There Are Not Five Possibilities for When a Human Life Begins PDF Print E-mail

By Thomas A. Miller, M.D.
Common Ground - Occasional papers from Presbyterians Pro-Life
No. 6 - April 1993

Presbyterians hold varying points of view about when human life begins. The five most common viewpoints are:

(1) at conception, when a woman's unfertilized egg is fertilized by a male's sperm, producing a zygote,

(2) when the following criteria, developed by the Harvard Medical School, are met: (a) response to external stimuli, (b) presence of deep reflex action, (c) presence of spontaneous movement and respiratory effort, and (d) presence of brain activity as ascertained by the electroencephalogram. These criteria would be met by the end of the third month in almost all cases.

(3) at "quickening," when movements can be subjectively perceived by the woman, usually around four to five months.

(4) at "viability," when the unborn child is potentially capable of living outside the woman's womb with artificial help (life support system). Today, our medical technology makes this possible at around 20 weeks.

(5) at birth, when the baby is physically separated from the woman and begins to breathe on its own.

Those holding these varying points of view agree, however, that after human life has begun, it is to be cherished and protected as a precious gift of God.

While Presbyterians do not have substantial agreement on when human life begins, we do have agreement that taking human life is sin.

 from the policy development section (Section E) of the General Assembly document, "Problem Pregnancies and Abortion," adopted June 1992, page 11, column 2. 

At the June 1992 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a document was adopted on the subject of Problem Pregnancies and Abortion. This document is a modification of a majority report prepared by the task force appointed by the General Assembly's Moderator in 1988. Having been a member of that task force I am fully familiar with the details of that majority report and the modifications that were made by the commissioners at the General Assembly.

I have been a practicing physician for over two decades and for nearly 17 years on a major medical school faculty. In that capacity as an educator, one of my roles is to insure accuracy of information for seminars, formal lectures, scientific articles and books. Thus, accuracy of information is extremely important to me.

The medical and scientific factual inaccuracies in the final report adopted by the General Assembly have serious and far reaching implications for decision-making in issues surrounding abortion and problem pregnancy. The paper lists five possibilities for when a human life begins. I would like to point out to members and friends of the Presbyterian Church (USA) that there are not five scientifically valid possibilities for when a human life begins. Thus I would like to comment on each of the possibilities proposed in the document and explain why only one is acceptable medically and scientifically

Life begins at birth
I will start with the last possibility proposed and work backwards to the first. The fifth beginning point suggested by the report is birth itself. Birth in its most irreducible definition means nothing more than a change in residence for an unborn child. At birth the child is separated from the environment of the womb to live outside it. To equate birth with the commencement of human life is to ignore totally a huge body of medical information that has been available for most of this century that concerns itself with what is happening to the child in the womb prior to birth. If labor is chemically induced a week before the mother would have gone into labor naturally, does the child become human a week sooner than it would have otherwise?

We have known for thousands of years that there is an active, developing child in the womb. Common scientific technology now records that activity and growth in detail. It is ludicrous to imply, as this definition does, that the activity in the womb is irrelevant and that there is no life until birth.

Further, if birth defines life, then the whole field of fetal surgery makes no sense. For over a decade fetal surgery has been used to treat various problems of unborn children. The child is taken out of the mother's womb, the defect is repaired, and the child is then returned to the womb to complete his or her development in preparation for birth. Operations on unborn children have been performed as early as twelve weeks. Inherent in these surgical procedures is the understanding that the unborn child is a full fledged human being. (1) Birth has nothing to do with humanness or when a human life begins.

Life begins at "viability"
Possibility #4 proposes the beginning of a human life as "viability," the term used to indicate when the unborn child potentially is capable of living outside the mother's womb, with or without life support technology.

The time during a pregnancy at which a child reaches viability has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. The increasing sophistication of technology has been a significant factor in the change. But our enhanced understanding of fetal development and what is required to promote that development coupled with the capability of medical personnel to provide the necessary support services are also important factors which enable premature babies to develop to a point where they have a reasonable chance of living without support at earlier and earlier ages.

Twenty years ago babies had a reasonable chance of survival by 30 weeks. Today, babies born at 20 weeks have survived. Thus viability is greatly influenced by the sophistication of medical support services available as well as by the ability to implement them. It has nothing to do with humanness or when a human life begins.

Life begins at "quickening"
Possibility #3 places the beginning of a human life at "quickening," a term which describes a woman's first sense of movement in her womb during her pregnancy. Some women have been known to sense such movement as early as three months into the pregnancy. Most women perceive movement sometime between four and four and one half months. But the perception of such movement by some women has been delayed as long as six to seven months. It is influenced by such factors as the sensitivity of the mother to her pregnant state, the activity of the unborn child (which can vary greatly from one child to another), the relative body weight of the pregnant mother and her own level of activity.

With the assistance of ultrasound a woman can observe the active child she may not yet be able to feel. Quickening is a matter of sensation and has nothing to do with defining humanness or when a human life begins.

Life begins when the criteria of the Harvard Medical School are met
Possibility #2 takes four criteria developed by the Harvard Medical School for another purpose and applies them as a definition of the beginning of life. The most important thing to be said about this definition is that the criteria have been taken out of the context in which they were originally intended. They were developed in an effort to define brain death in order to provide guidance in determining when a human being may be declared dead. They were not intended to define humanness.

In the 1960s a committee at Harvard Medical School developed the four criteria to define when the brain was truly alive. The criteria consisted of:

    1. response to external stimuli, such as pinching to elicit pain;
    2. the presence of deep reflex action, such as what happens when a doctor takes a reflex hammer and taps the knee; 
    3. the ability to breathe and move spontaneously, and 
    4. the presence of brain wave activity as demonstrated on an electroencephalogram (EEG).

      The presence of even one of the four criteria is sufficient to establish brain life. (2)

But the criteria assume the presence of a human being to whom they are being applied. The Harvard Criteria simply provide a gauge to ascertain the functioning of the brain. They do not determine humanness or when a life begins.

Life begins at conception
The only medically and scientifically accurate and acceptable definition for when a human life begins is #1, namely at conception. Conception is that moment when a woman's egg is fertilized by a man's sperm. The result of this union of two cells is one unique cell known as the zygote. This single cell contains all the ingredients necessary for growth, development, and differentiation into the organ systems of a human adult. The zygote of each human being is distinctly different from every other human being.

A common misunderstanding is that the zygote possesses only potential human life rather than actual human life. From a scientific standpoint, this assumption is invalid. Neither the egg nor the sperm is a human being. Only when the egg and sperm unite to form the zygote does a new human life begin. If the egg is not fertilized, it will die in approximately 24-36 hours after its release from the ovary into the fallopian tube. If a sperm does not unite with an egg to bring about fertilization, it will die within 48-72 hours.

The zygote, on the other hand, is totally self sufficient and independent in terms of its ability to develop into an adult human being. It needs no more than a proper environment of oxygen and nutrients to develop its recognizable human parts: head, arms, legs, and the various organs. The zygote is not potential human life, but actual human life. It will never develop into a dog, cat, or any other creature. Its destiny is to become an adult human being for human life is what it is. (3)

The most serious implication: multiple definitions are used to justify killing unborn children
Immediately following the listing of the five possible definitions the abortion report says that, "Those holding these varying points of view agree, however, that after human life has begun, it is to be cherished and protected as a precious gift of God. While Presbyterians do not have substantial agreement on when human life begins, we do have agreement that taking human life is sin (page 11, column 2)."

These statements hold Presbyterians to the objective biblical standard that killing an innocent human being is sin, but allow us to ignore the objective scientific standard for the beginning of a human life. This lets us justify any abortion by saying we are not sure whether the one we are killing is human. One writer has observed that "The very considerable semantic gymnastics which are required to rationalize abortion as anything but taking a human life would be ludicrous if they were not often put forth under socially impeccable auspices." (4)

I have tried to make clear that there is no ambivalence from a medical and scientific standpoint: human life does in fact begin at the moment of conception. That point of beginning is demonstrated repeatedly in in vitro fertilizations. Regardless of what an ecclesiastical body declares, this fact of life remains. It is disheartening that such sloppiness and unwillingness to deal with known truth is permitted by a church body that should be committed to truth. It is incomprehensible that our Church, which should love life and do everything in its power to preserve life, condones the intentional killing of unborn children by abortion and justifies that killing by suggesting that there is no agreement as to when a human life begins.

Human life begins at conception, as every piece of medical evidence demonstrates. The taking of human life by abortion can be nothing less than the killing of an innocent human being. May God help our Church to deal with this issue in truth and righteousness and quit deceiving its membership with information that contradicts well known scientific fact!


1. A thorough discussion of this type of surgery appears in the book entitled The Unborn Patient (second edition, W.B. Saunders Co., 1991) by Harrison, Golbus, and Filly.

2. Because all of these features of brain life are present when an unborn child is eight weeks old, the argument has been made that if terminating life support in an adult when these responses are present is murder, then to be consistent, terminating the life of an unborn child at eight weeks or older is also murder.

3. For those interested in learning more about the beginning of human life and its scientific basis, I recommend a book entitled The Concentration Can by Dr. Jerome Lejeune, published by Ignatius Press, 1992. Dr. Lejeune is one of the most distinguished geneticists in the world and is currently professor of Genetics at Rene Descartes University in Paris, France. He is the man responsible for identifying the chromosomal abnormality that gives rise to Down's Syndrome. The book concerns a trial in which he testified several years ago about whether embryos resulting from in vitro fertilization are in fact truly human. His testimony was instrumental in determining the outcome of this trial. The judge found the evidence incontrovertible that human life begins at conception. This is one of the most important books currently available on the medical and scientific evidence substantiating the fact that a human life begins at conception.

4. from "A New Medical Ethic," California Medicine, September 1970.

At the time this was written, Thomas A. Miller, M.D., F.A.C.S. was Professor and Vice Chairman of Surgery in the Department of Surgery at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, and held a professorship in the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences of the University of Texas at Houston. He is married and the father of three children, and is an ordained elder in the PC(USA).

You knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place.
When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body.
All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
Test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:13 16; 23 24



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