Life begins:
The moment when life begins, like the moment life ends, has varied in interpretation through history.  For a person or animal to be alive, an enormous number of things must be right.  But only a few have been selected as gateways. 

For thousands of years the test was breathing.  If a person or animal was breathing, then there was life.  Life began if and when a newborn drew breath and ended with the last expiration, when the muscles now longer expanded the elastic lungs and the creature expired.  The word for animal comes from a word meaning both breath and soul. 

Intervention at one time was restricted to trying to restore or initiate breathing.  That is still a very good thing to do.  As a young doctor I participated in many resuscitation events, and of all the interventions then possible, breathing still was the one that was most often the make-or-break issue in my experience.  My own score on such occasions, times when I was principally responsible, was very good.  That was probably because my overheated imagination sided with the patient, and if the patient was not breathing I took it as seriously as if I were not breathing myself.

Doctors used to slap newborns to get them to breathe, but I suspect much of that was due to the fact that at one time a lot of deliveries were done under heavy anesthesia.  The newborn was depressed by the anesthetic and some stimulation was needed.  It has been so long since I was in a delivery room I cannot tell you from personal experience what is done now.

With the discovery of the importance of circulation, the beating of the heart became the test.  And intervention to stimulate that heart, pounding on the chest, injecting stimulants or using electric shock, became the centerpiece of resuscitation.  Sometimes it worked. 

When the only way to determine whether a fetus had a heartbeat was to listen for it, that was a reasonable test of a viable fetus.  But tests got better.  I once was summoned to an ultrasound study be a technician who said there was no heartbeat by ultrasound.  Everyone moved quickly, and amazingly the child was delivered alive and well.  I cannot believe that happens often. 

Currently, it is the function of the brain that seems to be the test.  People have living wills with instructions of what to do if brain function ceases and cannot be reasonably expected to return.  The beginning of life, also, assumes that brain function is the test.  For those societies in which it is thinkable to terminate a normal pregnancy, the belief is that an amorphous blob of cells is not human in the same way an infant unborn but already capable of surviving independently is human. 

Any intervention than can protect the neurological function of a human at any age is applauded. 

There are a couple of other tests of interest.  There are those who say that human life begins at conception, when the fertilized egg has developed sufficiently to signal the mother’s body that there is life on the way and now would not be a convenient time to have her usually monthly period.  At the other extreme is the view that life does not begin at all.  The sperm is alive.  The egg is alive.  Life goes on in continuity.  It does not start.  This latter view I think begs the question.  Humans are individuals.  So the real question is when the human first can be said to be an individual.

Well they say that to a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.  My own hammer is the computer program featured on the Main Page of the site.  I have lived with it so long that I assume it is true in more ways than originally intended.  Well it is true in more ways than I expected, but this is different.  So far as the computer program is concerned, there is no difference between a fertilized egg and a healthy young adult disappointed in love.  Neither has had a chance to attempt reproduction.  Each, unless something nice happens, is eliminated from the population from a genetic point of view.

To me, conditioned as I am by my own hours spent programming, life – the individual life of a human – begins when the egg and sperm meet.  That, as I said, is how the program handles it.  In other words, it begins before “conception,” before the mother’s body senses any new life. 

Classically we say that it takes a woman on average six months of trying before she gets pregnant.  If sperm and egg are combined in a Petri dish, the luck is no better.  Only a small minority develop into embryos.  In other words, everyone you ever meet is a winner.  He or she started out as a fertilized egg and beat the odds.  It is like having won at Russian roulette with 5 loaded chambers.  You will never meet a loser. 

The program stipulates a maximum number of possible offspring.  But for the program that does not mean live births.  That means number of possible fertilized eggs.  Suppose a woman is fertile from age 18 to 38.  The span is longer now, but historically that may be closer to being true.  That means she ovulates for 20 years or 260 times if she never becomes pregnant.  That is only approximate and only an average.  But if she gets pregnant 12 times and there are 9 months of pregnancy during which she cannot become pregnant again and for simplicity 3 months when she has recently delivered and is less likely to be trying for another one, then she is actually only ovulating for 8 years or 104 times.  So “maximum number of offspring” in a human is really about 104, as seen by the computer program.  For each of those ovulations, she has a 1 in 6 chance of getting pregnant, or a maximum of somewhere between 12 and 17 live births if she were physiologically capable of it.  Some, I understand, are, but they are rare.  The highest average reproductive rate I have ever heard of was 12 per woman, and that was among New England Puritans as reported in ALBION’S SEED by David Hackett Fischer.  The Puritans made a major issue of sex.

Nowadays, looking at the reproductive performance of rich countries, the number of live births is less than 2 per woman.  (And the evidence indicates that Icelanders and Danes at least are as diligent about sex as Puritans.)  In other words to be born in a rich modern country you have to win two rounds of Russian roulette with 5 loaded chambers each time.  Well nobody said that being born into a rich country was unlucky.

But the important issue is intervention.  What can you do to increase the number of live births?  What can you do to give the fertilized egg the best chance of becoming a conception? 

Now that the Iceland study is available (and the proof before that was very strong but quite ignored) the answer is clear.  It is a matter of choosing the right mate.  And if you consider the feelings of my computer (and it certainly doesn’t consider your feelings) failing to choose the right mate does not simply “reduce the chance of a pregnancy.” 

It destroys human lives.

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