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Author Topic: When does life begin?  (Read 3149 times)

Offline CliffordK

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When does life begin?
« on: 25/05/2012 01:40:33 »
I was sent this PM from another member today.  I assume the idea has been tossed around a bit, but it seemed best to answer in the forum.
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To cut a long story, I've been reading this forum for quite a while, Clifford.  I must say I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the posts over the short time.  I wonder if you would share your thoughts regarding the moment of conception? 

Now, I am of the opinion that life begins when the egg is fertilised.  Would you agree with my thoughts?  Or, do you believe that life begins when the egg is implanted?  I am aware of the fact that Lord Winston disagrees with me, and, honestly, if you are in a debate in the UK and Lord Winston beliefs/views are not in your corner, I'd say you are in trouble.  On a more serious note, what are your thoughts regarding the opinions of the scientific community?  Please back me up. ;-)  Of course this questions brings up a lot of philosophical biological, and ethical questions.

I look forward to hearing your insights.
« Last Edit: 28/05/2012 17:09:29 by imatfaal »


 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #1 on: 25/05/2012 01:40:46 »
Hello ,
I thought it would be better to present the topic to the forum to collect a variety of different answers.

The "beginning of life" is a complicated and politically and religiously charged issue.
For example, the UK has had issues of many human eggs collected, fertilized,  frozen, and stored, and then no longer wanted.  They were then destroyed even though there may have been demand for embryos. 

What makes a human a human?
I would say that it is our intelligence.

A blastocyst certainly has less insight into the world than the average cow that we EAT, or for that matter, the average garden slug.

You would be correct that the distinct genetic makeup of an individual is fixed at the time the sperm and egg join.  Yet, this newly fertilized egg has no more intelligence, nor really genetic distinctiveness than the average skin cell that goes through apoptosis, and is sloughed by the millions.

There are many things that might cause a fertilized blastocyst to not implant, and it may not be considered viable prior to implantation.  Even the 9 months of gestation is a difficult period, and many embryos are spontaneously aborted, often due to genetic and developmental abnormalities.

The brain, which I would consider a critical portion of humanity doesn't begin development until much later.  But, as the human embryo begins to form during the first trimester, the brain is still quite rudimentary. 

The second trimester would be marked by the fetus beginning to kick, and perhaps the beginning of its interacting with the world.  Perhaps you could consider this as the earliest possible point where humanity truly begins.

Anyway, overall the question of life before/after implantation is just semantics.  The genetic distinctiveness is there at both times, but perhaps the humanity isn't.

It is my belief that our current human population is in excess of what the planet can support.  And, even things such as quality of life of future generations would be improved if there was a moderate decline from the current population of about 7 billion.

I certainly believe that continued population GROWTH is bad for the planet, bad for the environment, bad for other animals on the planet, and bad for human posterity. 

So, personally I support methods that limit the growth of the population, and ensures that every child is “wanted”.  At the same time a woman can't just procrastinate forever.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with the “Morning After” drugs.  And, really, even first term abortion is justifiable.  One could say that when a fetus can be felt by the mother as kicking (not necessarily just movements visible in ultrasound), then it is too late, and one should let nature take its course in the absence of significant birth defects, or other risk factors to the the baby and mother.

For a little lighter satire...  Monty Python and Every Sperm is Sacred
« Last Edit: 28/05/2012 17:09:43 by imatfaal »
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #2 on: 25/05/2012 06:08:42 »
Every cell meets the criteria for life, so I guess  the fertilized egg is technically the beginning. It has a metabolism, it can divide and make more cells, it can respond to stimuli and maintain homeostasis. But I suspect what you are really asking is when is it a human being, or a person. What I've never understood about this argument is why people seem to automatically reject the idea of a continuum?

One thing I've noticed is that even though people often clearly separate themselves into two groups, one that believes a a fertilized egg is a human being, and one that rejects that idea,  the emotional reactions to a miscarriage are oddly the same. Both groups would probably agree that while disappointing,  the loss of a two week pregnancy would not be a "death" while the loss of 8th or 9th month pregnancy would be considered very traumatic. Why is that? How can their reactions be so similar when they fundamentally disagree?
 

Offline imatfaal

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #3 on: 25/05/2012 10:49:48 »
Sorry Guys - but this is not the place for this discussion.

The mods will decide whether to re-open the thread in another forum - but we cannot allow what will become an ethical/moral/religious discussion in the science boards.  This subject becomes too heated too quickly

Thread Locked pending discussion

 

Offline imatfaal

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #4 on: 29/05/2012 11:56:43 »
I have re-opened this thread but please be aware of the following
1. No preaching, proselytising, conversion, etc
2. No ad hominem arguments
3. Absolutely no insults,flaming, pejorative language.
4. Do no be surprised if your views are argued with and criticised.

Even though this is in Chat forum the discussion must still be science-orientated - appeals to perceived religious truths are not appropriate.
 

Offline graham.d

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #5 on: 29/05/2012 14:04:17 »
Good grief Imatfaal, I have seen more "religion" and proselytising in discussions on string theory. Although I can see that this is a subject that many people would have an opinion on, both scientists and non-scientists, it is also one in which scientists need to listen to and to understand the underlying moral and philosophical viewpoints. The world is developing science and trechnology (and its ability to affect our everyday lives) much faster than we are able to formulate our ethical positions and this, and many other subjects, are very important for all of us to understand. Maybe there should be a separate topic header for ethical debates but I certainly think it relevent to a science website; maybe it would be an unfortunate comment on scientists if it were not considered so. However your 4 points to remember are perfectly valid (as with other discussions) and I think you are right to unlock the thread.

Of course the answer to the original question is that nobody really knows when "life" begins. It could be said that a sperm and and unfertilised egg are also "life" although it is probably best to define it at conception. It has been the practice to refer to "independent" life so that it may be defined as the point where a foetus would not live if removed from the mother. This is more problematic now as science has pushed this time much earlier in the foetal development than used to be the case.

Our decisions on abortion are somewhat arbitrary and encompass decisions based on the biology of foetal development, physical and mental health risks to the mother as well as practical issues: when a woman may discover she is pregnant, whether she wants the child, whether an unwanted child will have a good life, if abortion were legally unavailable would the consequences be worse, etc. A legal line is drawn at some point and this may be reviewed in light of new knowledge. It is an area where science has an input but ethical and practical considerations must play a large role.

I note, from the book "Freakonomics", that when some States in the US permitted abortion that 15 to 25 years later the crime rate dropped because there were fewer badly parented, unwanted children who grew up to be criminals. The correlation is striking but I guess this conclusion is debatable.
« Last Edit: 29/05/2012 14:06:01 by graham.d »
 

Offline imatfaal

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #6 on: 29/05/2012 18:44:39 »
It was a pre-emptive warning - I thought I would get my retaliation in first!  :-)

The border between ethics and science is tremendously difficult to understand and agree upon - by this I mean there are few decisions (esp in med and life-sciences) that do not need an ethical input and fewer areas in government and everyday situations that would not be enhanced by being more evidence-based 
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #7 on: 29/05/2012 22:57:53 »
I will mention that I am sorry if I have offended anybody on this forum, that certainly wasn't my intention when attempting to answer a question that was presented to me.

These are potentially ethical issues that do need to be considered.  Just because something can be done doesn't mean that it should be done.

It is interesting the different terms used to describe the different early stages of human development, and in this case, increasing repulsion to taking actions to terminate the life of the developing infant.
  • Fertilized Egg  (single cell)
  • Blastocyst
  • Embryo
  • Fetus
  • Infant/Baby
  • Child
Just because a ball of cells might be able to develop into an infant, doesn't mean that it must develop into an infant, and we certainly can't support every possible gene combination on Earth.
 

Offline David Cooper

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #8 on: 30/05/2012 01:07:55 »
On the literal question of when life begins, you'd have to look for the point where chemistry turns into life. That point might be the place where representation is first used - information stored in some way such as RNA or DNA.

The question about where an individual person's life begins is a different one, but the answer obviously isn't easy. To fixate on the point where two lots of new chromosomes and mixed together seems to miss the point though, because the "soul" has no role at that stage: there is no sentience there. Now, most people of a scientific bent obviously aren't keen on the word "soul", but most of them are happy about the idea that people are conscious, and whatever it is in us that is conscious could validly be labelled as the soul - it is the thing in the animal which suffers when the animal is tortured. We haven't managed to find this thing in us that is capable of suffering or experiencing other feelings such as love, but if these feelings are not just an illusion (a fiction generated by a soulless chemical machine), then there must be something in there that experiences them, and that thing is necessarily a kind of soul, even if it is stripped to the minimum and has no fancy ideas attached to it about floating off as a spirit after death and maintaining all the memories of the animal in which it used to reside.

When does the soul (the consciousness thing in the animal) begin to exist? Well, it may be that nothing fundamental in nature can be made or destroyed, but merely converted in form, so the soul might have to be eternal, both forwards in time and backwards. That would mean that whatever the soul is would already exist before any of the atoms that will become the new person have been collected together, and the mixing together of two sets of 23 chromosomes will not be recognised by the soul. The soul will experience nothing until there is sufficient apparatus constructed to be able to load it with something that can make it experience a sensation. Even once it can be loaded with a sensation and becomes capable of suffering or whatever, it isn't going to feel it any differently from other kinds of animal embryo. Indeed, there's no reason to suppose that the soul of a newborn baby is going to feel any different from the soul of a puppy or kitten. By a year old, a baby can understand a lot of the conversations that other people have with it, even though it isn't doing any of the talking, but it may not yet feel any different from an adult chimp, parrot or dog. It is around this time though that babies can realise that they are people and not animals - I can remember reaching that point of realisation myself and being extremely happy when I finally knew for certain that I was one of those things (like my sister and parents) and that I wasn't just a clumsy animal that would never be able to speak or manipulate objects in the way that people can. [Maybe I should start a thread about earliest memories, because my earliest one contains a lot that should be of scientific value, although most scientists would incorrectly reject it as false because it doesn't tie in with their current beliefs about the abilities of young children.]

Anyway, my point here is that up to a certain point, human children really aren't any different from animals, so killing a newborn baby is probably less awful than killing an adult dog, provided that you don't take into account the amount of upset that that would generate in other people. It still isn't something you'd ever want to do, but my point is that if the question is about the rights and wrongs of abortion and things related to stem cell research, it's increasingly less important at earlier stages of development, and when you get way back to the point where the brain hasn't even begun to form it becomes ridiculous to think of it as killing a person. The soul cannot be installed at that point, and it certainly isn't going to spring into being just because two sets of 23 chromosomes have been stuck together in a single cell - you've got that same situation in every cell of your body (except red blood cells) but it's unlikely that you'd want to argue that each of them has its own soul.

This issue will never be properly resolved until we understand consciousness, and it isn't certain that we'll ever pin down what it is in us that's conscious (the thing capable of suffering; the thing that can be tortured; the thing which necessitates the invention of morality). I certainly wouldn't worry about anything that doesn't have a brain, so I'd say the best point to think of a person or animal's life beginning is the point where consciousness kicks in, and that will certainly require a brain.
 

Offline Don_1

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #9 on: 30/05/2012 15:24:25 »
Whether arguing from the scientific, religious or any other point of view, the point at which life begins is as open as you want it to be.

It could even be argued that your life began before your parents were born. At the other end of the argument, it could be suggested that life only begins when a wholly independent individual emerges. In between these two extremes, there are many points at which life could be said to have ‘begun’. Each individual egg and sperm is technically ‘alive’, so could they be the beginning?

Equally, a fertilised egg may not implant and be flushed away in the course of the normal cycle and even if it does implant, it still may not go to term. Are we right to interfere with nature’s rejection?

Perhaps I should give the alternative question here; are we right to interfere with God’s decision?

I thought this subject to be far too emotive and liable to turn into a debacle on the question of religion Vs science and differing ethical points of view. For that reason, I concurred with Imatfaal’s decision to lock the thread.

On a more whimsical note, the old adage that ‘life begins at forty’ is definitely a load of rubbish.
 

Offline wolfekeeper

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #10 on: 30/05/2012 22:21:58 »
For me, and everyone I know, life began about 3.6-4 billion years ago.

It's just being going ever since.

/thread
« Last Edit: 30/05/2012 23:19:59 by wolfekeeper »
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #11 on: 05/06/2012 03:26:38 »
I realize it's a volatile and often polarizing issue, especially in the US. But it also an interesting question both philosophically and scientifically. The question is not clear cut either philosophically or scientifically. A philosopher professor I had pointed out that abortion would not necessarily have to be defined as  murder to be wrong - on the other hand, failing to sustain a life is sometimes morally justified. (When I questioned his second statement he said, "well, if you were a perfect match as a kidney donor for someone, and it would save their life, it might be a good and generous thing to do, but would you be morally obligated to do it?") Scientifically, when someone becomes a "person" depends on what you see as being necessary and/or sufficient quality of humaness. Is it the new unique combination of DNA? Is it viability outside the womb? Is it consciousness and being sentient? Is potentiality for these things enough?
 

Offline cheryl j

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #12 on: 05/06/2012 04:04:30 »
But if this discussion is to close for comfort to the political/religious right to life issue, here is something more science-related. On a science show called Radio Lab, they had an interesting segment about fetal cells. It was always thought that the placenta prevented maternal and baby blood systems from mixing, but researchers have found that may not be entirely true, and fetal cells have been found in the mother's body years, even decades after pregnancy. They suspect these cells may be related to the development of certain autoimmune diseases that are more common in women. But they also discovered something else quite odd. In women with certain injuries or disorders, like cirrhosis of the liver, the fetal cells seemed to be involved in repairing the organ. If this research turns out to be true, who would you say these cells "belong" to? 
 

Offline CliffordK

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #13 on: 05/06/2012 06:06:15 »
There have been studies using PCR amplification for the Y chromosome demonstrating that fetal blood is in fact found in the maternal blood throughout the pregnancy, and providing a tool that may help with determining the sex of the baby quite early.

The Rho(D) immune globulin is given to Rh negative women with Rh positive infants both during pregnancy, and after birth to prevent the development of antibodies against the Rh positive antigen, indicating some crossover of fetal cells, especially around childbirth.

Anyway, it is not surprising that if some of the fetal cells are equivalent to bone marrow cells, that the mother might have some of them enter her bone marrow and continue to reproduce.  Yet, this is interesting.

If these cells are related to autoimmune diseases, then the patterns should be different in women that have been pregnant or had miscarriages vs those that have never been pregnant.  It would be most interesting to see correlations with specific diseases which might lead to preventative therapies similar to the Rho(D) immune globulin therapies.
 

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Re: When does life begin?
« Reply #13 on: 05/06/2012 06:06:15 »

 

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