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There is no realistic controversy on when life begins

During oral arguments in the Dobbs case Dec. 1, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor asked Scott Stewart, Mississippi’s solicitor general, whether his argument that abortion takes a human life could be “anything but a religious view.”

After all, she said, philosophers have “hotly debated” the issue since time began. “When,” she asked, “do you suggest we begin that life … apart from religion”?

One place Justice Sotomayor might have looked for enlightenment is the scientific discipline that studies such things.

Standard medical school embryology textbooks record the fusion of sperm and ovum at fertilization as the beginning of new human life, and have done so for decades. The 11th and latest edition of Moore and Persaud’s The Developing Human (2018), which is used by medical schools all over the United States including UNMC, says “Human development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, the zygote,” which “marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

In 2018, researcher Steven Andrew Jacobs asked American biologists their opinion on the question, “When does a human life begin?” and 5,577 responded, with 96% of them replying that life begins at fertilization. If that is not scientific consensus, I’m not sure what is.

Moreover, by the time Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the science on when a distinct human life begins had already been settled for 100 years. The human ovum, though theorized in the 1600s, was finally first observed by Karl Ernst von Baer in 1827. By 1853, doctors could comment—and they did, as recorded by Marvin Olasky in his excellent book Abortion Rites—that biologists had proven human life begins at the moment of conception.

When the fusion of sperm and egg into a zygote was first actually observed by Oskar Hertwig in 1876, it simply confirmed what everyone already knew. That is why, as U.S. states passed a wave of pro-life laws protecting human life from fertilization onward in the mid-to-late 1800s, doctors led the charge.

Yet sitting U.S. Supreme Court justices—or one of them, at any rate—has the hubris to protest, in public, that human beings are simply incapable of knowing such things. The Nebraska Catholic Conference has encountered that protest in committee hearings at the Capitol from time to time as well.

There is no controversy over when human life begins. The truth of it is denied to shield pro-abortion ideological belief from examination of the logical consequences. We have been there before—either all human beings are legally recognized and respected as persons, or any person or group of persons can become expendable. Full protection of innocent human life is the only safeguard against the horrors of cold-blooded utilitarianism, whether expressed on the plantation or in the gas chamber, the work camp, or the laboratory.

Faith and reason, as Pope St. John Paul II said many times, go together. Faith is no obstacle to scientific knowledge. If anything, it appears that abandonment of faith is often the beginning of a sad journey that leads to the abandonment of reason as well.

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