A very controversial topic it is. For the purpose of this discussion let us state the basic definition of life as the ability to eat, grow, reproduce, excrete, move, and react to the external environment.
So when does human life begin? Many answers would be – when a child is born. Yes, when a child is born, it is a tiny creature new to this world we know. It cannot walk, talk, or do other advanced acts, and has to learn as time goes on. However, prior to this birth, the child, fetus to be more exact, can actually eat – it absorbs nutrients from the mother’s blood, grow – from one cell to a bouncing baby, excrete – waste products into the mother’s blood, move and react – yes, the pregnant mothers can confirm that. What about reproduction? Well, that’s another issue – for the females, they already have the highest number of eggs they would ever have in their lifetime – about 7 million eggs before birth (reduces to about 400 000 at puberty). However, they are not ready for reproduction, as we all know puberty needs to prepare the body for that. So do we say life begins when all the systems for the functions of life are fully operative? If we say yes, then life begins at age 9 – 13? Well, I doubt some of us would agree.
When does life start? When the heart starts beating. Sounds right, right? When does the heart start beating? At about 3 – 4 weeks after fertilisation. Do we have our final answer? Not quite. The eyes, nose and many other organs have not even begun to develop. Would you have a life without your other organs? Not really.
When does the human fetus begin to perform many of the basic functions of life? Some organs start functioning earlier than the others like the primordial brain starts as early as the third week. Not all organs are formed / functional at the same time. If we say life starts when the first organ starts developing, that would be too early because the organ has not matured enough. If we say life starts when the first organ to start development, becomes matured, that would be okay, right? The brain, however, is not mature even at childbirth, it has to grow for about two to three more years before it can be said to be mature. So life starts at age 2 -3? Er, maybe?
Some people would say life starts at conception. They have a point because the basic material to make you, and differentiate you from every other person, has been there in you as a zygote (father’s sperm + mother’s egg), from day 1. And the zygote, as a living cell, technically, feeds – on surrounding nutrients, grows – it became you, didn’t it? moves, reacts, excrete, and reproduce? Well, we can say, the zygote (one cell) became two-celled, which became four-celled… that’s good enough for the concept of reproduction? Not really, though it has some elements of reproduction that counts. So, overall, life begins at conception? Maybe.
The answer to this question is important for many other superficial issues in life, especially abortion. People talk about killing “another life” though they cannot specify when the life started. If we agree life starts at, maybe the fifth month, does that make termination of pregnancy at the fourth month okay? A topic for another day.
Medicine has a clue to the answer. There is a term called the age of viability. It is the age at which the fetus can survive outside the womb with necessary facilities. Before this age, the fetus cannot survive. Sounds great as a definition for the beginning of life right? No, because it is grossly dependent on the facilities available, it even ranges from region to region. It is 28 weeks in Nigeria, 20 weeks in the US. Is it acceptable if we say the commencement of human life depends on your location? Not good enough. Many babies delivered as early as the twentieth week have too poor a survival rate, for it to be termed the beginning of human life.
The time at which we can say the fetus has fulfilled the fundamental maturation for survival outside the womb is around age 32-34 weeks when the lungs (which are necessary for life of air intake, outside the womb) have matured. Most babies survive outside the womb when that milestone is achieved. So do we have a final answer? Does human life begin around 32-34 weeks after fertilisation? If we say yes, then what about the other babies born at the twenty-fourth week that still survived?
It is really a difficult question to answer. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section!