Does it Matter when Life Begins?

PZ Meyers recently blogged about his response to one of the perennial claims of pro-life advocates: that life begins at conception.  Predictably, he accuses pro-lifers of misunderstanding the question, and he does this by denying that life begins at conception because life began billions of years ago: everything else is just a part of a continuum heading from that.

Life does not begin at conception.

It’s an utterly nonsensical position to take. There is never a “dead” phase — life is continuous. Sperm are alive, eggs are alive; you could even make the argument that since two cells (gametes) enter, but only one cell (a zygote) leaves, fertilization ends a life. Not that I would make that particular claim myself, but it’s definitely true that life is more complicated than the simplistic ideologues of the anti-choice movement would make it.

Well, it’s hard to deny this – but I do wonder whether he’s actually got the point.  That is to say, I wonder whether he’s being a bit literal.

It might be necessary to break things down here a bit.  When a pro-lifer asks about when life begins, it seems to me that that must be shorthand for a rather more complex question or set of questions – something along the lines of “At what stage does a (morally important) human life begin?”.  That is, there’s more to the question than meets the eye.  Note that there’s several distinct elements to the question: one is about the beginning of a human life, another is about its moral value at a given point.  Finally, note that we’re probably actually talking about a human life, not human life in abstracto.

Let’s deal with the final point first, since that’s what speaks most directly to Meyers’ rebuff.  The question of when life, or human life begins, is irrelevant, since everyone agrees that it was a long, long time ago, and the first human is well and truly dead.  We’re not actually talking about human life at all – we’re talking about any given human life, and so to appeal to the continuum of life is no more relevant to the topic than would be the fact that life will go on without us.  We don’t say that the death of an individual is no loss because the biological maelstrom in which he was but a bubble continues to churn: we say that it’s a bad thing that this person here is dead, and there’s a point at which he became dead.  And so it would seem to make sense at least to think that the same applies at the start of life: a woman who discovers she is pregnant may be overjoyed or distraught – but what causes that reaction is the fact that something identifiable has happened in the past couple of weeks or so, not that a complex organic molecule duplicated itself near a hydrothermal vent while the planet was still young.

Now, with this cleared up, it does seem to make more sense to say that life – or, rather, a life – begins at conception.  The sperm-that-would-become-me may have been generated a short time beforehand; the egg a little time before that; the processes that led to them may have been stupefyingly long.  But, in an important sense, the progress of the biologically distinct entity that would become me did only begin at some point in early 1976.  That is when my life began.  mutatis mutandis, the same applies to every other life.  To point out that “life” only gradually accreted at some point 3½ billion years ago is true – but it’s not important.

What about the other points in the expanded question: that human life begins at conception, and that it’s morally important from that point?  Again, we have to take care.  The blastocyst-that-became-me was alive, for sure; and it was a human blastocyst.  It could not have become a lizard or tabby cat.  So, again, in a formal sense, a human life did begin then.  However, merely being human and alive doesn’t count for all that much – the same applies to placental cells and the bits of genetic material that we shed willingly or unwillingly all the time.  That is, in a biological sense, we’re talking about human life.  But there’s a moral sense carried by the term “human life” that isn’t captured by that.  And it’s that that worries pro-lifers I’d’ve thought – otherwise they ought to have the same worries about nose-blowing, hair-combing and non-procreative sex as about abortion, which seems absurd.

It’s on these grounds that arguments about the rights and wrongs of abortion ought to be fought out.  Some people think that human life is important from conception; others disagree; a third camp might think it important, but not as important as other things.  Constructing straw men about the beginning of life, though, won’t help anyone.  For the record, I think that abortion is frequently permissible (albeit a matter of regret); I think that infanticide might also be permissible in some cases.  This is because of certain secondary commitments I have to what it is that makes human life important.  I think that people who disagree are wrong.  But, please – let’s at least give them their head.  Writing off pro-lifers on the basis of an apparently wilful misunderstanding of their position isn’t going to help them remedy their putative errors, and it’s not going to help pro-choicers make the case either.