Life Begins At Conception. That’s Not the Point

The development of a potential human life requires conception as a first step. But that is not the same as either pregnancy or personhood. You can't reduce complex reality to a slogan, and when you try to do so, you actually minimize the personhood of women.

“Life begins at conception.”

This is perhaps the favorite phrase of anti-choicers seeking to eliminate women’s basic right to control over their own bodies. It is, for example, the premise of policies pushed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and fundamentalist evangelicals. It is the cornerstone of the so-called personhood laws defeated by large margins in ballot initiatives undertaken in both Colorado and Mississippi. And it is the basis for the “Sanctity of Life” bill co-sponsored by Congressmen Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Todd Akin (R-MO) in the House of Representatives. The end game in all of these efforts is a radical shift in women’s lives, including a total ban on abortion without exception, and bans on many forms of contraception, in vitro fertilization, and health care for women who are or who may be pregnant.

“Life begins at conception,” is repeated incessantly by politicians such as Richard Mourdock, as though this were a revelation, something not previously known, that should inform our thinking on whether women are people with the same fundamental rights as men, or if they are essentially incubators whose ability to participate in society and the economy, and, quite literally, whose ability to live is dependent on whether they are, might be, or might become pregnant.

But the phrase is highly—and purposefully—misleading because it confuses simple biological cell division both with actual pregnancy and with actual, legal personhood, which are all very different things.

During the October 11, 2012 vice presidential debate, for example, moderator Martha Raddatz asked Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) to discuss “the role religion has played” in their personal views on abortion.

Ryan responded by saying:

Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science.

You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, “Bean.”

Now I believe that life begins at conception.

Here is a startling revelation: I am a mother of two and a woman who earlier in her life had an abortion. I am unapologetically pro-choice. And I know life *begins* at conception (which itself is the product of a complex process), because I kinda already knew that having a child required, as a first step, the successful integration of a sperm and an egg, or fertilization.

In other words, “life” begins at conception, if by “life,” we mean the essential starting place of a potential human being. Neither my 16-year-old daughter nor my 13-year-old son would be here if they were not first conceived, if the fertilized eggs had not gone through the process of cell division, successfully implanted in my uterus and developed into healthy embryos, and subsequently gone successfully through the many other phases of development leading to their births.

A fertilized human egg in two phases of division.

A fertilized human egg in two phases of division.

The fact that life begins at conception is why women and men use birth control to prevent it from happening and why they have been trying to prevent it from happening since time immemorial. While they may not have had high-resolution microscopes and photography to reveal biological-level activity, women do not and did not need modern “reason and science” (to which anti-choicers now love to refer) to tell them they get pregnant from sex; as Homo Sapiens they have been conceiving, carrying, and bearing babies for at least some 160,000 years, and they’ve been trying to prevent pregnancy and induce abortions for just as long.

Evidence of condom use has been found in cave drawings in France dated between 12,000 and 15,000 years old and in 3,000 year-old illustrations in Egypt. Throughout history, people have variously practiced “outer course” (encouraged even by Christian clergy at some points in history!), and used pessaries, herbs, and other objects to create barriers to fertilization when having sex, not to mention trying many other more dangerous and less effective means, such as drinking lead and mercury or wearing blood-soaked amulets in the hopes of preventing fertilization, a subsequent pregnancy, and later, the birth of a child. I understand that seeing the sonogram of a wanted child is a powerful thing and a connection to the potential person whose birth is much awaited. But if it took Paul Ryan to see a sonogram of his daughter in utero to get him to believe his wife was pregnant and that his daughter’s “life” began with conception, the state of GOP knowledge on sex and biology is even worse than I thought.

The question is not when life begins. That just obfuscates the real issues.

The fundamental issues are:

  • When does pregnancy begin?
  • Does personhood begin at conception? Is a fertilized egg, blastocyst, embryo, or fetus a person with rights that trump those of the woman upon whose body it depends?
  • Do women need “evidence” that if they are pregnant, odds are they are going to have a baby?
  • Do women have the moral agency and fundamental rights to decide whether or not to commit themselves not only to the development of a life within their own bodies, but to a lifelong tie to another human being once a child is born?

Pregnancy begins at implantation. Human life has to begin with conception, but conception is not the same thing as pregnancy, the latter of which reason, science, and medical evidence agree begins when a fertilized egg successfully implants in the uterus and develops into a healthy embryo. Fertilized eggs take between six to 12 days to implant in the uterine lining. There simply is no pregnancy until this happens, which is why any method that prevents fertilization or implantation can not cause an abortion. A large share of fertilized eggs never successfully implant to establish a pregnancy: Between 50 and 80 percent of fertilized eggs never successfully impant and end in spontaneous miscarriage (and before a woman even knows she is pregnant) because of insufficient hormone levels or an non-viable egg or for some other reason.

Hormonal contraception, including emergency contraception, works to prevent fertilization in the first place. If you were really, really worried, therefore, about abortion at any stage, you would be a strong supporter of universal access to contraception, and to universal and easy access to emergency contraception, which needs to be taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse to prevent fertilization from taking place.

Anti-choicers are, of course, against both birth control and emergency contraception, which they attack by confusing conception with “personhood,” and then misrepresenting the mechanisms of action of contraception and the medical definition of pregnancy to blur the lines between contraception and abortion. By endlessly repeating “life begins at conception,” anti-choicers, “egged on,” if you will, by the USCCB and fundamentalist evangelicals, are trying to simultaneously sow confusion about when pregnancy begins and how birth control works to declare a fertilized egg to be a person. This is a precursor to promoting their goals of eliminating both contraception and abortion, making abortion the equivalent of murder, and by extension, controlling women’s bodies and their economic and social choices. This is exactly the goal of so-called personhood amendments that have been the subject of several ballot initiatives and of the “Sanctity of Human Life” act co-sponsored by Ryan and Akin.

Efforts to confuse basic biology are so widespread and so trump rational thinking that they have even tripped up some influential GOP leaders. In December 2011, for example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who in recent years converted to Catholicism) told Jake Tapper of ABC News that he believes that human life does not begin at conception but at “implantation and successful implantation” because if you say life begins at conception “you’re going to open up an extraordinary range of very difficult questions.” What he was really trying to describe was the beginning of pregnancy, while also acknowledging that “difficult questions” arise when you ascribe personhood to a fertilized egg. Shortly thereafter, however, and after he had his hand slapped hard by anti-choicers, Gingrich “clarified” his statement. to the global Catholic network, ETWN, as reported by the National Catholic Register:

In a statement sent by the Gingrich campaign to EWTN News, the former speaker of the House reiterated his belief that “human life begins at conception” and that “every unborn life is precious, no matter how conceived.”

He vowed to support pro-life legislation aimed at the ultimate goal of legally protecting “all unborn human life.”

The issue of “personhood” is a theological and personal rather than medical or scientific question. While current teaching by the Vatican is that a fertilized egg is a “person” with full rights under the law, other religious traditions disagree. Jewish law and tradition does not recognize an egg, embryo, or fetus as a person or full human being, but rather “part and parcel of the pregnant women’s body,” the rights of which are subjugated to the health and well-being of the mother until birth. The United Methodist Church recognizes the primacy of the rights and health of women. Islamic scholars, like Jewish scholars, have debated the issues of “ensoulment” and personhood, and continue to do so with no over-riding consensus.

But the issue of “personhood,” legally speaking, really is most clearly articulated by Roe v. Wade under which restrictions on abortions performed before fetal viability, as described in detail by the Center for Reproductive Rights, were limited to those that “narrowly and precisely promoted real maternal health concerns. After the point of viability, the state was free to ban abortion or take other steps to promote its interest in protecting fetal life. Even after that point, however, the state’s interest in the viable fetus must yield to the woman’s right to have an abortion to protect her health and life.”

Intuitively and practically, women who face unintended and untenable pregnancies and choose abortion overwhelmingly prefer to terminate a pregnancy as early as possible.

Share of Abortions Performed in the United States by Length of Gestation, Courtesy of Guttmacher Institute

Share of Abortions Performed in the United States by Length of Gestation, Courtesy of Guttmacher Institute

Nearly half of all pregnancies in the United States are unintended and about four in ten women with unintended pregnancies choose abortion. The vast majority—nearly 62 percent—of women who terminate a pregnancy do so before nine weeks of pregnancy, before any fetus is involved. Nearly 80 percent of such abortions occur before 10 weeks, and nearly 90 percent do so by the end of the first trimester, making clear that anti-choice assertions about high rates of late abortion are false. In fact, if anything, anti-choice laws and policies ranging from banning early, safe medication abortion, to mandated waiting periods and unnecessary ultrasounds all serve to push early abortions later than they otherwise would be, belying anti-choice concerns about, say, second trimester abortions, because they are in fact responsible for a large share of such abortions.

Women don’t need to listen to fetal heartbeats, see sonograms, have ultrasounds, and receive lectures on pregnancy to know what being pregnant means. They know that when they are pregnant, they will, in roughly nine months, give birth to an actual person. When considering an abortion, women weigh the responsiblities they have… to themselves and their own futures, to any born children they have or any they may plan to have at a future date.

Preventing conception or having an abortion isn’t just about getting through the “inconvenience” of a pregnancy, as the right often asserts, though in many situations pregnancy does in fact pose substantial risks to the health and lives of women (such as very high rates of maternal mortality among girls and women in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, and among women of color in the United States). It is about whether or not a woman wants to and is able to make a lifelong emotional, financial, and physical commitment—often at substantial cost to herself and/or to her family—to the person who will exist if a pregnancy is successfully brought to term. In the case of a wanted pregnancy, or an unintended pregnancy a woman decides to carry to term this can be a joyous, hoped-for, and much anticipated event. Under other circumstances, and without recourse to safe abortion care, an unintended pregnancy is a forced pregnancy and a forced birth, and amounts to reproductive slavery. Only one person—the woman in question—has the right to decide whether, when, and under what circumstances to bring a new person into the world. And the vast majority of women who have an abortion know they are ending biological life that they can not or do not want to sustain because the commitment to an actual child is a moral commitment they are not able, willing, or ready to make, or can not make for reasons of health or life.

In the end, when you hear the phrase “life begins at conception,” remember the implications. In debating the “personhood” of eggs, embryos, and fetuses prior to viability, we are also implicitly and explicity debating the personhood of women. Because if you have no choice and control over your body, you are less than an actual person in the eyes of the law. If the right is so worried about abortion the closer a pregnancy gets to viability, then anti-choicers would be making sure both contraception and early, safe abortion were widely available. That really is not their actual concern.

The development of a potential human life requires conception as a first step. But that is not the same as either pregnancy or personhood. You can’t reduce complex reality to a slogan, and when you try to do so, you actually minimize the personhood of women.