"Life begins at conception"

Mary Elizabeth Williams declares herself a pro-choice liberal, but wants to concede that "life begins at conception". To her, this is undeniable common sense. But in fact, there is actually a very solid reason to doubt that any human's lifespan starts as early as conception.  At conception, what exists is a single-celled zygote.  That zygote contains the makings of not just the embryo (fetus, etc.), but of all the structures that will support the embryo (fetus, etc.)--the placenta, amniotic fluid, etc.  Imagine (only somewhat analogously) a very full box you take off the shelf at Ikea (with great effort!). The box contains the makings of a bed, but also instructions, tools, packaging, styrofoam, etc.  You take it home and put together the bed, discarding everything else.  Would you say the bed started its lifespan as the full box? No, of course not.  There is no bed until a bed has started to take form and become separate from everything else that was in the box.  And at the point, it really makes no sense to say "the bed was once the full box."

Likewise, once an embryo has become differentiated, a few weeks into gestation, it would make no sense to say it started its lifespan back when there was just a zygote. The zygote is analogous (somewhat--this is not a perfect analogy) to the full bed-box. It's a forerunner of the embryo and all the support structures.  I think the very common idea that life could start at conception stems from ignorance about what a zygote is.  It's not an embyronic human being yet.  It's a kit for making a human being, including components for housing, protecting, feeding, etc.  You might be able to convince yourself that you were once an embryo (I think this is an intelligible position), but it really makes no sense to think you were once a zygote--a people-kit. No you weren't!  You came from a people-kit, but you weren't one.  It's much like in the bed/box example: the Ikea bed came from the  box, but beds don't start their careers being boxes.  No equal sign would make sense up there, between the box and the bed, and no equal sign would make sense between a zygote and an embryo (or fetus or baby).


Paul Sunstone said...

Very interesting post! What you say strikes me as compelling.

This might only be a quibble about semantics, but I take objection to the word "life" here. Life seems to me a poor choice of word because it doesn't really begin at conception. Both the sperm and egg are alive before conception. If they weren't, there would be no conception.

Alan Cooper said...

Is the "bed" really a bed before you add the mattress?

I share Paul's "quibble" about life (which actually began 4 or 5 billion years ago), but think it's just the tip of an iceberg.

All of the words that philosophers think they can define precisely - in real life they squirm and slip through our grasp at will. Of course the Zygote is alive, and also certainly a human tissue. Perhaps in some views it is not a "person", but in others it may be. Not only is the issue confounded by the fact that such words are often defined in terms the moral obligation earned buy the object (which different people feel differently), but in fact there really are no sharp lines even in purely physical terms (though for legal purposes we can agree to accept definitions which are sharp enough most of the time).

The whole concept of labeling and classifying things exactly is doomed. But that's not the end of the world; even though no statement is completely unambiguous in and of itself, we can still work towards further clarification to approximate the intended meaning.

Anonymous said...

Maybe I miss the point, but what's the value of this kind of considerations?

My skin cells are human and alive, but clearly don't have any particular moral status. I don't see why it should be any different with zygotes.

Jean Kazez said...

I agree with everyone that there's an ambiguity when we speak of life beginning at conception. A zygote is obviously alive. It might be something new as well as well, so a new life in some sense. But what people mean when they say "life begins at conception" is that the lifespan of an individual like you or me begins at conception--when the sperm has fertilized the egg. The bed-box argument I'm making here says this just cannot possibly be true.

As to when beds have become beds--there's a question when exactly happens (does the mattress have to be in place?), but one thing's clear--there is no bed yet at the point when the full box is sitting there. It's also quite clear there is a bed, once you're kid is sleeping in it. So there are truths of the matter about when beds do and don't exist, despite the fact that there are also borderline cases.

Jean Kazez said...

Your not you're...and ignore the typos!

bb said...

Your boxed-bed analogy reminds me of the pizza/abortion episode of Seinfeld (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3lOG3rD5CrQ)

KRAMER: It's not a pizza 'till it comes out of the oven!

POPPY: It's a pizza the moment you put your fists in the dough!

I think "life begins at conception" zooms in on one of the most fundamental aspects of our worldview. The religious or supernatural or dualistic view is that we "come into" this world, while the natural or non-dualistic view is that we "grow out of" this world. I sometimes think that humanity must come to terms with the latter if we are to survive the hard-hitting realities of environmental destruction, global warming, and the like.