Study: 96% of 5,577 Biologists Affirm Human Life Begins at Fertilization

A study found 80 percent of Americans say biologists should decide the question of when li
Photo by Maria Oswalt on Unsplash

A study found 80 percent of Americans say biologists should decide the question of when life begins, and, when more than 5,500 biologists were then asked that question, 96 percent affirmed life begins at fertilization.

Steven Jacobs, Ph.D. completed his doctoral dissertation research (final publication pending, but an earlier version can be read here) recently at the University of Chicago, but only after a decade of investigation that ultimately led to his final study titled “Balancing Abortion Rights and Fetal Rights.”

In his research, Jacobs focused on studying Americans’ beliefs and values, attitudes toward abortion, and beliefs about when life begins.

One of the quotes he included in his study comes from an anonymous academic biologist, who said, “[The abortion debate] comes down to the question of whether we think personal autonomy is more important than the life of a human being.”

For the first part of his research, Jacobs went to the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision itself for a list of experts who might be considered most qualified to determine when life begins. He then presented this list to participants in one of his surveys.

Jacobs surveyed a sample of 3,883 Americans who were given the choice of biologists, religious leaders, voters, philosophers, or Supreme Court justices as the group of experts most qualified to determine when life begins.

According to the study, the sample was predominantly pro-choice (62 percent), liberal (63 percent), socialist (54 percent), and Democrat (66 percent.) Of the participants, 63 percent were college graduates, 57 percent were female, 43 percent were male.

Results showed 80 percent of Americans selected biologists (95 percent confidence interval [79-81 percent]) as the group to answer the question of when life begins.

Pro-choice participants (86 percent) were more likely to select biologists than pro-life participants (69 percent).

“I followed that up with an open-ended question: ‘Why did you select that group?” and 92 percent said they selected biologists because they are experts in science and they are objective scientists,” Jacobs told Breitbart News in an interview.

The researcher then took survey questions to 5,577 biologists from over a thousand academic institutions in 86 countries. According to the study, the sample of biologists was predominantly non-religious (63 percent), with more liberals (89 percent) than conservatives (11 percent), Democrats (92 percent) than Republicans (8 percent), and pro-choice supporters (85 percent) than pro-life supporters (15 percent).

While the study focused on the biological view of when a human’s life begins, the surveys also included questions about other scientific concepts related to genetics, etc. Participants were asked to respond “Correct” or Incorrect” to statements describing the biological view that “a human’s life begins at fertilization.” An open-ended question on the participants’ biological view of “when a human’s life begins” was also presented.

Overall, the study found 96 percent of biologists affirmed the view that a human’s life begins at fertilization (95 percent confidence interval [95-97 percent]).

A 2018 Marist poll found that, regardless of political affiliation, more Americans view life as beginning at conception than at any other point during pregnancy. Of those surveyed, 47 percent said life begins at conception, while 15 percent said during the first trimester, 10 percent said during the second trimester, 14 percent said at viability outside the womb, and 10 percent said life begins at birth.

When asked if the notion that human life begins at conception is a religious belief or a scientific fact, 46 percent said it was a scientific fact, compared to 45 percent who viewed the statement as philosophical or religious.

Some biologists contacted by Jacobs expressed distaste for the survey and the study. The researcher provided Breitbart News with a list of negative comments he received both in emails and contained within the survey. These included:

  • “The actual purpose of this ‘survey’ became very clear. I will do my best to disseminate this info to make sure that none of my naïve colleagues fall into this trap.”
  • “Regarding the blatant politically-charged and religiously-biased statement about when the ‘life of a mammal’ begins is concerned: [Although there is no question that humans are mammals] the life of a ‘person’ does NOT begin at conception.”
  • “Sorry this looks like its more a religious survey to be used to misinterpret by radicals to advertise about the beginning of life and not a survey about what faculty know about biology. Your advisor can contact me.”
  • “The fertilization of an egg cell is not a miraculous event that marks the transition from non-life to life, so to ask if such is the ‘beginning of life’ is inappropriate.”
  • “I did respond to and fill in the survey, but am concerned about the tenor of the questions. It seemed like a thinly-disguised effort to make biologists take a stand on issues that could be used to advocate for or against abortion.”
  • “The relevant biological issues are obvious and have nothing to do with when life begins. That is a nonsense position created by the antiabortion fanatics. You have accepted the premise of a fanatic group of lunatics. The relevant issues are the health cost carrying an embryo to term can impose on a woman’s body, the cost they impose on having future children, and the cost that raising a child imposes on a woman’s financial status.”
  • “This is some stupid right to life thing…YUCK I believe in RIGHT TO CHOICE!!!!!!!”
  • “Is this a studied fund by Trump and ku klux klan?”
  • “Sure hope YOU aren’t a f^%$#ing christian!!”

In the midst of his research, Jacobs decided to go to law school to study mediation, with a goal toward investigating whether abortion rights and fetal rights can be balanced.

“While I was in law school, as a mediator, I sat down with pro-life and pro-choice law students to understand how the debate could be mediated,” he explained. “So, it’s standard dispute-resolution techniques where you try to help both sides understand what their positions, their interests, and their values are.”

Jacobs hit a huge snag, however, when he found the law students could not even agree on what a fetus was.

“So, it was almost like they were going through a battle of how do we define the playing field on which we could discuss this,” he recalled. “There’s a difference between factual disputes and opinion disputes.”

With the question of when life begins, Jacobs said he soon discovered that “neither side would move forward in actually discussing the relevant issues until we resolved the factual dispute over what is that zygote. Is it a body cell? Is it a cell no different from a skin cell? Or, is it an individual human organism?”

The researcher explained that, while these findings suggest describing when life begins centers on the biological definition of a fetus as a human at the time of fertilization, the results do not consider the legal question of whether fetuses deserve rights or how those rights would be balanced against women’s right to abortion. Jacobs says biologists’ consensus on the description of life beginning at fertilization can help Americans move past the factual dispute and focus on the normative issues in the debate over abortion.

“What I take out of these studies – provided they hold up under replication and further study – is that the factual dispute of the abortion debate has been resolved, and that we know abortion kills a biological human,” Jacobs said. “And since abortion is the killing of a human, it is a form of homicide. As a form of homicide, then, the central question is: Why is that homicide justifiable?”


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