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No consensus on when human life begins

3 November 2008
Appeared in BioNews 482

An international poll has shown a range of opinions about when human life begins biologically. It comes ahead of a proposed constitutional amendment in Colorado, US, which could confer legal rights to embryos at the point of fertilisation.

The poll was commissioned by Reproductive Biology Associates, an IVF clinic in Atlanta, Georgia. Respondents were asked when human life begins and given a dozen answers, ticking the one they most agreed with. Overall, 23.5 per cent of voters selected detection of fetal heartbeat as the point when human life begins. Just under 23 per cent selected fertilisation, and implantation of the embryo in the womb lining came third, with 15 per cent. Around 650 people were polled.

Colorado's constitutional amendment proposes that fertilisation is when human life begins, and also that this is when someone becomes a person, deserving the same legal rights and protection under the US constitution as any child or adult citizen. If it gets voted for, it could make it easier for abortion to be outlawed in Colorado, and encourage similar amendments to be made in other US states.

Jaclyn Friedman of Reproductive Biology Associates spoke to New Scientist magazine. She stressed that the poll question asked respondents when they thought human life began in a biological sense of being an original entity. 'We didn't ask when it's a person,' she said. 'There's a distinction between when a group of cells is considered living, and when it deserves human rights, and that's what comes into play with this amendment.'

The full results of the poll will be announced in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) next week. It demonstrates the wide religious and geographic spread of opinion on when biological life begins. Roman Catholics had the highest proportion voting for 'sperm-egg' fusion, around 31 per cent. In contrast, a third of Jewish respondents, 29 per cent of agnostics and 27 per cent of Muslims opted for fetal heartbeat.

Geographically, only 13 per cent of UK respondents opted for 'sperm-fusion', with 43 per cent choosing 'fetal heartbeat'. In contrast, 47 per cent of Australasians voted for 'sperm-egg' and only 7 per cent for ' fetal heartbeat'. In North America 27 per cent choose 'sperm-egg', 24 per cent 'fetal heartbeat' and 18 per cent 'implantation'.

No global consensus on when human life 'begins' biologically
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When does human life begin?
New Scientist |  29 October 2008
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