Life Begins at
(A Doctor Gives the Scientific Facts on When Life Begins)
By Fritz Baumgartner, MD
April 12, 2005
We can approach abortion from many perspectives: Biological, embryological, genetic, philosophical, social and economic, at the very least. As for the first three – my approach as a scientist, physician, surgeon, and simply someone who finished medical school, is factual.
There is no more pivotal moment in the subsequent growth and development of a human being than when 23 chromosomes of the father join with 23 chromosomes of the mother to form a unique, 46-chromosomed individual, with a gender, who had previously simply not existed. Period. No debate.
There is no more appropriate moment to begin calling a human "human" than the moment of fertilization. And don't let anyone tell you otherwise, because it would be a degradation of factual embryology to say it would be any other moment. For example, some pro-abortion zealots and even, shockingly, some disingenuous physicians claim it is the moment of primitive notochord formation (nonsense!) or, even more absurdly, the moment of implantation. (It defies sanity to claim that the implantation of a developing blastocyst onto a uterine wall defines humanity more than does the completion of an entirely new DNA map, which defines a new organism's existence).
And to say that "size" is a determinant of humanity, of course, is an unscientific reason to deny an embryo his or her human status. In any event, it is an embryological reality, which no embryology textbook on earth denies, that at the moment of fertilization a new human being is formed.
Following below is some information about some of the less noble ideologies of my colleagues in medicine as they pertain to defining humanity and defending abortion. I hope it helps you refute pro-abortion lies.
Abortion is violence
Some people muse whether modern-day abortion is as bad as the Holocaust genocide of the Nazis. What is our answer?
Looking at numbers alone, we are now, in 2005, comparing 44 million surgically aborted babies in the USA alone (not even considering the babies who die by pharmaceutical methods like the Pill, RU486, DepoProvera), to 6 million Jews in Europe. The evil rationale of the Holocaust was racial hatred -- the furthering of an “Aryan race” and genocide against Jews. The rationale of our modern Holocaust, by the very admission of pro-abortion groups, is primarily convenience.
The vocation of medicine and the vocation of motherhood are both profoundly sacred and should teach us that human life is of immense value. Abortion hijacks the vocations of motherhood and medicine and distorts them into something unrecognizable. Abortion takes ordinary pregnant mothers and makes them accomplices in – literally – murder. When human life is thus cheapened, we all lose. As I wrote in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology,
"Modern American society has a strange ambivalence to violence and death, on the one hand expressing horror at high school massacres yet on the other hand perhaps merely shrugging in discomfort at the willful termination of early human life to the tune of tens of millions. The roots of this ambivalence lie in convenience, self-centeredness, and our national confusion regarding legitimate versus illegitimate 'choice.' Teenagers intuitively sense phoniness and hypocrisy and may have more trouble than adults in reconciling this apparent paradox, which seems so unnatural to the innocent mind yet on the other hand is almost taken for granted by society and, sadly, by medicine. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta said, ‘If we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill each other?…Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want…’ " (1)
Hippocratic Oath was anti-abortion
When I graduated from the UCLA School of Medicine in 1984, we took the Hippocratic Oath, which states, "I will not give to a woman an instrument to produce abortion. With purity and holiness I will pass my life and practice my art." The Hippocratic Oath, explicitly and implicitly, eliminates abortion as an option.
The Supreme Court justices in the majority opinion in 1973’s Roe v. Wade had a lot of trouble rationalizing around the revered 2,400-year-old oath of physicians. The justices hedged that the authority of Hippocrates did not prevent the committing of abortions in Greece and Rome. They continued that most Greek thinkers and physicians actually commended abortion and that only the Pythagorean school of philosophers frowned upon abortion and suicide. Only Hippocrates and the minority Pythagorean thinkers opposed abortion, and the future teachings of Christianity fit well with Pythagorean ethic. Thus, the justices concluded that the Hippocratic Oath is "a Pythagorean manifesto and not the expression of an absolute standard of medical conduct" (2).
There is no argument that the Oath was a minority opinion among Greek physicians, but it was certainly Hippocrates’ opinion and intention to distinguish his school of doctors who practiced in an ethical framework set apart from Greek mainstream medicine. If the status-quo medicine of the day satisfied Hippocrates, then he would not have needed to establish his new guidelines for medical ethics.
Hippocrates, in a real sense, was counteracting the erroneous and relativistic values of his own time and culture. By acting as a beacon of light in a sea of darkness, he exemplified what Christianity would do 400 years later, and what true Christianity must do even today. The core and spirit of the Hippocratic Oath is indeed the expression of an absolute standard of medical conduct. It does not alter with the passing societal customs and fads of two and a half millennia. Is this an Oath that we can dismiss as casually as the majority seven U.S. Supreme Court justices did in 1973?
A.C. Ivy, M.D., the expert medical advisor at the Nuremberg Medical Trials, wrote in 1949,
"I realized for the first time at the Nuremberg trials, the full meaning and importance of the contributions of Hippocrates and his school to medicine and human welfare. He apparently realized that a scientific and technical philosophy of medicine could not survive through the ages unless it was associated with a sound moral philosophy. One cannot conceive of a sound society with medicine that does not have a sound moral philosophy" (3).
And if any question remains, one should consider the Geneva Declaration of Physicians, written as a direct result of the Nazi medical atrocities soundly condemned at the Nuremberg Medical Trials. This universal Declaration of Physicians states: "I will maintain the utmost respect for human life, from the time of its conception, even under threat. I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity" (4).
Of course, if we take seriously the words of the Geneva Declaration of Physicians, "from the time of its conception", then we preclude not only what we commonly consider as "abortion" (i.e., surgical), but also all the major ramifications on the full gamut of reproductive issues and technologies, ranging from contraceptives, therapeutic and reproductive cloning, human embryonic stem cell research, in vitro fertilization, and “therapeutic” and reproductive cloning.
Is Catholic teaching a sound guide?
It is precisely these issues that demonstrate the value of the Catholic Church in guiding Her flock definitively and responsibly in issues of faith and morals. And it is here also where the inestimable value of critical, rigorous thinking is evident, because it seeks the truth despite the outcome.
The Roman Catholic Church has already spoken definitively on every single one of these issues, in documents ranging from Humanae Vitae to Donum Vitae to more recent declarations of the Vatican. As a physician and layman, I am personally in awe of the supernatural ability of the Roman Catholic Church to speak with authority and answer these difficult questions to anyone willing to hear and obey. It eliminates confusion in a consistent and definitive way. If people know and obey the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, they will be amazingly well equipped to answer the vast majority of the moral issues of the day. In the incredible wisdom of God and His Church, it allows a faithful common man, even if he be an uneducated illiterate, to maintain the same (or better) freedom from error as the most learned theologian. But that requires faithful teaching from the Catholic shepherds; they must feed their flocks.
Before addressing the issues directly, those who do not agree with these views need to consider the more basic question of whether it is ever morally acceptable to do evil so that good supposedly may arise from it. Humanae Vitae once again definitively demonstrates Church teaching, stating: "It is not licit, even for the gravest reasons, to do evil so that good may follow therefrom." The end does not justify the means.
But in certain instances, cannot the end justify the means? Or, as the Nazi defense attorney in cross examination posed to Dr. Ivy at the 1947 Nuremberg Trials (3), "If you were ordered by a high political or military leader to perform an experiment which you knew in advance would cause the death of three persons and the results of which would save the life of twenty thousand, would you perform the experiment?" Dr. Ivy's reply was startlingly devoid of moral relativism: "There is no political and military leader under the sun who could order or otherwise compel me to perform an experiment contrary to my moral convictions." The Nazi attorney asked, "So, then, you would be shot?" And Dr. Ivy said, "Yes."
Now, half a century later, the moral quandary is: "If we were asked by a woman to commit a legally sanctioned abortion which we knew in advance would cause the death of a developing human being, but would improve the convenience, financial state, and overall well-being of the woman and society based on her choice, would we commit the abortion?" Oh, that our reply would echo the same lack of moral relativism as Dr. Ivy's! And in America, circa 2004, our reply would be in the absence of the threatening milieu implied by the question, "So, then, you would be shot?"
Conception = fertilization
We must conclude that human lives are sacred from the moment of conception, and that destroying those new lives is never licit, no matter what the purported good outcome would be. But, ah, there’s the rub: what is the definition of conception? The "conception" of something is the "beginning" of something.
Ask anyone on the street to define "conception" and they will call it synonymous with fertilization, when human ovum meets human spermatozoon, and a new 46-chromosomed human being is formed. But in the boardrooms of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology 30 years ago, the obvious, commonsense definition of "conception" was actually changed. "Conception", according to this official medical college, no longer meant "fertilization.” It was redefined to mean implantation of a blastocyst on the uterine wall, typically occurring 1-2 weeks after fertilization (5).
But why? Why on earth would the ACOG change its definition of conception from fertilization to implantation? The chilling answer was suggested by Dr. Richard Sosnowski of ACOG, who in his 1984 presidential address stated:
"I do not deem it excellent to play semantic gymnastics in a profession … It is equally troublesome to me that, with no scientific evidence to validate the change, the definition of conception as the successful spermatic penetration of an ovum was redefined as the implantation of a fertilized ovum. It appears to me that the only reason for this was the dilemma produced by the possibility that the intrauterine contraceptive device might function as an abortifacient" (6,7).
Is this not precisely the type of verbal deception that Pope John Paul II condemned in his recent encyclicals when he emphasized the power of language in forming our consciences and conceptions of reality? Words can mean life or death, and they in no small way determine the outcome of our eternal souls.
There is a war going on in our age, a war far more important for the ultimate outcome of mankind than the physical wars going on all over the world with their untold human suffering. The greater war is the war between truth and falsehood, between light and darkness -- and the chasm separating the sides grows by the day. My family will be part of that war, and I want them to be in an environment that gives them the best chance to choose wisely, to choose good over evil in a clear way.
I am grateful to the Catholic Church for specifically forbidding contraceptive use, thus preventing me from prescribing their use while a medical student on the OB/GYN rotation. Oral and implantable contraceptives, as I learned later from the Physicians’ Desk Reference (PDR), "act by suppression of gonadotropins. Although the primary mechanism of this action is inhibition of ovulation, other alterations include changes in ... the endometrium (which reduce the likelihood of implantation)."
The mind-boggling implication is that if we accept fertilization as the moment of conception, and if you use a conservative estimate of a 5 percent breakthrough ovulation rate, then "the Pill" must be inducing millions of abortions per year in the USA – at least as many as the surgical abortions. Even more horrifically, the newer contraceptives over the last decade have an even higher breakthrough rate, and that makes the abortifacient properties of the Pill even more deadly.
When does life begin?
Some people claim that our human lives really do not begin at fertilization, and that a more realistic time for the dignity of "humanity" to be imparted on a growing blastocyst-embryo would be about a week after fertilization, about the time of implantation.
It does not change things that in centuries past, some great Catholic theologians and philosophers differed on when precisely a biological entity becomes infused with a human soul. St. Thomas Aquinas, using the limited scientific knowledge of the 13th century, followed Aristotle that the conception of a male child was completed at day 40, and that of the female child at the 90th day, with replacement of the embryo's “nutritive soul” by a human soul. The Venerable Maria de Agreda, a 17th-century visionary, wrote that human "ensoulment" occurs at different times for boys and girls, and that it occurs at a time later than fertilization.
I am not a philosopher or theologian but a student of medicine and surgery. I can speak to you with authority that from a pure, unadulterated biological and embryological standpoint, there is no greater pivotal moment in our growth and development than when 23 chromosomes from our father join with 23 chromosomes from our mother to form a unique, new biologic entity who heretofore simply had not existed.
This new biological individual is complete, has a gender, and is fully and uniquely programmed and equipped to grow and develop and change until death. All he or she needs is nutrition and a warm place to grow. To say that an embryo has the "potential" to become a human being is biologically and technically imprecise – and dangerous.
Perhaps even more dangerous is the concept that it is not a precise moment, but a gradation of human worth. With this model, a preborn baby at 3 months is somewhat of a human being, but a newborn is more of a human being.
So -- is a 10-year-old boy or girl more a human being than a 1-year-old? Is a politician or athlete more a human being than a wheelchair-bound paraplegic? Can we really stratify intrinsic human dignity and worth? Is human equality a myth? This sort of thinking forms the basis for demeaning entire classes of people. Ultimately, it denies them their humanity. The 20th century gave ample evidence of the depravity of such thinking.
It is not “potential to become a person” that entitles a human embryo to legal and moral status. It is part of the fabric of natural and biological law that the human embryo’s actuality of being human entitles him or her to legal and moral status (8).
A researcher in Science, in response to the question, "When does human life begin?" responded, "I cannot answer that question." (9) This answer, coming from a researcher who has no problem with advocating human embryonic cloning and stem cell research, does not absolve him of the moral question arising from the research he proposes. Such an attitude is, at the very least, reckless and irresponsible.
What embryologists say
The majority of input in discussions of early human embryonic life often comes from philosophers, politicians, theologians, and the biotechnology industry, yet human embryologists are the most qualified to scientifically respond to the crucial questions at hand. But all too often they are glaringly omitted from the discussion. The developmental geneticist Jerome Lejeune (1926-1994), discoverer of the chromosomal basis for Down’s Syndrome, stated:
"…each of us has a unique beginning, the moment of conception … As soon as the 23 chromosomes carried by the sperm encounter the 23 chromosomes carried by the ovum, the whole information necessary and sufficient to spell out all the characteristics of the new being is gathered … a new human being is defined which has never occurred before and will never occur again … [it] is not just simply a non-descript cell, or a ‘population’ or loose ‘collection’ of cells, but a very specialized individual …" (10).
Dr. Kischer, emeritus professor of Anatomy at the University of Arizona, writes, "…the first thing learned in human embryology [is] that the life of the new individual human being begins at fertilization (conception)" (11). He continues, "we should respect a microscopic human embryo because at that time it is an integrated whole organism, just as the human is at every moment in time until death. Every human embryo deserves as much respect as you or I because it is formed as a new individual human life within the continuum of life …" To deny this, Kischer says, is "a trivialization and corruption of the science of human embryology."
And textbooks after textbooks of human embryology agree. The embryology textbook The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 6th ed., by Moore et al., 1998, notes that so-called emergency contraceptive pills (i.e., "morning-after pills") “prevent implantation, not fertilization. Consequently, they should not be called contraceptive pills … Because the term abortion refers to a premature stoppage of a pregnancy, the term ‘abortion’ could be applied to such an early termination of pregnancy." It further states, "The intricate process by which a baby develops from a single cell is miraculous … A zygote is the beginning of a new human being." Bruce Carlson’s 1994 textbook Human Embryology and Developmental Biology states, "Human pregnancy begins with the fusion of an egg and sperm … Finally, the fertilized egg, now properly called an embryo, must make its way into the uterus.”
The official U.S. Public Health Service Policy defines abortion as follows: "All the measures which impair the viability of the zygote anytime between the instant of fertilization and the completion of labor constitute, in the strict sense, procedures for inducing abortion" (12).
What scientific or logical reasoning would the biotechnology industry posit to suggest it is uterine implantation that confers humanity on an embryo? How does the adherence of a new being to the lining of the uterus define humanity? Would a full-term infant who developed entirely ex-utero in an artificial womb not be "human"?
Scientific rigor does not always correlate with the convenience of an industry or the convenience of society. It takes an appalling rejection of science and biology to deny the humanity of the human embryo.
In the January 2002 issue of Scientific American, a board of outside ethicists assembled by Advanced Cell Technology posited that, “At the blastocyst stage, when the organism is typically disaggregated [destroyed] to create an embryonic stem cell line, it is a ball of cells no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence." So, then, size is a determinant of humanity? Not very scientific!
In fact, from a biological and embryological standpoint, that statement is utterly inane and drenched in absurdity. True, there is an apparent difference between a baby and a microscopic cluster of undifferentiated cells. But, indeed, over time in any individual, all the qualities of life change: their size, form, function, and appearance. We can reduce any point in time in an individual’s development to a trivial value by comparing that point to any other reference point we might choose.
It is a mere pop-culture form of science -- or philosophy, or theology -- swaying in the breeze, which justifies itself with public opinion instead of with rigorous scientific reasoning.
Such man-made determinations of when human life begins are arbitrary, nebulous, and self-serving. They are devoid of critical science and biological reality. The philosophy of the primitive streak or embryonic implantation as somehow imparting humanity was championed in the 1970's by some philosophers and theologians, but since then it has been completely discredited from an embryological and biological standpoint.
No such thing as “pre-embryo”
The false term "pre-embryo" was invented by Clifford Grobstein and Richard McCormick, S.J., in 1979.Grobstein -- a frog embryologist -- and Fr. McCormick acknowledged that there is a human being before 14 days. But they said there was no human individual yet, and therefore no "person,” because before 14 days twins may form (two individuals). Also, they claimed only the inner layer of the 4-7-day blastocyst will become a human adult, because the outer layer is "all discarded" after birth. Therefore, they asserted that before 14 days, there is only a "pre-embryo" (a "potential person"); after 14 days, twinning cannot take place and only then is there definitely an "individual,” and therefore an existing "person" entitled to ethical and legal rights and protections.
We will refute those claims in a moment. But first, let us note that human embryologists have rejected the term "pre-embryo.” For example, it was labeled "inaccurate and unscientific" by Ronan O'Rahilly. (He sits on the international Nomina Embryologica board, which determines the terminology to be used in classifying human embryology.) In his textbook on human embryology, O’Rahilly repudiates the term "pre-embryo.” Others, too, have brought the term under fire.
Lately, the term “pre-embryo” has been more or less avoided because of its sloppiness. But the damage has been done. What was meant to be conveyed – the false notion that the “product” of fertilization or cloning is not yet a human being or embryo, and therefore may licitly be killed in biological experiments, remains rampantly and naively accepted.
What is more, the biotechnology industry, rather than "naively accepting" the premise, appears instead to be mischievously promoting this discredited biology to drape some guise of an ethical framework over their experimentation (human embryonic stem cell research, cloning, etc). Human embryologists, however, reject the premise.
We now hear substitute phrases such as "pre-implantation" embryo, as well as unacceptable embryological jargon such as that "the human embryo does not begin until two weeks after fertilization.” Whatever arbitrary label is used, the aim is to convince others -- based on a complete absence of support from biology – that only a "potential" human being is there.
The authoritative scientific conclusion from human embryology is that a human embryo is a human being from fertilization on. Grobstein and Fr. McCormick based their conclusions on frog biology! But unlike frogs, human embryos do not divide synchronously, and the two layers of the human blastocyst are in fact interactive. Furthermore, some of the cells of the outer layer are retained after birth, and they form blood cells and other tissues. The whole human blastocyst is a human being, not just the inside part.
The twinning argument, supposedly "delaying" personhood for 14 days, is also scientifically misleading, because twinning can also take place after 14 days. In identical twinning, one individual human being (the early human embryo) divides, asexually, in a manner with some analogy to cloning. Thus from one individual, biologically speaking, another individual splits off, resulting in two individuals, or twins.
Actual human beings, not “potential”
There is no point from fertilization until death when, biologically, the human nature of that human being is altered. That human being continuously creates specifically human enzymes and, once formed, is on a path to grow and develop in the natural course of human growth. As we’ve said, all he or she needs is nutrition and a warm place to grow.
The bottom line is that in terms of biology and human embryology, a human being begins immediately at fertilization and after that, there is no point along the continuous line of human embryogenesis where only a "potential" human being can be posited. Any philosophical, legal, or political conclusion cannot escape this objective scientific fact.
And if philosophy must be invoked at all, then at a bare minimum the philosophy should match the correct scientific facts. Strict adherence to science alone will preclude denial of personhood to the unique creation -- the human being -- constructed at fertilization, and public policy should reflect this.
Ugly, but consistent, analogies can be made between the refusal to recognize the earliest stages of the human embryo by parsing the meaning of "human being,” and the “Aryan” ideology of the Third Reich. Jews, Slavs, Gypsies, the mentally incapacitated, and -- almost but not quite -- Catholic priests were considered to be Untermenschen, i.e., "sub-human,” and hence Lebens unwertenleben, or “lives unworthy to live.” Unbelievably, 70 years later we find another parallel of history among human early embryos. These embryos have been devalued via an argument of reductio ad absurdum.
Every human embryologist worldwide states that the life of the new individual human being begins at fertilization. No human embryologist has ever described human life as "potential" human life. Thus, killing the embryo -- by harvesting embryonic stem cells, by using abortifacient contraceptives, by committing so-called therapeutic cloning, or by flushing spare in-vitro fertilization embryos down the sink -- takes that human life. However, a mantra has been created, supported for decades by a faction of philosophers and theologians, which promotes a new Weltanschauung (a view of life). This was Adolf Hitler's favorite word (13), and embodied within it was his concept of “racial purity” and his mission to purge the unwanted.
Baby Jesus was an Embryo
For a moment, let us ignore the biologically compelling and clear-cut arguments that human lives begin at fertilization. Let us accept 13th-century scientific knowledge, or philosophical exegeses, or mystical revelation that said the human soul is infused at 40 days, 90 days, or whatever. Suppose it was correct that the embryo does not become human until the primitive streak forms. If this in fact was true, then, rather than absolving guilt when a “pre-human” embryo is killed, the guilt, in a real sense, becomes magnified.
If you kill an embryo who has been infused with a human soul, the ultimate and eternal outcome of that soul would, presumably, be a state of eternal happiness (with or without the actual vision of God, as in Heaven or, classically, "limbo"). But to kill a “pre-human” embryo denies that embryo an eventual soul, and denies eternal life to that “potential" soul. Which is worse? A very real argument can be made that the latter is far worse, even if it were not an actual "human" life that was taken.
And what of the Embryo Jesus 2005 years ago? I heard on a Protestant radio station the comment that if Mary's ovum really contributed to Christ's earthly Body, if her DNA actually helped construct Christ's Body, then, of course the Catholic Church would be right and proper to honor her! But nah, "God must have inserted a little preformed Embryo Jesus into Mary's womb, because no mere human could contribute so much to Jesus' Body."
What a trivialization and lack of understanding of God's desire to form a complete union with mankind, a desire so intense as to go through all stages of human development, from the very earliest until the time of death!
So would it have been acceptable biologically to kill that Zygote, the developing God-Man, in Mary's womb, before the 7-10 day-implantation-neural tube-whatever cutoff? Somehow, I don't think so.
That God Himself participated in all of human growth and development sanctifies it all, and this should make anyone tremble at the thought of killing a baby at any early embryonic stage, as Jesus Christ Himself once was! "Whatever you do to these, the least of my brethren, you do to Me."
The Church and science agree
The Catholic Church has spoken definitively on when human embryos are to be respected as human beings – i.e., from the moment of fertilization. And medical oaths ranging from Hippocrates to the Geneva Declaration of Physicians concur wholeheartedly.
Why would anyone want to tamper with this, philosophically, theologically, medically, or politically, at the risk of their eternal souls, let alone of the souls of anyone who justifies their actions based on such personal opinion, let alone of the lives of hundreds of millions of preborn human beings?
The scientific evidence is clear, and all human embryologists universally acknowledge the biologic truth that at fertilization, a new human being is first formed. The concept of a “pre-embryo” is a fallacy rejected by the science of human embryology.
Any theology of the body based on the scientific fraud of the discredited “pre-embryo” theory is a theology that does not reflect truth and reality.
Editor's note from Prolife.com and LoveMatters.com:
Don't let members of the Culture of Death tell you our lives don’t begin right at the start – at fertilization. Pro-death advocates who deny life begins at fertilization want to fool you into thinking abortifacients (like the Pill and other chemical "contraceptives" that cause early abortions), embryonic stem cell experiments, cloning and similar atrocities are okay. Please educate your friends and relatives by sharing Dr. Baumgartner's article with them.
Dr. Fritz Baumgartner graduated from the UCLA School of Medicine in 1984. Dr. Baumgartner received his surgical training at Harbor UCLA, and Thoracic surgery training in Vancouver at the University of British Columbia. From 1992 to 1997 he was Assistant Professor of Cardiothoracic surgery at the UCLA School of Medicine. From 1995 to 1997 he became the Head of Cardiothoracic surgery at Harbor UCLA. Dr. Baumgartner currently works in private practice in Long Beach and Orange County, CA.
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