The Value of Early Human Life

“If God wanted men to fly,” the old saying goes, “He would have given us wings.” We laugh about that attitude now, even as we wait nervously for our airplane to take off. Today, more than ever, we are children of science. Of all the ways of knowing about our world, science has assumed a place of special honor by spawning an endless stream of technological marvels—the tools of our material existence. It is to science that we look for cures, comfort, and the provision of our physical needs.

Indeed, more and more people coming into the world are children of science in the most literal sense. They are the products of a technology that enables the conception, development, and birth of human life. Artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization (IVF) are controversial chapters in this unfolding story, but we also must consider drugs, surgical procedures, and other techniques designed to aid the safe delivery of countless healthy children. The relentless advances of modern, rational medicine are proclaimed everyday, but the same drive has led to techniques that prevent conception and birth. Abortion bears the highest profile here, but chemical and physical contraceptive methods arguably have had a greater impact on the general population.

Like air travel, medical technology has become an integral part of our world. And, like powered flight, we may neither like this technology nor understand the science behind it. In the end, despite our lack of personal knowledge and the catalog of unknowns, life has ceased to be a mystery. Microscopes allow us to see the sperm and egg cells, and witness their union. Embryology, genetics, and biochemistry allow us to understand some of what happens when they meet, how the two cells become one and how it, in turn, becomes many. Not only can we observe these events directly or indirectly, we can manipulate them. Doctors can extract several eggs from a woman, fertilize them outside the body, implant one or two, and freeze the rest for later use. They can look under their microscopes to see which embryos appear the most viable, test for genetic abnormalities, and use ultrasound to check the size, sex, position, and overall development of the fetus.

These newly found capabilities introduce a host of ethical concerns. For thousands of years, people have understood that the womb held the unborn child. It was sufficient to consider our attitudes toward life from this point until death. Even so, medical choices concerning the preborn were limited compared to the tools of modern technology. Today, by going to a medical specialist, hopeful parents can control conception. And those same parents can choose to end that pregnancy if prenatal tests show that the child has, or will have, a medical problem that no existing tool can fix.

Such technology is of moral concern because it involves humans making decisions about the lives of other humans and, generally speaking, societies have put a high priority on making rules about those decisions. For example, it serves a very practical purpose to limit the situations in which it is acceptable to take life. After all, if it is too easy to kill, it is too easy to be killed. In the case of the preborn, many societies today have decided that its members’ quality of life is more important than the mere existence of human life. This means that a woman’s desire to end her pregnancy takes precedence over the death of her unborn child.

Yet these decisions have not come easily. Many citizens of the nations possessing advanced health-care systems believe that human life is all important, not for secular reasons alone, but because life has an inherent, God-given sanctity (Major, 1989).


Ever since its inception, the most pressing issue of IVF has been the destruction of supernumerary or “spare” embryos (Thompson, 1993, pp. 23-24,26). For the most part, these were, and continue to be, the by-product of a medical service intended to assist in conception and pregnancy. But the route from science to technology goes both ways. It soon became apparent to embryologists and other researchers that clinics were a good source of fertilized eggs for scientific investigation.

Individuals concerned for the sanctity of life opposed this development on the grounds that human life begins at conception. As such, it is worthy of protection from this point forward. The loss of early human life in IVF procedures was bad enough, but the idea that these individuals would become laboratory subjects on a par with mice and guinea pigs was positively ghoulish.

People defending the use of embryos for research share the prochoice position that the status of the preborn takes secondary place to other interests. These may include a woman’s desire for an abortion, or a researcher’s belief that his studies on embryos will benefit science and human health.

In the shadow of this debate, many nations moved slowly but surely toward embryo research. Australia, Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have approved research on embryos up to the fourteenth day of development, but restrict the creation of embryos specifically for research. In the United States, former President Ronald Reagan put an outright ban on federal funding of embryo and fetal tissue research. This was lifted almost as soon as President Bill Clinton took office, and an advisory committee to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has adopted guidelines similar to those of its international counterparts (see sidebar article).

Ireland, Spain, and other countries with a strong Catholic tradition have placed strict limits on embryo research. Their objections are based primarily on the Vatican’s longstanding position that life begins at conception. Germans, also, have restricted such research, ever mindful of cruel experimentation by Nazi doctors, and the subsequent postwar adoption of a constitution recognizing the inherent dignity of human life (Dickson, 1988). Although France passed a relatively conservative bioethics law, it authorized the destruction of 11,000 supernumerary embryos stored in freezers (Butler, 1994).

Despite pockets of resistance, the outlook for human life in its earliest stages remains a cause for grave concern. As the demand for embryos increases, so grow the justifications for their use. Many arguments relate to the abortion issue in general, but new technologies and trends require us to focus particular attention on life in the first few days and weeks of pregnancy.


Life Begins at Conception

The reasons for believing that life begins at conception are relatively straightforward.

  • Conception involves the union of a human father’s sperm with a human mother’s egg. The basic rules of biology tell us that at this instance, the zygote (one-celled fertilized egg) possesses the full complement of human chromosomes—23 each from the mother and father. These chromosomes are special structures inside the nucleus of the cell containing genes that, in turn, consist of a complex chemical code known as DNA. Genes will direct the development of this new individual; they will decide sex, hair color, and countless other features.
  • Geneticists can analyze the DNA of the developing human and discern that its DNA is unique (i.e., that no one else has the same sequence of DNA). In other words, it is an individual member of the human species.
  • Although a zygote has no arms, legs, thoughts, or words, it will become an adult human if its development is not interrupted.

The preborn at any stage are fully human, and there is no objective way to deny them the respect and rights accorded to other humans.

From the Christian perspective, these secular arguments are buttressed by the Bible’s teaching on the sanctity of life. Although Scripture does not mention zygotes or abortion, it extends concern to the preborn. The following points are among the most important:

  • God can know about us, as individuals, before we are born, and God is responsible for creating the way fetuses develop during pregnancy (Isaiah 49:1,5a; Jeremiah 1:5).
  • There is no distinction in God’s eyes between the preborn and the born. For example, several passages in the New Testament use the same Greek word, brephos, to describe infants, the newly born, and a child within the womb (e.g., Luke 1:41-42, 2:12, and 8:15).

Therefore, the same divinely given laws that protect innocent human life outside the womb apply to life inside the womb (Genesis 9:6; Exodus 20:13; Proverbs 6:17).

The Unborn as Nonperson

Writers on the prochoice side generally accept the premise that pregnant human mothers carry developing human life. The departure usually occurs on philosophical arguments of what constitutes “personhood.” Some prochoice advocates argue that the unborn lack essential qualities of being a person, and hence, do not obligate us morally. Whatever ethical concerns we have for each other do not apply to human life before birth, and so our actions toward life in this stage are not, in themselves, either right or wrong. A slightly different view admits that the preborn have the status of persons, and that early human life has a value. In either case, the value of the preborn at conception is practically zero, and it never equals the value of the mother until at least the point of delivery.

One simple expedient is to claim that a preborn being is not one of “us.” We know they exist, but we cannot see them directly; we know they may interact with society, but not until their birth. As a result, ancient and modern societies have allowed themselves to make different rules about prenatal life. For example, the majority opinion in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade U.S. Supreme Court decision concluded that the unborn “have never been recognized in the law as persons in the whole sense.”

Making such a distinction between humanness and personhood rests on the criteria of form and function: an early human is not a person because it neither looks nor acts like us. Exploring these tests moves us on to ever more dangerous and subjective territory. First, how much should someone look like us to be treated as fellow human? Would it include newborns who, even in the loving eyes of their parents, look remarkably alien-like? Would it include people with gross skeletal abnormalities, such as the famous Elephant Man?

Second, how much would they have to act like us to be considered persons? The argument from function says that the unborn are not persons because they are not conscious or self-aware. According to Bonnie Steinbock, this means that the preborn have similar moral value to trees or paintings, but none of these warrants the same moral interest as people who have been born (see Warnock, 1993). Here, too, the cutoff point is arbitrary. What about comatose patients, or twelve- to eighteen-month-old infants who lack self-consciousness (Beckwith and Geisler, 1991, p. 133)?

Joseph Fletcher (of situation ethics fame) and James Watson (co-discoverer of the DNA molecule) have taken this reasoning to its logical conclusion. They argue for an across-the-board devaluation of humans who do not measure up to their personhood criteria, thus permitting abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia (Davis, 1984, pp. 9-12; Beckwith and Geisler, 1991, pp. 132-135).

The Unborn as a Potential Person

Even those who support abortion and allow for the personhood of prenatal life wish to draw the line at some point. This was the approach of an influential paper by Judith Jarvis Thomson. She set forth an idea resembling “voluntary parenthood,” which argued that a mother was not obligated to the care of her unborn child. [Her arguments begin to break down when we consider the way society normally holds parents responsible for children that do make it into this world (see Beckwith and Geisler, 1991, pp. 88-92).]

Notice, however, the condition that Thomson added to the end of her paper: “It should be remembered that we have only been pretending throughout that the fetus is a human from the moment of conception. A very early abortion is surely not the killing of a person, and so is not dealt with by anything I have said here” (1988, p. 255). In other words, it may take some justification to argue for the abortion of a fetus in the final two or three months, but no justification is required for the first few months.

Fourteen Days to Live

Such a distinction between preborn as person and preborn as nonperson has been set at specific points in development. For example, many national guideline-setting groups have agreed that zygotes and embryos warrant no special consideration before the fourteenth day. It is at this stage that a groove (the “primitive streak”) begins to form, and identifiable organs and appendages being to appear. Following the argument from form, an embryo that is less than two weeks old has a nonperson status because its individuality is not established or recognizable. For the sake of medical research, the human in this early stage is referred to as a pre-embryo, and it receives about the same level of respect as ordinary body tissue.

However, a comprehensive genetic test would show that the pre-embryo’s DNA is unique. Our inability to see hair color and facial features makes this early human no less of an individual. Further, the cells of this seemingly simple embryo will produce all the specialized cells of the body in a one-way transformation: once a skin cell, always a skin cell. No ordinary body cell can match the giant step of this extraordinary metamorphosis. Destroying a single embryonic cell in these first two weeks may greatly affect the development of the individual. The same cannot be said for body cells. As French geneticist Jérôme Lejeune has commented:

If I am looking at the mass of [body] cells growing, I know by my own experience in my lab for twenty years that a baby will never form itself in our bottles because we are growing cells taken from the body. On the contrary, we know that if the cell which is dividing is a fertilized zygote, a new individual is now beginning to emerge (1992, p. 50).

Several other arguments are offered for the 14-day limit. For example, John Godfrey (1995) noted that the mother’s genes alone dominate development in the first four days and so, without the father’s genes, this cannot be an individual. However, all the genes a person will ever have are present in this cell and, if left alone, will influence its continuing development. Whether genes function normally, abnormally, or not at all does not affect the humanness of the zygote.

Also, Godfrey pointed out that twins may share embryo cells in the first two weeks if two spermatozoa fertilized the egg. If it is impossible to know whether the embryo will produce one or two individuals, he argued, then we cannot call it an individual. But it seems that if two lives were at stake, then the life of this embryo is twice as valuable. Whether one or two individuals begin at conception, human life still begins at conception (Beckwith and Geisler, 1991, pp. 375-379).

Save the Egg!?

To ridicule the idea that life begins at conception, advocates of embryo research suggest that germ cells also are human life worthy of protection. They taunt prolifers to save the hundreds of thousands of eggs and billions of sperm that die every day. If the zygote is alive because it functions and contains human DNA, they reason, then eggs and sperm are alive because they function and contain human DNA (Godfrey, 1995). The difference is that germ cells and zygotes are not “alive” in the same sense. As Dr. Lejeune showed us with ordinary body cells, a germ cell would not, by itself, develop into a human being. Human life begins at conception because the cell contains human DNA and it is developing as a new individual.

The Viability Test

Another approach is to propose a sliding scale of moral value from conception to birth. This does not guarantee protection to the unborn at any stage; it simply suggests that we have less and less responsibility for the unborn as we approach conception.

Again, Roe v. Wade set an example on this issue by taking both approaches. On the one hand, the majority opinion granted no legal personhood to the unborn, and acknowledged only an increasing “potentiality of human life” as the fetus approaches term. On the other hand, it organized its decision around three three-month periods (trimesters) of normal pregnancy. The Court decided that the fetus was nonviable during the first trimester (i.e., a baby would not survive such a premature birth). Therefore, the State could not interfere with a woman’s decision to have an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy. However, it allowed the State to regulate and even prohibit abortion in the last trimester on the assumption that the fetus had reached viability, providing it did not threaten the life or health of the mother (the companion case, Doe v. Bolton, defined “health” in such a way as to allow abortion for any reason).

From the prolife standpoint, the issue of the preborn’s viability changes neither its humanness nor its need for our protection. And from a purely practical standpoint, viability is an ever-moving criterion because it depends on available medical technology. In the future, very premature babies may survive routinely.

Tall Oaks from Little Acorns Grow

Advocates of “potentiality” frequently illustrate their idea by comparing an acorn with a human zygote. An acorn, they would argue, is a potential oak tree, but it is not an actual oak tree, and it would be ridiculous to say they are equal (Thomson, 1988, p. 242). Similarly, a zygote is a potential person, not an actual person. The effect of destroying an acorn has some meaning, just as destroying a zygote has some meaning, but these actions are different from felling an oak tree or killing a human.

This analogy suffers from several problems, not the least of which is that it is not a good analogy: a dormant plant seed hardly is equivalent to an actively developing member of our own species. Even so, by rules of genetics an oak acorn and an oak tree have equal “oakness.” Similarly, the human zygote and human adult have equal “humanness.” To destroy the zygote is to destroy an actual human being, not a potential human being (see Alcorn, 1994, pp. 54-55).

D. Gareth Jones offered a variation on the acorn/zygote analogy (1994, 6:12-13). Imagine, Jones suggested, a student who enrolls for a course of study. At the beginning of the course he has the potential to pass, but he is not a passed student until he has fulfilled the requirements of that course. The student has value at the beginning, but the process of learning and passing the examinations changes him and gives him greater status. Similarly, Jones would argue, the embryo is a potential human, but the process of development confers increasing value until the time of birth, when it becomes an actual human being.

However, what if the professor decided to kick the student out of the course because he had too many students in the course already, or because he did not want any more students to pass the course, even though the student was allowed to enroll, paid his fees, had the potential to pass, attended lectures, and was completing assignments? Surely most observers, especially the student, would cry “Foul!” over such treatment. It is not a case of whether the student is actually successful or potentially successful, or whether he can or will pass, but how the school system treats him as a student.

With these added possibilities we have a better analogy because, like the professor who removes a student arbitrarily, IVF techniques and abortion end life that would develop and complete the “course” if left unhindered. Further, our responsibility to see that this life can survive is considerably greater in human terms than our responsibility to see that a student gets a passing grade. At least a student can make decisions that will affect his ability to succeed, whereas the embryonic human depends on the mother for its continued existence and birth. Further, a student can cry “Foul!” over his treatment; the most an unborn child can do is cry.

The intention is not to take Jones’ analogy to ridiculous ends, but to show that comparisons should not ignore that human life is at stake here.

Doomed to Death

The arguments offered in favor of IVF and research on embryos often cite the significant rate of spontaneous abortions (Jones, 1994, 6:8-11). Estimates of this rate vary from a third to two-thirds of all conceptions. By implication, because the deliberate act of fertilizing eggs in the natural way is prone to failure and “dooms” many embryos to death, then why worry about the mortality of embryos in artificial reproduction?

For example, if we start with six eggs, fertilize them successfully, implant four in a willing mother, two of which develop into children, and pass two on for research and eventual disposal at the 14-day limit, then our embryo death rate (four out of six, or two-thirds) is no worse than if we tried to achieve pregnancy the natural way. [Actually, the loss of embryos by IVF procedures is probably four times higher than in natural procreation (Jones, 1994, 6:9).]

However, there are some crucial differences. In the laboratory version, two embryos were discarded intentionally. In the natural version, all embryos have a chance to develop; if they were spontaneously aborted, it was probably because of developmental problems, either within the embryo itself or in the mother. One decision involved a deliberate attempt to end life; the other gave life a chance to proceed along its natural course.


Advances in science have allowed humans to control the stunning feat of their own procreation. Yet in the very act of satiating curiosity, we have become indifferent to the object of our study. In the epitome of reductionism, the new life lying in a glass dish has become nothing more than a biological product of physical and chemical reactions.

The same cold science tells us that when a human sperm unites with a human egg, a human zygote is formed. For the first four days its genetic uniqueness has not been set, but it will be if unhindered. For the first two weeks it has no distinct body parts, but it will if unhindered. For the first few months it may not be able to survive outside the womb, but it will survive if unhindered. For the entire pregnancy it does not interact with other human life on a social level, but it will if unhindered. For the first eighteen months it is not self-aware, but it will become this way if unhindered.

There is no logical stopping point at which we can measure quality of life, personhood, or physical appearance and capabilities. All these criteria are important, but all mean nothing unless we first consider the essential humanness of life from conception to adulthood. This brings equal responsibility to all humans. What we must value is not the quality of life, but life itself.

The same unequivocal humanness and inherent worth are enshrined within the pages of the Bible, which makes no distinction between life in the womb and outside the womb. All life from conception onward is personal and significant to God.


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Beckwith, Francis J. and Norman L. Geisler (1991), Matters of Life and Death (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).

Butler, Declan (1994), “Compromise Reached on Bioethics Bill,” Nature, 369:599, June 23.

Davis, John Jefferson (1984), Abortion and the Christian (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed).

Dickson, David (1988), “Europe Split on Embryo Research,” Science, 242:1117-1118, November 25.

Godfrey, John (1995), “The Pope and the Ontogeny of Persons,” Nature, 373:100, January 12.

Jones, D. Gareth (1994), “The Human Embryo: Between Oblivion and Meaningful Life,” Science & Christian Belief, 6:3-19.

Lejeune, Jérôme (1992), The Concentration Can (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press; published originally by Librairie Arthème Fayard, Paris, 1990).

Major, Trevor (1989), “Life: Sanctity or Quality,” Journal of Biblical Ethics in Medicine, 3:75-76, Fall.

Thompson, Bert (1993), The Christian and Medical Ethics (Montgomery, AL: Apologetics Press).

Thomson, Judith Jarvis (1988), “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, ed. J.R. Burr and M. Goldinger (New York: Macmillan, fifth edition; published originally in Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1971, 1[1]:47-66).

Warnock, Mary (1993), “Unborn Interest,” Nature, 362:421, April 1.


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