When does life begin? That question has divided abortion supporters and opponents for decades.
But now, some 6,000 biologists that participated in a year-long academic study appear to have provided their own stark answer: At conception.
The author of the new study, Steve Jacobs, a newly-minted PhD at the University of Chicago’s School of Comparative Human Development, has begun promoting the idea that the weight of scientific medical evidence supports the central claim of the nation’s anti-abortion movement.
It’s not quite true but it makes for great headlines.
Jacobs’ article summarizing the results of his survey was just published on the website of the online commentary magazine Quillete. It was also reproduced on the Real Clear Politics web site, which guarantees it wide circulation.
Jacob’s survey was a companion study to his dissertation, entitled Balancing Abortion Rights and Fetal Rights: A Mixed Methods Mediation of the U.S. Abortion Debate. For the companion study, Jacobs contacted biologists across the country by email and asked them to reply to a set of open-ended questions about reproduction and pregnancy.
Cleverly, Jacobs structured his survey questions in as scientific a manner as possible – and never suggested that results had any political or policy implications.
For example, one section of his survey prompted respondents to review and comment upon a series of scientific descriptions of the “fertilization” process.
One such description read: “In developmental biology, fertilization marks the beginning of a human’s life, since that process produces an organism with a human genome that has begun to develop in the first stage of the human life cycle.”
In their open-ended responses, 96% of the biologists appeared to affirm the view that human life indeed begins with “fertilization” – in effect, at “conception.”
But when Jacobs told the same biologists that his survey also “relates to the controversial public debate surrounding abortion,” many of them sent him hostile messages, questioning his objectivity.
“I did respond to, and fill in the survey, but am concerned about the tenor of the questions,” one biologist wrote. “It seemed like a thinly-disguised effort to make biologists take a stand on issues that could be used to advocate for or against abortion.”
“Sorry this looks like it’s more a religious survey to be used to misinterpret by radicals to advertise about the beginning of life and not a survey about what faculty know about biology,” said another.
A third was even blunter: “Is this a study funded by Trump and the Ku Klux Klan?”
Critics of the study say it doesn’t really answer the question of whether a woman has a right to terminate a pregnancy. In practice, that’s often a question of balancing the life of the mother against the life of her developing fetus.
Moreover, the biologists contacted weren’t actually commenting on the quality of life of a fertilized egg. Is it a baby, or a baby-to-be? Is the developing embryo even a fetus?
Still, in Jacobs’ view, the biologists’ answers seem to tilt the abortion debate toward those that argue that embryonic mammalian life is “human.” In theory, destroying that embryo means destroying “human” life. To abortion opponents, that’s horrifying – indeed, immoral.
Jacobs’ study comes at a time as many states are debating whether to revise the Roe v. Wade standard of the first trimester of pregnancy as the legal cut-off point for a woman’s right to an abortion.
Some states are trying to reduce that period from 24 to 20 or even 15 weeks based on more recent medical evidence that a fetus might survive outside the womb at an earlier date than once believed. Other states have tried to introduce a “heartbeat” law that would preserve the life of a fetus almost since its inception.
Jacobs’ study might be used as fodder to support these laws, suggesting that the nation’s biologists actually support them. Arguably, though, the study merely re-states the obvious: a fertilized egg is a “life form.”
That doesn’t mean it mean it has legal rights – or “personhood” — on par with those of the mother.
Roe v. Wade largely sidestepped the theological and moral issues raised by abortion. On the one hand, as long as a fetus could not survive on its own outside the womb, it was not yet a “baby,” but a part of the mother’s body, the Supreme Court reasoned in its historic 5-4 decision.
Furthermore, decisions regarding its status were to be made by the mother in consultation with her physician and would be protected under federal privacy law, the Court said.
At the same time, the Court pointedly rejected the argument that women had an “unconditional” right to an abortion. After the first trimester, other factors, including the rights of the developing fetus and its father and the “interests of society,” might well come into play, the Court argued.
Many involved in the abortion debate feel that revisiting Roe v. Wade may be long overdue. While abortion opponents want to roll back the law, some abortion supporters would like to see a more forceful defense of abortion as a basic legal right.
Jacobs’ study, while seemingly dispositive, or least consequential on its face, won’t actually resolve this debate. But then again, probably nothing will.