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The Science of When Life Begins


Southwest Kansas Catholic

More than 150 years ago, the American Medical Association published a statement that strongly opposed abortion.

The AMA based their statement on the research of botanist Mathias Schleiden and physiologist Theodor Schwann, who determined in 1839 that the human embryo develops from the single-celled zygote, a cell formed by the joining of the sperm and the egg, one from each parent.

Prior to the discovery, theories of human development weren’t quite as well-refined.

Ancient Greeks thought that the soul entered the baby when it first laughed.

In 1677, researchers Hamm and Leeuwenhoek observed a sperm cell under the microscope and became convinced that the sperm was actually a miniature human, relying on the mother for incubation only. This was not only incorrect, but a little creepy.

It took another century for scientists to realize that both the sperm and the oocyte (a cell contained in the ovary) were necessary for the formation of the embryo. The mother wasn’t simply the host.

In 1859, the AMA officially recognized that the cell from the father and the egg from the mother together formed a “single-celled zygote” that “was alive and an independent being.”

From those findings, the AMA published its 1859 statement dispelling abortion, part of which reads: “Resolved, That while physicians have long been united in condemning the act of producing abortion at every period of gestation, except as necessary for preserving the life of either mother or child, it has become the duty of this Association, in view of the prevalence and increasing frequency of the crime, publicly to enter an earnest and solemn protest against such unwarrantable destruction of human life.”

In 2017, 158 years after the statement was published, the American College of Pediatricians issued its own statement agreeing with the findings.

The College noted that “It is clear that from the time of cell fusion, the embryo consists of elements (from both maternal and paternal origin) which function interdependently in a coordinated manner to carry on the function of the development of the human organism.  From this definition, the single-celled embryo is not just a cell, but an organism, a living being, a human being.”

Hundreds of reports and studies by physicians and scientists have been published in medical journals condemning abortion, and supporting the notion that life begins at conception, the moment at which the sperm and the egg join to form a unique human person.

So, what happened? Why is the right to have an abortion so vociferously defended today?

In an article by Frederick N. Dyer entitled, “The Physicians’ Crusade Against Abortion,” he wrote, “It is routinely and erroneously cited as proof positive that the 19th-Century physicians’ crusade against abortion had nothing to do with unborn babies and [instead has] much to do with two other considerations: physicians concern about the safety of abortion for women, and their attempts to eliminate quacks and squeeze out competition from midwives.”

In other words, it was argued that since “physician-induced abortion was no longer dangerous, and since medical regulation had eliminated the quacks, there was no reason to retain the laws against abortion.”

Dyer wrote that “A majority of justices accepted these false claims,” ultimately leading to the Roe V. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

In truth, however, in the book “Abortion in America”, author James C. Mohr  actually showed that almost all of these physicians opposed abortion because they saw it as the killing of a living human being. In his book, Mohr acknowledged that the “sincere belief” of physicians “‘that abortion was morally wrong’ helps to explain the intensity of their commitment to the cause.”

Mohr wrote, “The nation’s regular doctors, probably more than any other identifiable group in American society during the nineteenth century, including the clergy, defended the value of human life per se as an absolute. Scholars interested in the medical mentality of the nineteenth century will have to explain the reasons for this ideological position. . . . But whatever the reasons, regular physicians felt very strongly indeed on the issue of protecting human life. And once they had decided that human life was present to some extent in a newly fertilized ovum, however limited that extent might be, they became the fierce opponents of any attack upon it.”

One of the commonly held arguments supporting abortion claims that personhood begins after a fetus is able to survive outside the womb. Therefore, while in the womb, the fetus is not an independent being. Abortion is not the killing of a child, but is instead the termination of a pregnancy.

Why else would a person’s age be calculated from birth and not conception? Why does the U.S. Census not count unborn children? And why does the word “person,” as written in the Fourteenth Amendment, not include unborn babies?

Some issues cannot be argued. They are simply a matter of the heart based on what we hold to be true, and not on any sort of scientific inquiry.

As an editorial aside addressing this subject, many years ago, I congratulated a friend who was about to have his first grandchild:

“Congratulations,” I told Dr. John Jackson, a colonel at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs where he had worked as a physics professor. “I hear you’re going to be a grandpa!”

He looked at me and smiled. “I already am a grandpa,” the physicist said, referring to the child growing within his daughter-in-law’s womb.

Diocese of Dodge City

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