Dr. Kestner: Does it really matter when life begins?

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When asked, “At what point is a baby entitled to human rights?” by Rick Warren during the candidates’ interviews, John McCain answered quickly and definitively, “At the moment of conception.” There was no wavering or doubt. McCain left no room for interpretation of where he stands. Either you like his answer or you don’t, but it is obvious that he has a resolute stance on the issue.

When Barack Obama was asked the same question, he stammered then replied that the answer is “above my pay grade.” That response is considered by some to be a dodge to avoid saying that life begins at conception. Earlier this year he had a more definite idea about what happens at conception. According to a transcript of Obama’s speech on Father’s Day, June 15 posted on the CNN Web site he stated, “We need fathers to realize that responsibility does not end at conception.” He may have forgotten that remark. Or maybe he meant that a man becomes a father at that moment, but a child doesn’t become a person at that moment.

Posing this question to presidential candidates is nothing new. In a 2004 interview reported by the Boston Globe, Democratic candidate John Kerry stated that he believes “life begins at conception,” but added that his Roman Catholic beliefs should not legislate the beliefs of others, such as “Protestant or a Jew or an atheist …”

What do you think? Do you have to be a genetic scientist or theologist to have an opinion of when life begins? Here is the simplest explanation of what transpires at the instant of human conception. A sperm cell from the father unites with an egg cell from the mother, creating a human embryo.

Think about the consequences of that event. At the very instant of the uniting of those two cells, a transformation occurs. In the briefest period of time imaginable, a continual cascade of life processes begins that may continue for more than 100 years if not interrupted. If the egg and sperm do not unite and create a new being, each of them will cease to exist within days.

For many, this transformation of two simple incomplete cells with limited existence into a new and distinct entity that will develop into a human being is enough to decide that this moment indeed is the beginning of a new life.

For others, there is a reluctance to say that a new life is created at the moment of conception. Although it is difficult to identify any other point as the beginning of an actual new life, they are uncomfortable voicing the opinion that life begins at conception. Sometimes the question is rephrased in terms such as “When does an embryo or fetus become a person?” It is easier to point to different beginnings for a term such as personhood. Is a developing human a person at the moment of conception, or after delivery from the womb? There are some that are more comfortable with the idea that a developing human isn’t really a person until such time that he or she could potentially live outside the womb.

The United States Supreme Court, in the pivotal opinion originating from the Roe v. Wade trial, stated, “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.” (Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 – 1973)

This seemingly simple question is profoundly on the minds of many voters as they approach this upcoming election. They know that the next president will appoint two or possibly as many as four Supreme Court justices and the question of when human life begins may again be addressed by the nation’s highest court.

There are other issues that separate the candidates, but their responses to this question may well determine the outcome if the election is as close as some analysts predict. For some voters on both sides of the issue, the answer matters a lot.

Dr. Mark Kestner
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