Life begins at conception.
This is perhaps the favorite phrase of anti-choicers seeking to eliminate women’s basic right to control over their own bodies. It is, for example, the premise of policies pushed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and fundamentalist evangelicals. It is the cornerstone of the so-called personhood laws defeated by large margins in ballot initiatives undertaken in both Colorado and Mississippi. And it is the basis for the “Sanctity of Life” bill co-sponsored by Congressmen Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Todd Akin (R-MO) in the House of Representatives. The end game in all of these efforts is a radical shift in women’s lives, including a total ban on abortion without exception, and bans on many forms of contraception, in vitro fertilization, and health care for women who are or who may be pregnant.
“Life begins at conception,” is repeated incessantly by politicians such as Richard Mourdock, as though this were a revelation, something not previously known, that should inform our thinking on whether women are people with the same fundamental rights as men, or if they are essentially incubators whose ability to participate in society and the economy, and, quite literally, whose ability to live is dependent on whether they are, might be, or might become pregnant.
But the phrase is highly — and purposefully — misleading because it confuses simple biological cell division both with actual pregnancy and with actual, legal personhood, which are all very different things.
During the October 11, 2012 vice presidential debate, for example, moderator Martha Raddatz asked Vice President Joe Biden and Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) to discuss “the role religion has played” in their personal views on abortion.
Ryan responded by saying:
Now, you want to ask basically why I’m pro-life? It’s not simply because of my Catholic faith. That’s a factor, of course. But it’s also because of reason and science.
You know, I think about 10 1/2 years ago, my wife Janna and I went to Mercy Hospital in Janesville where I was born, for our seven week ultrasound for our firstborn child, and we saw that heartbeat. A little baby was in the shape of a bean. And to this day, we have nicknamed our firstborn child Liza, “Bean.”
Now I believe that life begins at conception.
Here is a startling revelation: I am a mother of two and a woman who earlier in her life had an abortion. I am unapologetically pro-choice. And I know life *begins* at conception (which itself is the product of a complex process), because I kinda already knew that having a child required, as a first step, the successful integration of a sperm and an egg, or fertilization.
In other words, “life” begins at conception, if by “life,” we mean the essential starting place of a potential human being. Neither my 16-year-old daughter nor my 13-year-old son would be here if they were not first conceived, if the fertilized eggs had not gone through the process of cell division, successfully implanted in my uterus and developed into healthy embryos, and subsequently gone successfully through the many other phases of development leading to their births.
The fact that life begins at conception is why women and men use birth control to prevent it from happening and why they have been trying to prevent it from happening since time immemorial. While they may not have had high-resolution microscopes and photography to reveal biological-level activity, women do not and did not need modern “reason and science” (to which anti-choicers now love to refer) to tell them they get pregnant from sex; as Homo Sapiens they have been conceiving, carrying, and bearing babies for at least some 160,000 years, and they’ve been trying to prevent pregnancy and induce abortions for just as long.
Evidence of condom use has been found in cave drawings in France dated between 12,000 and 15,000 years old and in 3,000 year-old illustrations in Egypt. Throughout history, people have variously practiced “outer course” (encouraged even by Christian clergy at some points in history!), and used pessaries, herbs, and other objects to create barriers to fertilization when having sex, not to mention trying many other more dangerous and less effective means, such as drinking lead and mercury or wearing blood-soaked amulets in the hopes of preventing fertilization, a subsequent pregnancy, and later, the birth of a child. I understand that seeing the sonogram of a wanted child is a powerful thing and a connection to the potential person whose birth is much awaited. But if it took Paul Ryan to see a sonogram of his daughter in utero to get him to believe his wife was pregnant and that his daughter’s “life” began with conception, the state of GOP knowledge on sex and biology is even worse than I thought.
The question is not when life begins. That just obfuscates the real issues.
The fundamental issues are: