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No consensus on when human life begins

Alison Cranage

Progress Educational Trust

04 November 2008

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[BioNews, London] 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'.

© Copyright Progress Educational Trust

Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.

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Date Added: 04 November 2008   Date Updated: 04 November 2008
Customer Reviews (2)
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Brian L. Rens   10 November 2008

In my mind I find this kind of question really strange. Such question implies there was no life prior to the event, fertilization, heartbeat or whatever. Clearly and scientifically, life was always there, and merely just continued. The ovum is alive, the sperm is endowed with life. Conception is a union of the life forces from both parents. To talk about life beginning is absurd, because such implication is, there was 'no life' to start with. It would be more correct to ask at what point does 'conscious life' reveal itself.(neural maturity) Taking an ovum for therapeutic cloning or any other reason, constitutes no more of a 'sin' than taking blood from a person, or skin or other tissue for transplant purposes. I believe that it is time that science puts "tribal thinking and taboos" aside. Let us get on with the work at hand, unimpeded by religeous fanatisism. The year is now 2008!
Thomas Elliott   09 November 2008

Details of this presentation at the ASRM: SESSION OTHER: ART ROOM 220 Moderators: Valerie L. Baker, M.D. Glenn L. Schattman, M.D. O-181 3:45 PM ‘WHEN DOES LIFE BEGIN?’ RESULTS OF AN ONLINE SURVEY. T. A. Elliott, J. A. Friedman, E. T. Siegel, H. I. Kort, Z. P. Nagy. IVF Laboratory, Reproductive Biology Associates, Atlanta, GA.

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