The science of abortion: When does life begin?

By James D. Agresti
June 10, 2014

In a recent interview, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) declared it is a scientific fact that “human life begins at conception.” He also said that “leaders on the left” who “wag their fingers” about the “settled science” of global warming are hypocrites when it comes to science, and someone should ask them if they accept the “consensus of scientists that says that human life begins at conception.”

Going further, the senator added, “I’d like to see someone ask that question. It’s never asked. And that’s not even a debatable thing, we can actually see that happening. I mean, that is a proven fact. And yet that’s a scientific consensus they conveniently choose to ignore.”

In the wake of these remarks, MSNBC reporter Irin Carmon and Washington Post blogger Philip Bump pushed back at Rubio, asserting that:

  • he made a “scientific blunder on abortion.” (Carmon)
  • “conception” and “life” “aren’t scientific terms.” (Carmon)
  • “the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus” on when life begins. (Bump)

However, as documented below, the facts of science support Rubio’s point and reveal that the claims of Carmon and Bump are scientifically baseless.

Science shows that life begins at conception

Contrary to Carmon’s allegation that “conception” and “life” are not scientific terms, both of these words are clearly defined in science dictionaries and widely used in scientific literature.

To cite just a few examples, the American Heritage Science Dictionary defines “conception” as “the formation of a zygote resulting from the union of a sperm and egg cell; fertilization.” (For reference, a zygote is the first stage of a human embryo.)

Likewise, the entry for “life” in the American Heritage Dictionary of Science states that life is “the form of existence that organisms like animals and plants have and that inorganic objects or organic dead bodies lack; animate existence, characterized by growth, reproduction, metabolism, and response to stimuli.”

Rubio’s statement that “human life begins at conception” is consistent with both of these definitions, because human zygotes display all four empirical attributes of life:

  1. Growth – As explained in the textbook Essentials of Human Development: A Life-Span View, “the zygote grows rapidly through cell division.”
  1. Reproduction – Per Human Sexuality: An Encyclopedia, zygotes sometimes form identical twins, which is an act of “asexual reproduction.” (Also, in this context, the word “reproduction” is more accurately understood as “reproductive potential” instead of “active reproduction.” For example, three-year-old humans are manifestly alive, but they can’t actively reproduce.)
  1. Metabolism – As detailed in the medical text Human Gametes and Preimplantation Embryos: Assessment and Diagnosis, “At the zygote stage,” the human embryo metabolizes “carboxylic acids pyruvate and lactate as its preferred energy substrates.”
  1. Response to stimuli – Collins English Dictionary defines a “stimulus” as “any drug, agent, electrical impulse, or other factor able to cause a response in an organism.” Experiments have shown that zygotes are responsive to such factors. For example, a 2005 paper in the journal Human Reproduction Update notes that a compound called platelet-activating factor “acts upon the zygote” by stimulating “metabolism,” “cell-cycle progression,” and “viability.”

Furthermore, the science of embryology has proven that the genetic composition of humans is formed during fertilization, and as the textbook Molecular Biology explains, this genetic material is “the very basis of life itself.”

In accord with the facts above, the textbook Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects directly states: “The zygote and early embryo are living human organisms.” This may be controversial from a political perspective, but the sciences of embryology and genetics leave no doubt as to when human life begins.
ACOG is not an objective scientific authority

Bump’s article is entitled, “Marco Rubio demanded people look at the science on abortion. So we did.” Yet as far as the article reveals, the entirety of Bump’s “scientific” research consisted of speaking to a single organization: the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, or ACOG.

While Bump’s article clearly shows that ACOG avoided the question of when life begins and attempted to change the subject, Bump did not articulate this to his readers. Instead, he used ACOG’s non-answer to conclude that life “is something of a philosophical question,” and “the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus” on this issue.

That is not “looking at science,” as Bump claims he did. Rather, it is cherry-picking the opinions of selected scientists and uncritically relaying them. It also presumes that the chosen scientists are unbiased and incontestable authorities on this issue, which is demonstrably not the case with ACOG’s leadership.

For instance, when a debate over partial-birth abortion was raging during the Clinton Administration. ACOG prepared a statement disclosing that a “select panel convened by ACOG could identify no circumstances under which this procedure, as defined above, would be the only option to save the life or preserve the health of the woman.”

Yet instead of releasing this information to the public, ACOG faxed it to the Clinton administration with a header that stated: “CONFIDENTIAL, NOT FINAL, DO NOT COPY, DO NOT DISTRIBUTE.”

This document came to the attention of a White House lawyer and policy advisor named Elena Kagan (later appointed by President Obama to the Supreme Court). She was displeased with ACOG’s conclusion and wrote a memo warning that its release would be a “disaster,” especially since ACOG opposed banning partial birth abortions.

Kagan then proceeded to edit ACOG’s statement by adding that partial-birth abortion “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman….” Those words did not reflect the thrust or scope of ACOG’s findings, which Kagan clearly understood because she had detailed them in a previous memo.

Nevertheless, ACOG adopted Kagan’s words as its own, thus using the rhetoric of a Clinton administration lawyer in place of its own medical conclusions. Those are not the actions of an objective scientific authority but of an organization that is willing to place politics over science.

What is science?

There is a lot of posturing about science in the world of politics, but some of what is reported as “science” is actually just the claims of selected scientists, which happen to be at odds with the facts of science.

Science, in the words of Webster’s College Dictionary, is the “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.” Notably, this does not entail parroting the assertions of someone with scientific credentials.

In the realm of science, what matters is facts and logically inescapable conclusions that flow from them—not opinions, no matter who voices them or how prevalent they are. A classic example of this is Galileo, who wrote that when it comes to the sciences, “the authority of thousands of opinions is not worth as much as one tiny spark of reason in an individual man.”

In this instance, Rubio is that man, and Carmon, Bump, and ACOG are substituting their ideology for science in the public debate over abortion.

51 thoughts on “The science of abortion: When does life begin?

  1. poignant, and accurate. Poor Rubio…it’s hard to have a meaningful argument when your opponent won’t let facts get in their way!

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  7. Speaking of science, ideology and flaws in other people’s thinking, where does the concept of the “soul” enter into your view on “when does life begin?”

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  9. I know this. Some contraceptives,like spermicides prevent fertilization. You can’t abort an unfertilized egg.
    You ‘pro life’ people really get me.
    You oppose abortion,but support capitol punishment,war as a diplomatic tool(as long as you don’t have to do the fighting) shooting wild animals JUST FOR FUN,letting hungry people starve,and sick people die of treatable illnesses.
    That makes you PRO BIRTH,not pro life. Obviously,you holier than thous,have taken it upon yourselves to determine who is worthy of life and who is not. That is playing GOD.
    I just don’t get it. So many of you(not all,to be sure) oppose contraception,which is our number one anti abortion weapon!
    Provide cheap,safe,and plentiful methods of birth control to everyone who wants it,and there will be no unplanned,or unwanted pregnancies,and therefore no need for abortion. Or does that just make too much sense for you to wrap your heads around?

    Conservatives(Republicans,mostly) are supposed to be the Party of “stay out of peoples’ private lives” aren’t they?

    • Agreed except for the capitol punishment, yah it totally makes sense that we should let evil people continue to roam the earth. in fact I am learning in my Christian American government class that God said to use the capitol punishment. Also, I happen to go out and kill wild animals because they are causing problems or I need them for food. Oh and professional hunters also kill game and give to the needy.

    • As a person with a degree in Biology and Genetics, as students we were always taught about life cycles as we studied biology. I can definitively say that mammalian life begins at conception. The gestation segment of human life is every bit as much a part of our life cycle as any other part. Without it, after all, how will you ever have a human being? To say otherwise is absurd.

      So the abortion question boils down to selfishness and fear. Our society has chosen to place our own individual selfishness for sexual gratification and fear of the difficulty and inconvenience of raising a child over the rights of that child once conceived to live. That is shameful.

      The law is in place, and it will be difficult to change. But so far, no one is required to have an abortion. As long as this is the case, just say no to abortion. If you are pregnant and need help, there are many who will help you to birth your child and raise it, or gift it to others who will gladly raise it in a way that will make you proud that you did the right thing.

  10. Jacob, contraception is the number one weapon against unwanted pregnancy? How about basic responsibility on part of the person having sex. Don’t want babies? Don’t have sex. Don’t want to not have sex? Condoms. Dont want to risk a broken condom resulting in pregnancy? Don’t have sex. This life is about far more than sex, so I don’t want to hear about basic human nature being incapable of resisting. If you have sex, be prepared for the unexpected. Don’t go killing children just because you were irresponsible. And by you I mean in general, not YOU you.

    Congrats on your sweeping generalization of what a pro lifer is all about. You have nailed it on the stereotype of pro lifers but I assure you most are not as you have described. The letting people starve part is a new one though. What do you expect someone in pro life camp to do? Feed every starving person in the world? Don’t answer that.

    Conservatives are usually for small government yes. Does that mean we believe that there should be no laws protecting our citizens? Of course not. Since there is no logical reason to think that life doesnt begin at conception, that means abortion is murder. So anti-abortion is simply anti-murder. The fetus should be protected just the same as the others who are outside the womb. In the womb or out it still a child.

    • Jacob’s just a troll. Anyone who makes silly accusations like that (want children to starve, pro birth only, etc) is.

      We can say right back at him “If you’re pro abort than you MUST become an abortionist.”

      Common sense Jacob. No ONE person or ONE group can do EVERYTHING. Helping the poor and hungry takes efforts from multiple groups and people, like school can drives, local assistance (like my cities volunteer run meals on wheels program), etc. As a pro lifer I can tell you YES I have helped the hungry and I also help people facing unwanted pregnancies by donating to my local crisis pregnancy center.

      Pro lifers actually do things to help support what they stand for. the majority of pro choice people I’ve encountered do not- they do not support CHOICE , they seem to be like you and instead of wanting to work with us on the choice we are supposed to have in common, want only to promote death instead of the choice for a woman to continue her pregnancy.

      Is it that hard for you to wrap your head around actually addressing the REAL issues instead of just utilizing a temporary fix? If you’re pipes leak do you just keep putting buckets under them or do you actually find out WHY and fix the problem at it’s source? PEOPLE are the ones bringing children into this world, and just throwing contraceptives at the them (or allowing abortion) isn’t going to actually solve the issue.

      People need to grow up and use their brains about sex, and be encouraged to do so, not treated like mindless sex craving creatures who can’t think for themselves (might as well spade and neuter them like animals who actually only operate on instincts in that case). Barrier methods can help but they still carry risks and people need to really truly UNDERSTAND that and make choices appropriately.

      Obviously this doesn’t solve the problems of forced sex, but emergency contraceptives nor abortion does here either. They can possibly help prevent fertilization, though it’s still not 100% known if fertilization will any methods is always prevented. Therefor the ethics of them are questionable.

      That aside, even if we had something that 100% prevented fertilization, rape should just NOT happen so it’s important to actually put more effort into prevention. Giving a girl plan B won’t stop her from being raped again or the next girl.

      BTW- I think the death penalty should only be used in extreme situations, like war crimes. Some pro lifers will say it should never be used EVER. And we can have varying views on this because to some , like me, being pro life means advocating for a person’s right to exist and continue existing in peace , provided they have not done anything to jeopardize that.

      It’s ironic that you claim pro lifers are playing God (btw I don’t believe in the Christian version of god and am actually agnostic) when pro choicer are the ones promoting being allowed to kill an innocent just because you don’t like them. Not because of anything they did to you, but solely because it is a woman’s whim to do so.(Incidentally, I’m a woman and yeah I’m saying this isn’t ok).

      I”m also AGAINST recreational hunting, and ONLY support hunting if someone is doing it with simple weapons (like a bow) and for survival (getting their own meat instead of from the store.) I’m against factory farming, and also pro same sex marriage.

      Maybe you’ve never encountered a pro lifer like me, but now you have and I’m proof that while we may have the same ideas about some things that make us come together as a group, we are also very different because we are all individuals just like everyone else.

      • And it is no longer a person’s private life when they choose to rape someone, or kill a born person, or molest a child, so why should it be to kill a preborn person? The legalization of abortion (and possibly some contraceptives) actually contradicts other laws proving we are supposed to value life and a person’s right to live theirs free from harm. Everyone should have that same right or no one should.

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  15. what difference does it make if you use a bow or a gun? the result is the same. duh. Anyways, the only exception to abortion is if its the only way to prevent a fatality.

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  23. Even as it has been an indisputed fact for quite some time now,

    Whether a person has enough intelligence or common sense,
    or realizes just where life’s
    priorities indeed MUST take
    precedence reguarding “WHO”
    created ALL of us human beings;

    even that is NOT relevant to “when”
    all of our lives first started.

    [at] Whatever particular “stage” of life
    anyone of us happens to be at,
    is certainly NOT open to anything
    other than the fact that we ALL MUST
    go through what are the natural normal
    existing “stages” of our human lives.

    This is how Our Lord, Creator & Redeemer decided to & did create
    & design ALL of our Human Lives.

    Ok Ok, if anyone is shallow enough in the brain area or allows the devil to
    direct their destiny,
    or yes as i will embarassingly have to admit
    that i myself as a [weak pitiful] human,
    as when\if we\i were\are ever weak enough to allow ourselves to become what is known as “Spiritually Dead”;

    we of course [would & do] loose all ability & capability to desire ANYTHING that
    has ANYTHING to do with what God
    [as i did] we become capable, able, & willing to
    accomplish ONLY that which is unimmaginably
    evil, savagely unfeeling & the pride of the #1 evil doer himself whom we have become the sole property of-Satin himself;

    To fully understand this, one would have had to:

    #1) have had to allow themselves to have been placed in the most horrendous position of becoming being Spiritually Dead;

    #2)Come back from that horrendously
    “dead” state [indeed worse even than being dead,
    for if\when we [ever] become “Spiritually Dead”,

    we loose what is our\any human beings
    essential & most precious “gift”,
    which is God along with every incredible quality
    that He gives us at that moment he creates us
    [which is That moment
    of conception.]

    Most arguably,
    of ALL of the increible qualities that God gives us,
    is LOVE.

    And guess what?

    When\if we Loose Love….
    i will tell you just how disastorous
    that is-

    [because & only due to the aforementioned fact that “i” was
    #1)”Spiritually Dead”
    #2) i was blessed enough to have come back from that dreaded state.

    I say “blessed enough” because the odds of anyone of us actually being able to return from what is known as being “Spiritually Dead” are most enormous.

    The horrors of “living” in that state are certainly beyond comparison.

    Consider the puzzling horrors of how “ANY HUMAN BEING” could actually be gullible enough or lack the common sense or intelligence that it requires
    to support anyone or even VOTE for anyone or anything that would “LEGALIZE THE SADISTIC BARBARIC
    BABY BOY OR BABY GIRL in the womb…?


    …OK….then “HOW CUD ANYONE”???!!?

    i found out one of if not the MAIN reason for the answer to that horrible question.

    Because when i was blessed enough
    to have had a major life moving experience happen to me,

    which is exactly what it takes for any of
    us humans to be able to have the “wherewithal” to be able to “come back from being Spirirually Dead;

    thereby i was able to comprehend
    just how “worthless, meaningless,
    “worse-than-dead”, beyond ignorant,

    & totally unable & incabable i was then,
    [as we all would be\are],
    if\when, we indeed DO sin seriously enough [i.e. “mortal sin”],
    to loose God’s grace,
    & untill\unless we gain back God’s grace [i.e. get to confession, confess,
    be sincerely sorry & recieve God’s Almighty Forgivness];

    we remain “lost” in Sin-
    & one time in my life as i failed to
    take advantage of the above Sacrament
    that God’s Almighty Goodness & Foregivness allotted me\all of us sinners,

    then “worse” did i ALSO allow weeks to become months to then become years
    & STILL i failed to avail myself of “EXACTLY WHAT WE MUST UNDERGO


    “if\when WE should allow ourselves to commit what is without any doubt THE
    worst mistake i\we\any human could

    And as i did years & years & years later,
    STILL no confession & therefore by now
    i consequentlt found myself in what is
    known as being “Spiritually DEAD”.

    Then & Only Then
    AFTER what i aforementioned as a “major life changing event\experience”
    did infact occur;

    which caused me & enabled me to
    then & only then “come back from being Spiritually Dead”
    [i finally returned to being in the “state of God’s grace”-via confession-God’s forgivness-pennance-]

    #1) how worthless, meaningless, pathetic, disgusting, “worse” than dead
    & in a total state of “nothing & no one”
    i was;
    2) by virtue of & because being in that state of being Spiritually Dead,
    then coming back from it;

    i was able & capable of understanding
    just how bad i had allowed myself to become:

    UNTILL i had first become Spiritually Dead,
    that God, i was able to come back to God & his devine Grace.


    i then discovered the “how could any one of us human beings submit ourselves to what is the WORST
    evil any of us could EVER be a party to”

    especially when we witness the further “evil” of EVEN Catholics, Jews, Lutherans..& other people,

    not “any better than any other of God’s creations-

    But CERTAINLY & speaking for myself,
    & as mentioned having had that particular experiencing of becoming Spiritually Dead,
    the more particularly “rare” or “highly unusual “transformation”[as the Devil has little difficulty in resisting our returning to God that which he has succeeded in leading away from God & especially when our
    sinful, evil, debased, hopeless, helpless,
    complete lack of resistance to Satin
    is allowed to “ferment, stain, eradicate,
    us to ANYTHING,
    that is ANYTHING
    OTHER than:
    #2)committing evil, the WORST evil
    #3the complete loss,desire,ability
    to care, appreciate, or consider
    any virtue, moral, consequence, or
    of any of our future thoughts, words, actions, relationships, deeds, etc.

    astoundingly & in incredible “credit”
    & “acknowledgement to Satin;

    As when\if we as i did & as i can only attest to quite factually due to my
    aforementioned “returning from that
    end of the line [for this life anyhow-but CERTAINLY & by No MEANS not for what is our “next & MOST important
    “stage of our lives”

    **are those who “hide behind” the fallacy of some anti life people’s
    denial of one stage of our lives:
    [i.e. the pre born, fetal, very “FIRST” stage which is “THE MOMENT OF [ALL OF OUR] CONCEPTION(S)

    [are they] going to also “hide behind the fallacy” of denying another “stage of [all of ]our lives?,



    As we Loose EVERYTHING when\if as i did when\if we become Spiritually Dead;

    & for the purpose of confirming the “HOW COULD ANY HUMAN BEING


    “ONLY” could any one be so anxious
    to be guilty of the above,

    ONLY if we were to allow ourselves to be placed in a position where we became:

    #1) unable to love,
    #2) uunable & incapable to give love
    #3) unable to be or accept love
    #4) unable to care, protect, feel,
    #5) unable to desire or accomplish any deed unless it was for the goal of evil.
    #6)sorry but “words” such as “i love you” or ” well i would’t do that ” or “”i would’nt do anything as evil as that,
    but i would’nt ‘force’ my beliefs on anyone else to ‘NOT’ commit such unspeakable evil, or if you were “Spiritually Dead” you would see no
    problem with offering “if someone else’s “politics” or “religion” say its perfectly fine to SLAUGHTER ANY INFANT INNOCENT HELPLESS LOVING BABY BOY OR GIRL, UM & UNNO MAYBE HELP OUT UM SOME HUMANITY CAUSE & SLAUGHTER BABIES TO SELL THEIR BODY PARTS …UH..YEAH…

    remember when\if we loose God’s gift to us of “LOVE”,,,
    we do not & can not & are no longer able nor capable of Loving
    1)our wife
    2)our husband
    3)our mother
    4)our father
    5)our son or daughter….yes even ourselves
    6)oh & yes…certainly we would have no problem of finding or agreeing with any
    “reason” to Murder,…[allow unjust unconstitutional legislative schemes to ‘legalize” or label such atrocities]
    kill, um…”terminate” “abort”…”relieve society”,
    then you would have no problem with the inconvenience or the immoral atrocious evil criminal inhumane
    cowardly selfish Slaughter of millions upon millions of innocent babies in the womb, profiting off of their blood, death &\OR SALE OF THEIR TINY BODY PARTS PARTS-

    no more than would you \
    or did they find a problem with

    1) innocent American Black People
    [which astoundingly & unconscionably
    “WHY” the “Baby Slaughtering Mills & “Baby Body Parts Racket of
    Planned Parent Hood was formed.

    2)Against America’s Native Americans;

    3)Again against American Black People to “KEEP” them in servitute;

    4) against Germany’s Jews
    [don’t just blame Hitler-
    he simply imposed the exact unjust legislative schemes against Germany’s Jews to “legislate them as “inhuman”
    as we did with African Americans, American Native Americans & NOW once Again [i EVEN with a much worst Hollocast]
    against our most innocent helpless & smallest brothers & sisters in the womb!

    if he was in that state of being Spiritually Dead….

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  35. “Science shows that life begins at conception”
    Science would also show sperm and an egg are living as well.
    But the law says only a person can be murdered and a person is defined as someone that has been born.

  36. While the legal definition of life is disputed, the legal definition of death is not. It is considered the time when electroencephalography (EEG) activity ceases–in laymen’s terms, when the person is brain dead. Given that the fetus doesn’t exhibit EEG activity until around week 25, there’s my starting point.

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  42. God is love and we who abide in love abide in God. I thank God that you have the courage to speak out for the unborn and to speak the Good News that God loves and forgives all people. With love and my prayers, Meme

  43. Lexically; the condition that distinguishes animals and plants from inorganic matter, including the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death.


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