get an abortion. (see my post Ohio Has Turned Into a Haven for Right-Wing Politics and Michigan Passes Separate Abortion Coverage Law)

Before I get to the focus of this post, let me give readers the facts on abortion in the United States:

Very few abortions occur in the last trimester.. 88% of all abortions occur in the first trimester, with 61.8% occurring in the first nine weeks. 98.5% of abortions take place before viability. Late term abortions, after twenty weeks, are 1.5% of of all abortions (about 12,000 abortions a year)

Out of 1.2 million annual abortions, 12,000 are after 20 weeks. Most of these abortion are medically necessary due to health concerns of the mother, the fetus, or both.

Please see my post Abortion Facts, Lies, and Contradictions for further information.

Unless Roe v. Wade is overturned, 88% of all abortions will ALWAYS be legal. This is why those who oppose abortion are using right-wing state legislatures and right-wing state governors to make it hard or impossible for doctors/hospitals/clinics to perform an abortion. If there are no abortion clinics or insurance to cover the procedure, then women won’t be able to get an abortion, or so pro-lifers think. As history clearly shows us, women will find a way to get an abortion one way or another.

Most pro-lifers are driven by religious motivations. They believe that it is God who gives and takes life and that it a sin to have an abortion, to facilitate an abortion, or to perform an abortion.  The ironic thing about this position is that many pro-lifer’s are in favor of capital punishment and war and against suicide and euthanasia. Their “pro-life” view is quite inconsistent.

Pro-lifers believe that life begins the moment the sperm fertilizes the egg. At that very moment, the zygote is a human being. To kill the zygote is to murder a human being. In some states, pro-lifers are trying to pass Personhood laws. They want the  zygote, the fetus, the potential life, the baby, to be vested with the same constitutional rights as a born child or an adult.

Here are some of the implications of Personhood laws:

  • All abortion would be illegal, including abortion in the case of rape and incest
  • Abortion to save the life of the mother would be outlawed since it is illegal to murder one person to save another
  • Using any form of birth control that is an abortifacient would be illegal
  • Our entire legal code would need to be rewritten to reflect that a fertilized egg is a person
  • A person causing a woman to miscarry would be charged with murder
  • Parents would be able to claim the fertilized egg as a dependent on their income tax return
  • Fertilized eggs would be eligible for adoption
  • Stem cell research would be curtailed and possibly even banned

Make no mistake about it, pro-lifers want to outlaw all abortion and many of them want to go to back to a day when it was illegal or socially unacceptable for a woman to use birth control.  Let’s assume that the pro-lifers get their way…what are the implications of “life begins at fertilization?” (see history of birth control)

As I mentioned above, our entire legal code would have to be rewritten in order to give the fertilized egg the same legal protections as the born. This would result in a huge uptick in murder convictions. Every miscarriage would have to be investigated. After all, the doctor or the mother may have done something to cause the miscarriage, and, at the very least, could be guilt of negligent homicide.

When a pro-lifer tries to distance themselves from the harshness of their beliefs, don’t believe them. If a woman has an abortion she would be considered a murderer, as would everyone involved in the abortion. The doctor, the nurse, the receptionist, even the person who drove the woman to the back ally clinic, would all be criminally culpable. Think I am overstating my case? If four people rob a bank and only one of them murders the teller, we charge all the robbers with murder. It would be no different with criminal abortion.

I love to pose “what if” questions to pro-lifers. If life begins at fertilization, then that life must be protected at all costs, right? But what if the doctor tells you your wife having the baby will kill her? Will Mr. and Mrs. Pro-life roll the God dice and let God decide who lives and who dies? Will the pro-life husband choose a fetus he has never seen over his wife of twenty years? Is he willing to make his already born children motherless? Most will choose, as they should, the life of the mother over the life of the fetus.

Or take an ectopic pregnancy, a medical condition where a fertilized egg, a human being according to pro-lifers, plants itself outside the uterine cavity. Wikipedia states:

With rare exceptions, ectopic pregnancies are not viable. Furthermore, they are dangerous for the mother, since internal hemorrhage is a life-threatening complication. Most ectopic pregnancies occur in the Fallopian tube (so-called tubal pregnancies), but implantation can also occur in the cervix, ovaries, and abdomen. An ectopic pregnancy is a potential medical emergency, and, if not treated properly, can lead to death.

Most ectopic pregnancies occur in the Fallopian tubes.  Remedying this requires emergency surgery. Not performing the surgery will result in the woman dying. Now, if the fertilized egg is a human being and God is the giver and taker of life, a miracle worker, and a God who answers prayer, shouldn’t Mr. and Mrs. Pro-Life pray to their God and ask him to perform a miracle? After all, nothing is impossible with God, the Bible and the motto for Ohio says. I suspect the vast majority of pro-lifers will go ahead and have the emergency surgery.

Pro-life zealots will surely object to what I have written here and say that I am using rare and extreme circumstances to make my point. But, isn’t that exactly what pro-lifers do when they use the 12,000 late-term abortions that occur in the US every year to justify and illustrate their rhetoric? Why don’t they use the picture of the zygote at the top of this post in their pro-life literature? Simple. Most people will look at the zygote and conclude that it is not a baby, and this is why pro-lifers use pictures of late-term aborted fetuses instead.

This post is my attempt to follow the prof-life position to its logical conclusion. Pro-life zealots will say…we would NEVER prosecute a woman for having an abortion or blah, blah, blah, but as we have seen over the last forty years, the pro-life movement believes in incrementalism, and they intend to chip away at abortion until the only abortion that can be had is in a back alley with a coat hanger.

I am often asked about my personal view on abortion. As I stated in another post:

  • I don’t think human life begins at conception. Potential life, yes, but human life? No.
  • When I see a picture of the zygote above I don’t see a “baby.” It is a group of cells not a baby.
  • I support a woman’s right to use birth control to keep from getting pregnant. I know that some forms of birth control causes spontaneous abortions. I have no problem with this since I don’t think life begins at conception.
  • Since 88% of abortions occur in the first trimester, long before viability, I fully support a woman’s right to an abortion in the first trimester. This includes complete, unrestricted access to morning after drugs.
  • I do not support abortion on demand after viability. However, only 12,000 abortions a year occur after viability, and, in most cases, these abortions are medically necessary due to health concerns of the mother, the fetus, or both.

I am sure this post will lead to another round of me being demonized on Facebook. Some of my Christian family are so blind to the implications of their beliefs that say the most silly and inflammatory things. (i.e. people who believe in abortion are evil, immoral people) Let me state again, for the sake of my Christian family, what I have stated before:

If you believe people who support a woman’s right to an abortion are murderers or evil people, then why do you have anything to do with me? If this is your view, then why would you want to be anywhere near a neighbor, friend, husband, father, father-in-law, or grandfather like me who is a m-u-r-d-e-r-e-r? IF I am a murderer, and I support the murder of over a million babies a year, (your word not mine) then aren’t I just as evil as Jeffrey Dahmer or John Wayne Gacy?

Of course, I am not and that’s the problem with your shrill rhetoric. I am a kind, decent, loving neighbor, friend, husband, father, father-in-law and grandfather. Yes I am an atheist but I am more “Christian” than many of the Christians you know.

Comments (17)

  1. August

    The question has never been when does life begin because life began several billion years ago and has continued unabated since then. The question, properly framed, should be about when the fetus becomes a person. That is a political question, not a biological one.

    1. richardmarlowe236

      I’ve never thought about it that way. Makes sense. Thanks for the input!

  2. 1415dr

    I’ve never had a conversation about abortion that didn’t ruin a friendship (no matter what side of the issue I was on).

    But it’s the hipocrisy that burns me.

    “Killing babies is always evil, no matter the circumstances.”
    “People kill babies all the time in the bible.”
    “That’s different! Those babies were going to grow up to be evil!”
    “What would they do that was evil?”
    “Killing babies!”

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Yes, any time a person becomes absolutist it is impossible to have an honest discussion. Starting out with, abortion is murder or a woman should be able to abort a full term baby without a medical reason (quite rare), tend to kill any honest, thoughtful discussion. As long as the discussion starts with God says, the Bible says, or the church says, there is not much to talk about. Surely, we all would agree that we should try to reduce the number of abortions, make adoption easier, and make sure EVERY woman has ready, FREE access to birth control. Every child coming into the world should be wanted.

      1. Stephanie

        I really do wish we all agreed on this. As you know, some people out there have a real problem with non-procreative sex, even though they themselves have engaged in it. After all, if a women has sex then she must “pay the price” and accept her “consequence,” which of course is a blessing from God at the same time, somehow. Then when she struggles then it is her fault cause she should have “kept her legs shut.” Sad view :(

  3. Erin

    100% agree. I spent an entire term this fall in a bioethics course studying the political and moral status of the zygote, embryo, and fetus – specifically as it applies to embryonic stem cell research and genetic manipulation. Fascinating stuff.

    I believe pro-life individuals choose the moment of fertilization as the beginning of life primarily because that’s the easiest place to draw a line. However, as we all know, not all zygote, embryos, or fetuses result in a living person, even if only considering the actions of natural causes. Then, if fertilization were to begin life, all miscarriages would result in murder charges, most often of the mother. Obviously, most miscarriages occur through no fault of the mother (with rare exception).

    Unfortunately, it becomes muddier water if we try to define the beginning of life at some later time in pregnancy — implantation? heartbeat? brain function? nervous system development? pain? viability? birth? how do we decide what constitutes personhood? — and most people don’t want to wade into that water. It’s too challenging to come to any consensus on when *exactly* life occurs unless we stick to the concrete moments of fertilization or birth.

    I admit I have wrestled with some aspects of abortion. Nevertheless, just because I struggle with the concept doesn’t mean it should be illegal (same with cigarettes and alcohol, even though those have the *potential* to kill in the same way an embryo has the *potential* to become a person). I am firmly pro-choice, because I don’t believe it’s ultimately anyone’s decision besides the mother’s. I DON’T believe it’s the government’s right to legislate this for anyone at any time.

    I’m on hate-lists for it, too. :)

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Science has caused this problem for us. As we learn more and more about our world, our body…the ethical issues become more complex. I understand why people take a fundamentalist, narrow view on abortion but I think it is a position that denies that these issues are complex and fraught with danger. Saying, God says, the Church says, the Bible says, just doesn’t cut it any more.

      1. Erin

        I definitely think science is the culprit for creating the problem here, but isn’t it with anything when it comes to religion? What you say about it denying the complexity of the issues is perfect.

  4. richardmarlowe236

    Great article Bruce!
    Of course as a fundie in my youth, I was completely against abortion, and believed life began at conception. Since deconversion I am reconsidering the issue using reason and logic. Politically I am a libertarian. There are libertarians on both side of the issue. I am still undecided at this point. Here is a link to a great short video about some Christian implications of life beginning at conception…

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Libertarian? Oh my, we can’t be friends now. :) I tend to be a liberal on many issues but I do have socialist/libertarian/conservative tendencies too. Like most thinking people,my political beliefs are complex. (and probably, at times, contradictory)

    2. Stephanie

      Yay! Another person with libertarian ideas. I don’t agree with all their points of view, but I am pretty live and let live type of person.

  5. Stephanie

    Abortion is an issue that I have to wrestle with especially since I was taught life begins at conception. That makes no sense to me now. Who would save a bunch of frozen embryos over an infant? Of course, it has no ability to develop into anything independent of a woman’s body. My opinion is that we should focus on making effective means of birth control available, teach comprehensive sex ed, provide emotional and financial support to women that need it and try to understand their situations. Reducing the abortion rate is a good goal, I think. No way in hell do I want it illegal. I have seen what happens in “pro life” countries. When it comes to the mother’s life or the non-viable fetus you know who wins there. Once the fetus is on the line of viability or viable I really don’t like the options, as I am sure no one in the situation does. I would hope that the baby could be delivered and survive. This personhood stuff is complete nonsense and has terrible legal implications. Women’s lives matter which is something “pro lifers” seem to forget about.
    As I pointed out somewhere else even if you could convince everyone to be celibate until marriage abortion would still exist. So in all this I am a reluctant pro choicer even if I feel the reasons for the abortion are wrong and yes, occasionally, I feel conflict over this but its not my life.

    1. Erin

      I absolutely agree that contraception is the part that is often left out. If all women had ready and free access to contraception, we’d see abortion decline. Not everyone would use it effectively, but it would make a huge difference. That, and increased education, like you said. I guess I feel like we are approaching this argument from the wrong angle: rather than stopping women from terminations, why don’t we prevent the pregnancies in the first place? Seems logical, but some conservatives want us to believe sex only belongs within a marriage and only for the purpose of procreation. What year is this again?

  6. Texas Born & Bred

    So here’s a question for the sharper knives …

    I read/heard somewhere that it was common back in the days of Jesus for mothers to abandon defective babies, leaving them to die of exposure or starvation. If this is true,
    then why didn’t Jesus even comment that such a practice was abominable?

    It would seem the silence of Jesus on this issue speaks volumes.

  7. bill wald


    You missed the most important implication: the vast number of people in the next life were never born and have no personality.


    1. Scott

      So how do you define a person?

      So does this mean that pregnancies that end in a mis-carriage result in something having a next life? What about all the eggs that don’t get fertilized or the sperm lost in masturbation? Because remember “every sperm is sacred”.

      Your statement shows the incoherence of the concept of an afterlife.


  8. grasshopper

    To me, there seems to be a problem with the concept(ion) that life begins at fertilization. Sperm and ova and human beings(you know what I mean) are all part of a life cycle. To argue that “life” begins at conception seems to imply that life arises from non-life, i.e. sperms and ova something other than part of life itself. But we know that life can’t arise from non-life .. LOL

    As an aside, I think we have all heard of experiments done in the past to weigh a person just before death, and then again just at his/her demise, in an attempt to detect the weight of a soul, given that the soul leaves the body at death. Now, given that the weight of a soul subtracted from the weight of a body might be too small a figure to reliably detect, I think modern science would have no difficulty at all in measuring the increase in weight to due to the arrival of the soul at the moment of conception, given that the weight of a sperm and the weight of an ovum is small enough that any increase in mass should be obvious.



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