By Peter Oliver

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court threw Roe v. Wade to the legal curbside with its Dobbs decision last year, state governments have become politically and legally ensnarled in determining how to proceed on the issue of abortion. As pols and lawyers play legislative hopscotch, a foundational question seems all but lost in the debate: When does life begin? When it comes to abortion, it’s a question that resides, troublingly and inconclusively, at the intersection between biology and philosophy. Or, even more troublingly, at the intersection between morality and conjecture.



The two most logical answers lie at the extremes of the gestational period – at conception (when the egg is initially fertilized) and at birth, when an actual human being emerges from the womb. The logic of the first is that any fertilized egg or germinated seed represents the first stage of any life-form, whether vegetable, animal, or human. The logic of the second is that the born baby represents a fully independent, living entity no longer biologically reliant on a host (the mother) for its survival.

Either answer might be logically satisfying, but both collapse when the prospect of abortion is overlaid atop nine months of gestation. Even most pro-lifers won’t try to apply the first definition of life's beginning to the abortion issue (although anti-contraceptive people apparently believe that life begins when it's just a figment of parental contemplation). And no pro-choicers advocate for abortion anywhere near birth unless the mother faces life-threatening medical consequences. (Less than one percent of all abortions come after the 21st week of pregnancy.)

So, when logic fails, the beginning-of-life question becomes muddled in gradations of imprecision. One argument, used as the basis for new laws in some states, is that life begins when a fetal heartbeat is detected, about six weeks into a pregnancy. Another is when hints of identifiable human appendages – head, arms, legs – begin to appear, typically in the period of about eight to 12 weeks into a pregnancy.

At the 12-week mark in a pregnancy, the fetus is still only a couple of inches long, and to assign humanity to such a small bit of tissue attached to the uterine wall seems a stretch. The heartbeat doesn’t come from a fully functional human heart, and the emerging head, arms, and legs barely resemble anything that could be considered human or have the capacity to perform any real human functions. Twelve weeks has been another mile marker for some state laws.

On the other side of the debate, however, pro-choicers have done a poor job of defining a specific point in a pregnancy when abortion would be objectionable. National polls show that more than 60% of all Americans believe abortion should be legal for the first 15 weeks of a pregnancy, whereas more than 80% say that abortion in the third trimester should be illegal. In other words, overall national opinion (pro-choice and pro-life), suggests that the fetus has achieved some form of human viability -- some form of humanity -- between 15 and 24 weeks of pregnancy.

“Life,” of course, is a mind-bogglingly complex concept to which a wide range of values is assigned. Within the broadest meaning of “life,” humans extinguish life in various forms on a regular basis. It's essential for survival. The life of plants or animals is cut short in order to put food on the table, although it would make for a cynical and contorted argument to suggest that plant life, or even animal life, has the same value as human life. (Indeed, livestock farmers induce abortions -- non-human, of course -- all the time without controversy.)


So, the issue in the abortion debate is not really about life in general; it’s about human life specifically. At what point does the fertilized speck of life within a woman’s womb evolve into a human being?

“Fetal personhood,” is a pro-life term seeking to imbue fertilized tissue with humanity early in a pregnancy. This is, at best, an imaginative leap to a semantic extreme, given that the fetus lacks the characteristics normally attributed to a “person” – simple biological functions like eating and sleeping, more complex behaviors like communicating or feeling emotions, or basic physical attributes like functional arms and legs.

In fact, scientific terminology steers clear of anything that suggests humanity during the early months of pregnancy. First there is a blastocyst – no more than a collection of cells prepared to initiate the baby-making process. Soon it is an embryo, starting to develop organs and other physical attributes of a baby. Then it is a fetus, beginning to exhibit in ultrasound images head, arms, and legs and other characteristics of a human in the making. Only later in the gestation game does the term "unborn child" typically come into play.

The bottom line: establishing a specific legal turnstile for when an entity within the womb crosses from human tissue to human life is an impossibility. Biology, religion, ethics, morality, politics, and logic all fall short in providing satisfactory guidelines. But that hasn't stopped anyone from forming an opinion or those in power from forming legal standards. The only answer to the foundational question of when human life begins: No one really knows for sure.

Oliver lives in Warren.