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The "Abortion" issue: what are the first scientific indications of the presence of life? Consciousness?

My question is primarily directed to those with a solid, scientific medical background; and relative to the caption of my question – the “abortion” issue – please don’t consider it in the context of a theological one.
I’ve been surfing, trying to find what the scientific indications are, of life in the womb: or for that matter, what is the scientific definition of “life”?
What is the exact moment when the first heartbeat occurs? Is “life”, “consciousness”, “awareness” present in the embryo/fetus before, or only afterwards? Or has a consensus, accepted definition evolved yet in the medical community?
Thanks to you all for your responses; some very enlightening, and some right on target.
Then a few,————————
I’m sorry, but I’ve been reading and re-reading your responses; and cannot being myself to choose a “best” one.
Please forgive me,


  1. You can search and search all you want. Nobody can answer. Abortion is a medical procedure and a woman’s right to privacy as well as a males right to privacy when expelling his live sperm. Live sperm are half babies in waiting.

  2. Life has a very vague definition, which is the reason this is such a tricky issue. Under the pure definition of life, the egg and sperm are life, but I’m assuming we’re going for a definition of human life here.
    I’d say that a clear guideline is the development of the primitive streak, which becomes the spinal cord, although this alone is not enough to sustain the foetus independently or to give it consciousness.
    If you want self awareness, a lot of the evidence in developmental pysc leans towards this developing around 2 years of age.
    Ultimately any moral issue (like abortion) will not have a purely scientific answer (sorry) as science makes no comment on morality. However, for early abortions it is fairly clear that the foetus does not have the awareness of higher level animals (cows etc) that we kill when full grown. If we follow the consciousness line then infanticide may well be found less cruel than killing animals for meat, so the question should be considered with moral factors in mind as well.

  3. The simple answer is ‘no, there is no consensus’ which is why there is so much debate and so many opposing views about the matter of abortion.

  4. There are varying definitions of life, previously they were related to cardiac activity, the functioning of the heart, but with advances in cardiac medicine, such as the defibrillator, it became possible to resuscitate patients who previously would have been though of as “dead”.
    Most modern definitions are based on neurological activity, the relative functioning of areas of the brain.
    Consciousness is difficult to gauge in utero.
    The foetal heartbeat can be detected with ultrasonography coupled with a doppler receiver at week 9 to week 10 of the pregnancy.
    In GB, abortions are legal up to week 24 of the pregancy, with extension given in certain cases.
    Life is a difficult thing to judge, some philosophies believe it to be a purely sensual phenomenon.
    But, when all’s said and done, cogito ergo sum seems to be the main argument when life is thought of: I think, therefore I am.

  5. I’m deliberately sidestepping your question. this one has been one of the toughest nuts to crack for centuries, and I won’t go near it.
    I will simply refer you to a new book “Train your mind, Change your Brain” by Sharon Begley. It is part of a series by a scientific group, the Mind/Life organization, that likes to tackle such interesting ideas.
    it is spearheaded by H.H. Dalai Lama, and he has presented the Buddhist idea to Western scientists. for the last couple of decades this has been one of the unanswered questions, because Western philosophers and scientists were not ready to try and think along different lines. You may not want to agree with the direction this book takes, but, knowing how diversified your thinking can go, I don’t hesitate to recommend it to you, and any other open-minded people.

  6. i believe life begins at conception and to abort a fetus is tantamount to murder and those who have this procedure and those who perform it will answer for it on Judgment Day.

  7. Dear Alberich… I cant say I have any solid, scientific, evidence to answer your question. I do have an opinion on the topic, but clearly that is not what you are after. I am happy to share it with you but for now, I will not go into it.
    Perhaps we could simply use a dictionary definition of “life”:
    From what I can see from that website, is that life is just “The property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter.”
    Personally, I do think a fetus has that quality. It is living, at least after the heart starts beating. (The heart is present in the fetus from like 10 days after conception. A heart beat can be detected through ultrasound from about the 21st day after conception)
    Consciousness? Thats another issue, and one that I dont know anything about. Hopefully a knowledgeable person in this forum will know the answer.
    As for whether or not abortiion is “good” (sorry I couldnt think of the word…), well that is totally a moral issue, that everybody has their own opinion about, and you are entitled to your own, so I will not impose mine on you.
    Sorry I couldnt be of more help.

  8. nobody knows yet what consciousness is, let alone at what stage of development it occurs. Is it okay to kill someone who is not aware? I think not ! Abortion is simply the killing of a human being. If you don’t mind human beings being killed then abortion is fine.

  9. Mind you, this is a terrible answer not scientific at all…
    But, I believe that a person is alive when it’s spirit is with it’s body. So when does the fetus become a person? When does it’s spirit combine with its body? Well… Nobody really knows, but I think MissLimLam could be correct, when it’s heart starts beating. Or possibly when the little baby starts doing gymnastics in their poor mothers belly. I don’t think abortion is right anytime it’s used. Whether it’s right after birth, or whether it’s 2 days after conception… People have the RIGHT to live and killing them is removing that right.
    (braces for thumbs down)
    Sorry I couldn’t give a scientific answer…
    Edit: I swear… Whenever I think I’m giving a controversial answer and I say “Braces for the thumbs down,” I always end up with thumbs up… Incredible…

    The Developing Human
    “Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoo developmentn) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”
    “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).”
    Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003. pp. 16, 2.
    “Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the femal gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote.”
    T.W. Sadler, Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006. p. 11.
    “[The zygote], formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being.”
    Keith L. Moore, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2008. p. 2.
    “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a ‘moment’) is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.”
    Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001. p. 8.
    “Human embryos begin development following the fusion of definitive male and female gametes during fertilization… This moment of zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic development.”
    William J. Larsen, Essentials of Human Embryology. New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1998. pp. 1, 14.
    “It is the penetration of the ovum by a spermatozoan and resultant mingling of the nuclear material each brings to the union that constitues the culmination of the process of fertilization and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual.”
    Clark Edward Corliss, Patten’s Human Embryology: Elements of Clinical Development. New York: McGraw Hill, 1976. p. 30.
    “The term conception refers to the union of the male and female pronuclear elements of procreation from which a new living being develops.”
    “The zygote thus formed represents the beginning of a new life.”
    J.P. Greenhill and E.A. Friedman, Biological Principles and Modern Practice of Obstetrics. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1974. pp. 17, 23.
    “Every time a sperm cell and ovum unite a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live unless its death is brought about by some specific condition.”
    E.L. Potter and J.M. Craig, Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant, 3rd edition. Chicago: Year Book Medical Publishers, 1975. p. vii.
    “Every baby begins life within the tiny globe of the mother’s egg… It is beautifully translucent and fragile and it encompasses the vital links in which life is carried from one generation to the next. Within this tiny sphere great events take place. When one of the father’s sperm cells, like the ones gathered here around the egg, succeeds in penetrating the egg and becomes united with it, a new life can begin.” – 13
    Geraldine Lux Flanagan, Beginning Life. New York: DK, 1996. p. 13.
    “Biologically speaking, human development begins at fertilization.”
    The Biology of Prenatal Develpment, National Geographic, 2006.
    “The two cells gradually and gracefully become one. This is the moment of conception, when an individual’s unique set of DNA is created, a human signature that never existed before and will never be repeated.”
    In the Womb, National Geographic, 2005.
    “When fertilization is complete, a unique genetic human entity exists.”
    C. Christopher Hook, M.D.
    Oncologist, Mayo Clinic, Director of Ethics Education, Mayo Graduate School of Medicine
    “Science has a very simple conception of man; as soon as he has been conceived, a man is a man.”
    Jerome Lejeune, M.D., Ph.D.
    In 1981, a United States Senate judiciary subcommittee received the following testimony from a collection of medical experts (Subcommittee on Separation of Powers to Senate Judiciary Committee S-158, Report, 97th Congress, 1st Session, 1981):
    “It is incorrect to say that biological data cannot be decisive…It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception.”
    Professor Micheline Matthews-Roth
    Harvard University Medical School
    “I have learned from my earliest medical education that human life begins at the time of conception.”
    Dr. Alfred M. Bongioanni
    Professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics, University of Pennsylvania


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