The Beginning of Life

A short while ago I was asked to give a presentation about the beginning of life … in a not too scientific way. Being a scientist, I must admit, that talking objectively about this topic in a non-scientific way was initially daunting.

Personally, I believe that there are a number of advantages in having a secular society as opposed to a religious fundamentalist society. One has only to look at a few neighbouring countries to realise that. However, there are areas where secularism and the associated individual’s absolute freedom of choice may be taken too far. One such situation is identifying the exact point in time at which a new life starts – basically deciding when abortion equates to killing and when it does not.

Identifying the exact point in time at which a new human life starts is neither straightforward nor a matter on which there is general consensus. In fact, the spectrum of opinions ranges from the view of many of the major religions which hold that human life starts at conception, to the assertions of prominent people in the field who argue that babies are not to be considered fully human until well after birth. In a society striving to separate religion from state, and simultaneously allowing everyone absolute freedom of choice this decision very often ends up being a personal one. But is it right to allow a matter of life and death to be a question of personal choice?

Admittedly, early stage embryos do not look anything like a human being. Yet, a developing human embryo is, species-wise, human (as opposed to a cat, or a dog, or a fish), and its constituent cells are alive. What society cannot agree upon is whether the embryo is a living human entity or not. In stark contrast, there is very little debate as to what defines death. The point of death is not subject to moral viewpoint or personal opinion. Thus drawing parallels, or maybe I should say anti-parallels, between the beginning of life and the end of life may help one determine exactly when life begins. An excellent article by Dr Maureen L. Condic[1] does just that.

At the cellular and molecular level, there is very little difference in a body at the instant before death and in the instant immediately after death. For a very short while, the cells in the body are not aware that the body has died and they continue carrying out their function in the same manner… until they run out of oxygen. And then they stop. But even though some of its cells are still functioning, the body is no longer alive. What is lost at the instant of death is neither higher-order brain function (consciousness, memory, emotions) nor cardiac function, but the ability of the different body parts to work as one cohesive unit. Once this ability is lost the body cannot be revived.

What this phenomenon illustrates is that the difference between a collection of cells living together and a living body is the fact that an organism functions as one entity, each part supplying what is necessary to maintain the body as a whole. By extrapolation, what death tells us about the beginning of life is that as a direct opposite of the point of death, where the cells no longer function together as parts of the same body, the beginning of life can be objectively determined as the point at which the components of the developing embryo function together as one coordinated whole. From the very earliest stages of development, human embryos do not function as a collection of independent cells but as one whole unit able to grow, mature and maintain a balance between a number of different parts and organs. In fact, even with the fertilised egg cell itself, there are distinct parts which have specific functions and all must work together to enable the egg cell to divide into the cells of the embryo.

In the words of Dr Maureen Condic, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah, “Linking human status to the nature of developing embryos is neither subjective nor open to personal opinion. Human embryos are living human beings precisely because they possess the single defining feature of human life that is lost in the moment of death – the ability to function as a coordinated organism rather than merely as a group of living human cells.”


[1] Condic, Maureen L. Life: Defining the Beginning by the End. First Things 2003 (May);

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