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.

27 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.

  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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