When Does Life Begin?

Scientifically speaking, life begins at conception. I will make a case for this from recent discoveries in genetics.

And if not conception, what human (or committee) can claim authority to when life begins, and for that matter, that life’s humanity begins. What juncture should we choose? When the heart beats? When the brain produces signals? We need some form of objective marker, or it’s just subjective opinion.

Objections to this claim often use a philosophical or legal argument, but in the face of mountains of evidence, it’s now really hard to make a scientific or medical case for human life, and that life’s humanity, beginning sometime after conception.

This is the issue at hand – who has the authority to make such a claim? Nobody. And without authority, and human life in the balance, why would we not err on the side of least damage?

What if we decide today that the heartbeat is the arbiter? After many millions more babies die, someone discovers it “must be” earlier, and now we have blood on our hands.

If we presume life begins at conception, we will preserve life after this, and no blood on our hands.

Let’s face it, if we wanted to have a child, became pregnant, and worked toward this end, and a doctor told us we needed a “certain procedure” to “rule out” certain things, wouldn’t our first question be “will this endanger the baby?”

My wife and I encountered this very situation. The doctor wanted to order additional tests, one of which had a risk of miscarriage. He said “one in a hundred” chance. Sorry, that’s not good enough. Not one in a thousand, or one in a million. Invariably one of us has to be the sad recipient of that statistic, and we didn’t want to be “the one”. Our baby was born healthy. Now he’s two years away from entering college, handsome, funny, and is a pretty smart guy.

In human sperm/egg conception, scientists recently discovered  the male and female gametes (each with 23 chromosomes) never actually touch. Rather, a process gleans their information and knits together the 46 chromosomes of the new human. This process applies all the known genetic rules such as dominant and recessive genes, and replaces mutations where possible.

As I ponder this, I’ve been part of projects merging two complex information systems into one, and make deliberate choices on what to keep or throw away. None of them had three billion pieces of separately described information. I mean, some of the larger data tables had tens of billions of rows, but these were tables containing a hundred columns, and each column had its own description. In DNA, we’re talking about three billion separately described columns, a highly complex data system, indeed.

The resulting 46 chromosome blueprint is the biochemical description of the new human, and will not change all the way up to the day of death. This is the new human’s blueprint.

Some will now object and say – wait a second – we might have a blueprint of a building but we don’t have the building! While this may be true, the construction permits are in place, the money invested, suites of the building  leased or sold – the project breaks ground, and for all legal and operational purposes, that building is real – to a lot of people. They make plans for its physical reality.

If the process stopped at only the blueprint, we could potentially say the blueprint does not a human make, because we could stop the process.

But we can’t stop the process. We can’t pull the DNA, examine it, analyze it, put it back and restart the process. Once the fuse is lit, so to speak, a baby is under construction.

Given enough time, a baby will pop out of the womb. And that baby’s description is in that blueprint. It is unique and will belong to nobody else.

We could stop now, but there’s more.

Zygote is in control, from the first minute

When conception happens, the zygote immediately signals the mother’s body, hijacks the mother’s metabolism, takes over the hormonal system, digestive, circulatory, etc. and essentially turns the mother into a vessel for its own use.

Some believe this is a passive lump of tissue, not viable, etc. But it is fully integrated and interactive with an adult female human, as if the two were designed this way. Evolutionary thought has not produced a reasonable explanation for why – or how – the zygote is so intimately connected.

At it matures, it sends more signals to the mother’s body to produce site receptors, which are uniquely suited for attachment to the uterine muscles. When the baby is ready to exit, it sends signals to the mother’s body to produce oxytocin, which in large amounts, causes muscles to cramp.

Not to worry, as those site receptors draw the lion’s share of the oxytocin to the uterine muscles and they cramp – labor begins.

The baby even leaves behind instructions for the mother to start her breast milk production.

Bottom line – it takes a baby to make a baby! The mother’s body doesn’t carry any of the instructions on what to do as the baby matures in the womb. Only the baby is privy to this, and keeps the mother’s body apprised along the way.

In short, from a metabolic perspective, the baby is the Alpha in the relationship, not “passive tissue”.

Rigging and Scaffolding

A skyscraper goes up with giant chunks of iron, cables, a huge crane, all what we would expect to see – construction tools, rigging, scaffolding.

We understand the equipment and methods needed to construct the building are different than for its operation.

What if we had to build the structure and use it while it was underway? That is, the first floor is completely built-out and ready for occupancy before we build the second, third, etc?

But people don’t build things like that.

But that’s how a baby is built. Each construction step depends on the prior step. Imagine how much ingenuity we’d require to build a skyscraper this way, where each floor must be operational before proceeding. Moreover, some things we would have to build-out entirely, then rip-out the portions we didn’t want, almost like sculpting.

For example, at some point a pad of flesh forms on the end of the arm. Bones appear in the pad at regular intervals. Then an instruction comes down, initiating “programmed cell death” for the cells of the pad between each of the bones. When completed, the bone/flesh separate, and we have fingers.

Each step of the construction builds upon the last, because it has to maintain life for every cell along the way. It can’t come back to it later.

Each construction step is the same for every baby, because the baby carries the instructions in its DNA. It does not “download” this from the mother.

“Scaffolding” is the pad of flesh, which disappears or transforms to something else when its mission is completed.  When we see scaffolding at a construction site, it looks ugly, but it’s temporary. It’s there to support construction, but they will tear it down before the structure goes operational.

This “temporary functionality” and “tearing down” aspect is all over the human body when the baby is under construction.

Two of the more dramatic examples follow:

Foramen Ovale & Ductus Arteriosus

While under construction, the baby gets its oxygen and nourishment from its blood. But these are infused from the mother through the placenta. The baby’s lungs are not yet operational. This arrangement supports cellular respiration until the lungs come online (which won’t happen until the baby is born). In the meantime, two temporary circulatory “shunts” appear, as scaffolding, to support cellular respiration.

The first of these is a “hole” between the heart’s chambers (foramen ovale), so that blood may flow from the right atrium into the left atrium without going through ventricles. Once the heart is fully constructed, instructions for programmed-cell-death arrive to make the hole. The flesh around the hole is configured as a one-way valve.

Once blood leaves the left atrium, it normally enters the pulmonary artery on the way to the lungs, but the lungs aren’t functional yet. So there’s another shunt (ductus arteriosus) which bypasses the pulmonary artery into the aorta.

Once in place, these allow blood to flow freely through the baby’s body as supplied by the placenta, likewise enriched by the mother’s blood content.

When the baby takes its first breath, an interesting thing happens. The pressure in the left atrium changes and the foramen ovale’s valve closes over. Enzymes cause it to seal.  Likewise the ductus arteriosus collapses into a tough ligament. Now the blood is flowing through the heart like an adult human, and the lungs are supplying oxygen.

Important to understand, the pre-functional lungs are essentially “collapsed” with no air in them, and have liquid on their internal surface. Like two plastic sheets, simply inhaling air isn’t enough pressure to open them up. The surfaces are coated with a surfactant which enables the parts to separate rapidly. So when the baby takes a first breath, the lungs pop-open and the cardio-pulmonary system cuts-over to fully operational.

Think about how wonderful this is. A full operational-cutover from one method of supplying blood and oxygen, to an entirely different one. The two shunts are scaffolding for the temporary process, and shut down their function when the baby takes its first breath.

I recall bantering about this with a biologist who tried to split-hairs on respiration and that not all foramen ovales close-over. Sure, not all, but if genetic instructions are followed, it’s what they do. One in every four people keep the “hole in their heart” with no ill effects. Still others with a hole, have a life-event which stresses them, and the presence of the hole compromises heart function. Some die from this.

If the ductus arteriosus doesn’t close up however, this is a serious condition often leading to death.

The Recurrent Laryngeal Nerve (RLN)

Richard Dawkins thinks he gets a lot of mileage out of this gizmo, and claims that if this thing was designed, it’s “bad design”.

The RLN feeds the voice box. It descends from the brain, into the body cavity, around the aforementioned ductus arteriosus, and back up to the larynx. Why would God make a nerve for the larynx that does a round-trip into the body cavity and back? Why not just drop the nerve directly?

Because the RLN serves an initial purpose in “scaffolding” as well as a final purpose in supporting the larynx.

When the RLN is first constructed, it starts-off as the Vagus nerve. It is indeed wrapped around the ductus arteriosus, but as the baby grows in length, the elements of the Vagus nerve are laid down, more nerves are laid down, all while the baby is increasing in length. This is just one example of a nerve behaving like a “road crew” where the crew lays down layers for the crews behind them. It’s essentially a way to lay-down many nerves across the real-estate as the baby grows.

Once the baby is fully built, the RLN maintains its loop around the artery, even though the artery is about to turn into a ligament.  In fact, the RLN uses the ductus arteriosus like a pulley. It is gradually pulled into the cavity while the other construction mechanisms proceed on a master clock. The RLN is laid-down, forming other nerves and tissues, and finally settles into its role.

A benefit of the RLN arriving from below, is that not one but two nerves serve the larynx, and if either is damaged the other can carry on. If they both arrived on the same path, it is more likely both will get damaged from a single injury.

Yet another interesting area of study, is the RLN apparently induces signals from the lungs and heart, and may use this for automatically managing voice rhythm. As the larynx is driven by the lungs and controlled by the RLN, both work in tandem to manage how we sound.


And there you have it. These basic examples show the breathtaking detail, attention to careful construction, scaffolding, operational cutover, and of course, the baby’s constant control of the mother’s body to meet its final appointment – birth.

The baby and mother are an intimately integrated system, completely human from the moment of conception, not a struggling mass in the womb trying to find its way into existence.

With breathtaking detail, each layer we peel back reveals more intricate operation, almost like the simple hands of a Swiss clock, but underneath is eye-popping complexity driven with extraordinary timing.

A baby is human at the moment of conception. This isn’t conjecture, philosophy, or religion – it’s observable medical science.

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