November 9, 1989

When Life Begins

Life begins at forty???

Meredith Runner, at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor Maine, discovered that if you give certain hormones to immature female mice that they would shed a lot of eggs. If you then mate the mouse to an oversexed male mouse, you got lots of embryos, which can then be implanted into another female mouse. This was about 30 years ago. He couldn't imagine what a can of worms he was opening up.

Two questions immediately come to mind: why would he do this and how do you produce oversexed male mice? He did it to find out which traits are due to heredity and which are due to the uterine environment. He produced an oversexed male mouse by putting a new female mouse in heat in with him every night for a week. He claimed that after a week of this, the mouse would mount your finger if you put it in the cage.

I'm sure that he could envision the technique's eventual use in man, but he could never have imagined the legal battles that would result. Who owns the embryos, the mother or the father? When does life begin?

Biologically, life doesn't begin at all; it only continues. No life as we know it can exist except from previous life. A sperm and egg are both alive but, except under very special circumstances, are incapable of reproducing their cells. The cells of the joined egg and sperm (the zygote) can reproduce themselves and can differentiate into a human being, but only in the special environment of the uterus.

No one seems to be concerned about whether a sperm cell is alive. If sperm cells were "alive", every adolescent male would be guilty of mass murder. If an egg cell was considered to be alive, every woman would be guilty of monthly child abandonment.

The argument about when life begins is a consequence of the fact that a number of people consider the act of abortion to be sinful. In some cultures, in pre birth control days, the killing of newborns was considered an acceptable form of birth control, particularly when the infants killed were female.

Surprisingly, many members of the groups that oppose abortion are also opposed to birth control. On the other side of the controversy are people who believe in birth control and believe that abortion should be available as an option, when unwanted pregnancy occurs.

The definition of when life begins is crucial to the legality of abortion. If an embryo is considered human life, then abortion can be considered as murder. If life is LEGALLY defined, as it is now, as being that stage in life when an embryo is capable of surviving outside of the body of the mother, then abortion is not murder. Even this continues to get more complicated. It is now possible for a premature infant to survive at a much earlier age than was possible ten years ago.

The arguments on the abortion issue have nothing whatever to do with biology. They have to do with moral values and the law. Therefore, a law or an initiative which defines when life begins is of concern to both anti abortion and pro choice advocates. Defining the begining of life as occurring at conception could make abortion murder and, therefore, illegal.

While some claim that life begins at conception and others that life begins at birth; I maintain that life really begins when the last child leaves home and the dog dies.

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