When does a human life actually start?

Let me just make one thing clear: This is NOT a thread about abortion so please discuss the morality or otherwise of abortion in another thread.

It’s mostly a religious, or at least metaphysical question I think.

I want to know at what stage a human being starts being human (or is there even a defnitive moment, or is it a continuum?), let me explain:

I have a hard time believing that a freshly fertilised ovum is a human being, because, well, it’s just a bunch of cells, sure it has the potential to become human, but it also has the potential (and statistically quite a high probability) of failing to implant; from the religious perspective, this would mean that a God is creating souls for beings that aren’t going to even develop much at all, maybe you think that’s fine and dandy, but I can’t bring myself to accept it.

So, I have an equally hard time accepting that humanity somehow begins at birth, as a nearly-developed foetus is clearly human and can be observed to experience things like discomfort and emotion.

And if it’s at some point in between, then what is the decisive moment? when the heart starts beating? - this isn’t a click-your-fingers-and-it-starts moment, neither it the development of the circulatory system.

so y’see my problem; it starts off as gametes and comes out as a human, but at what point does it cease to be a blob of tissue and begin being a person?

"Brain waves begin" would get my vote.

Thursday week. That’s when my in-laws go home.

Oh. you mean life in general, not just mine. Sorry.

good suggestion; anybody know when this occurs? (no wisecracks pls)

Given that you’ve dismissed both birth and conception, is there any evidence that we can establish a “moment” when human life begins?

Hey guys…As far as my unsubstantiated .02 cents go I am going to have to say that I feel that the soul would begin when…the heart begins to beat

Because at what point does a person lose his soul
When his heart stops
Honestly the continuim thing sounds pretty good but if I had to answer this is the only answer I feel that makes the most sense to me.

Heart starts(Get soul)-heart stops(lose soul)

Why does there have to be a magic switch? Can we not accept the notion that a being starts out as a fertilized egg, and then becomes more and more human as it develops?

This presents problems for legislation, which seeks to define something as human or not. But it’s an accurate description of what happens.

Trying to apply a simple ‘humanity test’ leads to foolishness. I think it’s crazy to say that an egg becomes a legal human the minute it is fertilized. But I think it’s even crazier to say that a child who happens to be on the inside of the birth canal is nothing but a blob of flesh that can be excised and disposed of like a boil, but that same child 20 minutes later on the other side of the birth canal is a legal human and anyone who kills it can be tried for murder.

The problem is that there is no obvious demarcation point between the two extremes. The change is gradual.

Perhaps the easiest legal definition would be the point at which the baby becomes viable, i.e. if it could live on its own and grow into a normal human if removed from the womb. But this is just as arbitrary as any of the other ones.

Life is a continuum at both ends…

My grandfather took a week to die, slipping into a coma, kidney’s failing, respiration depressed, finally, his heart stopped beating and he stopped breathing. For most of the family, he stopped being “alive” when he went into a coma and we knew it was a matter of time. He died when his heart and respiration stopped.

Is a person who is brain dead, but can still breathe and his heart still beats alive…?

Is a person “alive” if a machine breathes for him or a machine pumps his blood? And if the electricity goes out, is it murder?

The same is true at the other end, where there is plenty of grey between fertilization and a baby.

Personally, I’m not big on the idea of legislating “life.” I want the plug pulled if I’m ever on the machine - cause that isn’t life to me.

Adding my own viewpoint, I’d first rephrase the question; what makes us human and when does that quality develop between the fertilized ovum and a new born babe?

A freshly fertilized ovum is “alive” in the sense that any cell is alive, but when does this developing being become aware or sentient or crosses the line that it can’t help but develop that sentience?

I’ll make the atheistists scream; what about the soul? When does it arrive? I’ve spoken to some mothers (who are Pagan) and they say it shows up a few days or even weeks after the babe is born.

But these days there are lots of people who’ve had their hearts stop, then start again. Some people are even walking around with other people’s hearts in their chests.

Now I have this picture of some poor guy who’s successfully been administered CPR (or had open-heart surgery, which can entail stopping the heart for several hours). He’s breathing, and walking around, and talking…but his dog growls at him and slinks away when he tries to pet it; he has a strange new aversion to consecreted ground, and starts screaming “It burns! It burns!” when he tries to take communion; maybe he no longer casts a shadow, or reflects in mirrors…

Here’s my theory:

Life begins when the fetus can survive outside the mother, I think that falls about the third trimester. A kidney can not survive outside the mother; neither can a 3-month fetus. But, when the baby can be cut off from the mother and live and thrive and grow up, that is a separate life.


This is way heavy.

But I feel it’s when cognitive function, or awareness begins. Or at least the ability to be cognitively aware of one’s environment. I’ve birthed a few babies and I would pretty much swear that infants are aware and respond to their environment. Anything before that would IMHO beyond my speculation.

The problem is that the mind is not a light switch. It is not suddenly aware. It grows and evolves and matures and slowly gains more function. There is no point that you can stop and say “Here. Here it is. This is humanity.” It is a ever-expanding continuum until it’s final degredation and collapse at the end of the life cycle.

The problem is that words and language which we use are final and unmoving, but life, as with all things, is relative. You cannot correctly express an ever-changing state using words or ideas, nor can you point to a time which it has changed. Heisenberg’s applies to much more than just physics.


Please don’t think I’ve dismissed anything, maybe I just need to hear a convincing argument.

If there isn’t a ‘moment’ then what is there? - There is a definite and undeniable transition from a pair of gametes to a living functioning human being, or are you saying that it’s a gradual process of ‘becoming human’ (if so, maybe this includes development after birth too?)

Good suggestion, but due to advances in technology, this point has been pushed back earlier and earlier; are we therefore to conclude that from a philosophical point, life now starts earlier than it used to?

The ‘continuum’ answers are coming closest to convincing me.

This is not unlike the long-running debate as to what is life itself, which has recently led some scientist or other to bring forward the absurd proposal that individual ants are not actually living organisms, but the colony is. (I’m not misquoting this too badly I hope - he did say that individual social insects are not alive)

I’m inclined to agree that ‘life’ is a concept that transcends our ability to fully define or express it.

Perhaps a good analogy of this question would be to ask ‘At what point does an acorn become an oak tree?’

A collection of cells is human when it can function as a human. When all necessary components are there, you know: heart, lungs, kidneys, vascular system, musces, skeleton, nervous system, all that good stuff, then it’s human.

A fertilized egg has potential, but is not a human. IMHO, however, if a god were making souls it would make them at conception, not at the stage at which we decide the fetus is “human”.

I would definitely say that the higher brain function which develops after birth is part of “personhood”.

There are multiple active threads at the snopes message board at the moment discussing the issue of foetal brainwaves and what conclusions about “sentience” or “consciousness” can or cannot be drawn from their presence or absence.

Not necessarily so; I would imagine that some religions would interpret the first breath as being the moment when the spirit(=wind) enters the body. (Just to confuse matters)