The facts of science are clear: From the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. Therefore, every "successful" abortion ends the life of a living human being.
The Medical Community Speaks
In its 1859 Report on Criminal Abortion, the American Medical Association (AMA) understood that "the independent and actual existence of the child before birth as a living being" was a scientific truth. Nothing has changed since that time. For the past 150 years doctors have known that life begins at conception.
Consider the following quotations from medical experts in the field of embryology.
"It is the penetration of the ovum by a spermatozoan and resultant mingling of the nuclear material that each brings to the union that constitutes the culmination of the process of fertilization and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual." (Bradley M. Patten, Human Embryology, 3rd ed., New York: McGraw Hill, 1968, page 43.)
"Every time a sperm cell and ovum unite a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live unless its death is brought about by some specific condition." (E. L. Potter and J. M. Craig, Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant, 3rd ed., Chicago: Yearbook Medical Publishers, 1975, page vii.)
Dr. Watson A. Bowes of the University of Colorado Medical School speaks clearly when he says, "The beginning of a single human life is from a biological point of view a simple and straightforward matter - the beginning is conception." (Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, Report, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981.)
A 1981 U.S. Senate report states, "Physicians, biologists, and other scientists agree that conception marks the beginning of the life of a human being - a being that is alive and is a member of the human species. There is overwhelming agreement on this point in countless medical, biological, and scientific writings." (Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, Ibid.)
Prior to advocating abortion, former Planned Parenthood President Dr. Alan Guttmacher was perplexed that anyone would question these basic scientific facts. "This all seems so simple and evident that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn't part of the common knowledge," he wrote in his book Life in the Making. (A. Guttmacher, Life in the Making: The Story of Human Procreation, New York: Viking Press, 1933, p. 3.)
In short, a human life begins at the completion of the conception process.
Any Ol' Cell Will Do?
Nonetheless, Ronald Bailey of Reason magazine insists that we gain no real knowledge from these scientific facts. Bailey argues that embryonic human beings are biologically human only in the sense that every cell in the body carries the full genetic code, meaning that each of our somatic (bodily) cells has as much potential for development as any human embryo. Put simply, Bailey would have us believe that there is no difference in kind between a human embryo and each of our cells.
This is bad biology. Bailey is making the rather elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes. The difference in kind between each of our cells and a human embryo is clear: An individual cell’s functions are subordinated to the survival of the larger organism of which it is merely a part. The human embryo, however, is already a whole human entity. Robert George and Patrick Lee say it well. It makes no sense to say that you were once a sperm or somatic cell. However, the facts of science make clear that you were once a human embryo. “Somatic cells are not, and embryonic human beings are, distinct, self-integrating organisms capable of directing their own maturation as members of the human species.”
Dr. Maureen Condic points out that 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 cells." Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, explains the important distinction between individual parts and whole human embryos overlooked by Bailey:
"The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. It is precisely this ability that breaks down at the moment of death, however death might occur. Dead bodies may have plenty of live cells, but their cells no longer function together in a coordinated manner."
From conception forward, human embryos clearly function as whole organisms. “Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances.”
Moment of Conception
Philosopher David Boonin discounts the pro-lifer’s claim that the newly conceived zygote is a distinct, living, and whole human organism. How can this be, he argues, when we don’t know the precise moment during the conception process at which the new zygotic human being comes into existence? Here Boonin is both right and wrong. True, we don’t know exactly when during the conception process that the zygote comes to be. Some embryologists argue that it happens when the sperm penetrates the ovum while others point to syngamy, when the maternal and parental chromosomes crossover and form a diploid set. But as Beckwith points out, although Boonin raises an important epistemological question (When do we know that sperm and egg cease to be and a new organism arises?), he’s mistaken that his skepticism successfully undermines the pro-lifers strongly supported ontological claim that the zygote is distinct, living, and whole human being. “It may be that one cannot, with confidence, pick out the precise point at which a new being comes into existence between the time at which the sperm initially penetrates the ovum and a complete and living zygote is present. But how does it follow from this acknowledgment of agnosticism that one cannot say that zygote X is a human being?” Boonin, writes Beckwith, “commits the fallacy of the beard: Just because I cannot say when stubble ends and a beard begins, does not mean I cannot distinguish between a clean-shaven face and a bearded one.”