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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Science v. Religion on When Life Begins

Monday, January 14, 2013

Science v. Religion on When Life Begins

One of the looming questions in the abortion debate relates to when human life begins.  From a scientific perspective, this question has been solved for centuries, thanks in part to the work of a seventeenth-century Italian scientist by the name of Francesco Redi.  And it’s left the opponents of the scientific view appealing lamely to outdated religious definitions.

I. Francesco Redi and the Theory of Spontaneous Generation

In 1688, Redi debunked a then-popular theory, namely, spontaneous generation, that claimed that dead things could spontaneously give rise to new life. This view dates back at least to Aristotle, who mistakenly taught (and by the way, this is where it’s about to get a little gross) that certain insects spontaneously originated “from putrefying earth or vegetable matter,” while “others are spontaneously generated in the inside of animals out of the secretions of their several organs.”

An illustration from Francesco Redi’s 1688 work
debunking spontaneous generation. (h/t Scientus)

It was based on a simple mistake: if you leave meat out, it’ll eventually start rotting, and you’ll see maggots and flies crawling around on it, and the dead meat seems to be turning into these living creatures.  Of course, what was really happening was that maggots and flies were eating the rotting meat, and then laying tiny eggs, which eventually hatched.  But people generally didn’t know that, until Francesco Redi used a simple experiment to disprove spontaneous generation:

    Francesco took eight jars, placed meat in all the jars, but covered four of the jars with muslin. Maggots developed in the open jars but did not develop in the muslin-covered jars.

In other words, dead things (like rotting meat) don’t suddenly become baby flies. So no matter who or what we’re talking about, from maggots to men, a simple principle is at play: living things come directly from other living things. Dead things don’t suddenly spring to life.

For some reason, in the abortion debate, this is still a revolutionary idea.  The scientific position, shared by pro-lifers, is simple: the father’s (living) sperm and the mother’s (living) egg form a (living) offspring when the two fuse (a moment in time known as conception or fertilization).  This living offspring is both alive and is distinct from each parent.  As Evangelium Vitae puts it:

    [F]rom the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.

Simple, scientific stuff.  Two living beings create a third living being.  The “pro-choice” side of the debate can’t acknowledge this without admitting that the “choice” in question is the killing of a living human being (albeit a tiny one), and yet they can’t deny it, either. To deny it would be to say that, at some point in the pregnancy cycle, a non-living embryo simply springs to life: the very sort of absurd spontaneous generation that Redi’s opponents believed in.

So what does the pro-abortion side do? Ignores the science, and obfuscates instead. Let me show you what I mean. (...)

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