EXPLAINER

When does “life” begin? When it comes to abortion, it depends on what you mean by "life"

Perhaps surprisingly, the word “alive” has a lot of nuance. A philosopher explains why

By Nathan Nobis

Published April 2, 2022 10:00AM (EDT)

Anti-abortion and pro-choice demonstrators wave their signs outside the United States Supreme Court Building during the former group's annual March for Life, Washington DC, January 22, 1989. Among the visible signs are 'Equal Rights Begin in the Womb,' 'Life Begins at Conception,' and, on the other side of the issue, 'Keep Abortion Legal.' (Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Anti-abortion and pro-choice demonstrators wave their signs outside the United States Supreme Court Building during the former group's annual March for Life, Washington DC, January 22, 1989. Among the visible signs are 'Equal Rights Begin in the Womb,' 'Life Begins at Conception,' and, on the other side of the issue, 'Keep Abortion Legal.' (Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

"When does life begin?"

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was asked this question on the second day of her confirmation hearings to the Supreme Court. This question is asked in nearly all public discussions of abortion.

Critics of abortion tend to think that the answer to this question — that "life" begins at conception, or soon after — is obvious, scientific, and shows that abortion is wrong, is indeed murder, and should be illegal.

Pro-choice advocates may accept this framing of the issue by agreeing that the question is important, but instead argue that "life" begins at birth, or the first breath, or far later in pregnancy after most abortions occur. (Or they argue that the question is irrelevant since, they claim, the right to one's own body justifies abortion, regardless of whenever "life begins").

To many, it seems like the debate of "when life begins" is irresolvable. This is unfortunate since this failure to make progress is largely a result of people not asking what the question means, or clarifying what is being asked, and listening carefully to try to understand the range of answers.


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As a philosophy professor who teaches logic and critical thinking, I suggest that asking the simple, but powerful, question, "What do you mean?" and seeking to understand different answers could help us move past this debate to more important, and challenging, ethical and legal questions about abortion.

Moving forward is of vital importance at this moment in history since the Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the summer that could restrict or ban abortion across much of the United States. If members of the court are motivated by unsound ethical arguments against abortion based on their views on "when life begins," perhaps there is still time for them to realize that and update, and improve, their understanding of the issues.

To begin, anti-abortion advocates are correct that the question, "When does life begin?" can have a scientific answer.

But these words can also be used to ask a type of question for which it is true that only "personal, religious, and otherwise beliefs" can answer, as Judge Jackson described her own views on the matter.

To understand what can be asked by "When does life begin?" let's consider the corresponding question, "When does life end?"

A human being's life usually ends with the death of their body: their heart stops beating and their lungs stop breathing.

People's "stories" can end before the death of their bodies. A body can be "alive" in a biological sense, but there is no "life" in this biographical sense that many people find to be most significant for understanding who they are and how they should be treated.

Many people believe, however, that someone's "life" can end even though their body remains alive. This is seen in cases of brain death, persistent vegetative states, and deep, irreversible comas where consciousness is completely lost, with no potential for return.

To vividly distinguish these two types of "life," imagine a 30-year-old of sound mind and body is in a horrible accident that renders her brain dead. Suppose, however, her body is kept alive for 10 years, and then it dies.

When did she die? When did her life end? When did she or her existence end?

Many people would answer that she lived for 30 years: her life, the person she was, ended when her consciousness ended in the accident. Yes, her body was alive for 40 years, but only in a biological sense of being "alive" or "life."

People who believe her "life" ended at 30 years aren't thinking about biological life. They are thinking about what philosophers call "life" in a "biographical" or "narrative" sense. This meaning of someone's "life" is about the "story" of that person: who they are and what their life, their existence as a person, is like.

People's "stories" can end before the death of their bodies. A body can be "alive" in a biological sense, but there is no "life" in this biographical sense that many people find to be most significant for understanding who they are and how they should be treated.

If you were the individual in this terrible accident, what would you want to happen to your living body? Should it be allowed to die soon? Should it be kept alive? If so, how long? 

To use Judge Jackson's words, these questions are "personal" and "religious." Different people will reasonably give different answers.

Some people believe that keeping their body alive is very important. Many people, however, will likely appeal to the loss of the mind or even their soul in acknowledging that their body should eventually be allowed to die. They believe that, if this were to happen to them, they would be gone from their body: no person would be there anymore. That even suggests that the question, "If you were in this accident, what would you want to happen to you?" might be incoherent: if you were in this accident, you would be no more — there would only be a body, but you would no longer exist. At least many would see it that way.

"The question of when our lives end is not a scientific question. It is really a question about questions. In cases like these, does "life" mean life in a biological sense? Or is "life" what we value from our ethical, "personal, religious, and otherwise" perspectives, concerning the beginning and ending of our "stories" as persons and what we value?

It's important to note that the question of when our lives end is not a scientific question. It is really a question about questions. In cases like these, does "life" mean life in a biological sense? Or is "life" what we value from our ethical, "personal, religious, and otherwise" perspectives, concerning the beginning and ending of our "stories" as persons and what we value?

Which question matters depends on where and why we are asking the question. If we are in a biology class, we are asking the biological question. But if we are seeking wise counsel about a hard life-and-death choice for a beloved relative, we are asking the ethical question. We know their body is biologically "alive" — that's obvious. What's not obvious is whether there still is a "life" in a sense that matters from our (ideally what was their) ethical or religious point of view.

My focus has been on the meanings of "life" that we see in end-of-life cases. These meanings, however, are just as relevant to when we begin to exist, when our "lives" begin, and what that means.

Embryos and beginning fetuses are, of course, biologically alive and biologically human: that's obvious and scientific. The issue though is that, for many people, being merely biologically alive isn't what matters: it's having a story, a biography, a "life" in that sense.

In ways that matter morally, if our "lives" end when our consciousness or minds permanently end, then it's plausible to also believe that "life" begins when consciousness begins: that is the start of us. We begin after our bodies begin: as embryos and beginning fetuses, our "stories" — what our lives are like, for us, from our point of view — haven't begun.

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So an embryo or a beginning fetus is a living body, but is not a "someone." This helps us understand (even if we don't quite agree) with those who say that "life" begins at birth: this is when we definitely become part of our families and communities.

When does a fetus develop consciousness? That's a scientific question. Earlier research suggested the third trimester; more recent discussions suggest perhaps the beginning of the second trimester. But around 9 of 10 of abortions occur before either of these estimates. So bans on abortion at 6 weeks affect fetuses that are, of course, biologically "alive," but are far from being "alive" in a biographical, morally-significant sense.

Abortion foes will insist that biologically alive embryos and beginning fetuses have the moral right (and should have the legal right) to become biographically alive: it is wrong to prevent that from happening, they argue.

Recognizing that the question "When does life begin?" is ambiguous — since the term "life" is ambiguous, meaning it can refer to different things — does help undermine the common pro-life insistence that abortion is obviously and even "scientifically" wrong since "life begins at conception."

Maybe, but why? To scholars who study the ethical arguments, there seems to be a broad consensus that anti-abortion arguments are not strong enough to determine policy and law for all: indeed, they can seem to be in the category of "personal, religious, and otherwise beliefs." They are not arguments that all reasonable people must accept and their freedom and liberty be constrained by.

Abortion critics will also argue there's a disanalogy between end-of-life cases and beginning-of-life cases since embryos and beginning fetuses are not brain dead: when and to the extent that they have brains, their brains are biologically alive. That's true, of course, but their brains are not "alive" in the sense related to being conscious and having experiences: the lesser-known concepts of "brain birth" or being "brain alive" do not yet apply to them.

Recognizing that the question "When does life begin?" is ambiguous — since the term "life" is ambiguous, meaning it can refer to different things — does help undermine the common pro-life insistence that abortion is obviously and even "scientifically" wrong since "life begins at conception."

This also "softens" and "humanizes" pro-choice appeals to bodily autonomy. Contrary to what some pro-choicers insist, people are sometimes morally obligated to help other people, even using their bodies to do so; the law doesn't require that, but maybe sometimes it should

But are women obligated to use their bodies to support beings that are merely biologically alive, but not biographically alive? Should they be legally compelled, with threats, force, and punishment, to support something that's not a someone, as laws banning abortion do? Put in these terms, the answers are easier than before.

Asking "What do you mean?" is important for many areas of life, since we often misunderstand other people, and even ourselves. This is especially true about complex ethical issues like abortion. Asking that question more often, and seeking to understand whatever answer we are given, is a key to making progress on these matters.

Do you know what I mean?

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Nathan Nobis

Nathan Nobis, PhD, is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Morehouse College. He is co-author of "Thinking Critically About Abortion."

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