Missing a fact of life

embryo2 06In a story about the right-to-life movement, reporter Nicholas Riccardi of the Los Angeles Times left readers with the impression that an individual human embryo is not, well, a human:

Antiabortion activists in several states are promoting constitutional amendments that would define life as beginning at conception, which could effectively outlaw all abortions and some birth control methods.

The campaigns to grant "personhood" to fertilized eggs, giving them the same legal protections as human beings, come as the nation in January marks the 35th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.

The idea that human embryos and fetuses are not human is often repeated in the media. But there's one problem with it: biologists disagree. In fact, they have reached a consensus on this issue: In the overwhelming number of cases, an individual human life begins at fertilization or conception. (The exception is identical twinning, when an embryo splits and a second human life begins. In that case, the first human life begins at fertilization, and the second when the embryo splits or divides.)

Witness the standard works on this area -- Langman's Medical Embryology, Color Atlas of Clinical Embryology and Developmental Biology.

Perhaps some embryologists disagree that an individual human life begins at conception. But Riccardi does not mention any such scientists. Instead, he relies on the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade:

Ever since abortion was legalized, antiabortion groups have pushed for a federal Human Life Amendment that would define life as beginning at conception. One of the reasons the court gave for legalizing the procedure is that the fetus is not legally a person. Abortion opponents think that by granting human status to embryos they will destroy the legal foundation of the right to abortion.

Riccardi's characterization of Roe is misleading. In its majority opinion, the Court declined to say when human life starts: "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."

Like many reporters, Riccardi has confused biology with philosophy. Scientists agree on when human life begins. So do Christian denominations. What various religions disagree about is what significance that nascent human life has.

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