Life in the Box: When Life Begins

When does a tiny collection of cells in a woman’s body go from being a bunch of cells on life support—to being a person? When does that intangible “spirit” enter the body and stay there? When does one person—the potential mother—become two people (or more?)

There’s a bill in front of Iowa Legislators now that declares that “life begins at conception.” If it passes, which it’s likely to, you will see it come up in Washington DC, as well. *

How do legislators know when life begins? What is this bill based upon? Can you show me a picture of the day a spirit–or life–enters a body within a woman’s body? Can you prove it to me?


This bill sure isn’t based on science. Science says it’s impossible to know exactly what moment life begins. There are no pictures or measurements that tell us this. If you want to explore more about the science, I recommend the Wired article by Sarah Zhang, linked below. I’ve also included a link to a great blog article about that by Ricki Lewis, PhD.

When I see those road-side posters trying to convince us that “unborn babies” are real people because they have a beating heart, or fingernails, or look something like a human—these are all non-convincing arguments to me. Grown-ups on life support can also have these features, and yet once the external supports are removed, there is no life in the body.


You can’t tell from the pregnant woman’s sonograms if the body that’s taking shape has a spirit present. There is only one thing that informs a mother when life enters the floating body—a terribly private and spiritual sense of the “being-ness” inside of her. Her sense of this should be the primary and only authority on when life begins, and yet one woman’s experience can be vastly different from another’s.

Hundreds of years ago, there was a common notion that a baby was alive in the womb when the mother first felt the fetus kicking. This notion was called “the quickening.” We now know that those first little flutters can be reflexes, or just gas, either on the part of the developing body or the mom’s.


I’m old enough to have known people on all sides of motherhood—from those who desperately wanted babies and couldn’t make the magic happen, to those who lost fully formed children just moments before or after birth, to those who desperately didn’t want children and either suffered as parents or gave the child away, or who suffered through abortions. I even know some happy parents.

Deciding to have a child is terribly personal and stirs all of our passions. It can deal death; it can create life; it can change lives drastically. There is nothing more dramatic than the decisions that surround creation.


If science can’t prove when life begins, and if mothers can’t prove it, then by process of elimination, these legislators are voting based on either “a good guess” or religious beliefs.  

Okay, seriously, we know this concept; it’s a conservative Christian bumper sticker. It’s a belief that’s been politicized, and if it’s institutionalized, it will make many common birth control practices illegal. Once conception takes place, every wrong turn the zygote-er, person–takes is potentially a murder. 


Goodbye “pill,” goodbye IUD, goodbye every form of birth control except barrier methods. Too bad that improved birth control is the number one reason that abortions have diminished in this country. Doesn’t matter, they’re out. 

And goodbye abortion of every kind at every stage. It will also make women vulnerable to criminal action if they have a miscarriage. Women might have to somehow prove they didn’t intentionally abort. Sad, but true. 


I joined the protesters today at the Iowa State Capitol. There were hundreds of people there in the rotunda, where most of us waited outside of the committee hearing-room’s door. Many in the crowd were waving posters, some were singing and shouting, and despite our differences, a few of us even talked civilly with each other while we waited.

I asked one man this question, “If our legislature was voting on a bill that gave government the power to assign religious beliefs to individuals, would you support that bill? Would any of the religious people here today want their leaders to randomly assign them to a church or synagogue?”

He said, “If it was a church [basically like his], then yes.” When I pushed a little more and said, “No you don’t get a choice, it’s assigned to you.” He said, “No.” I said, “Then you should not want this bill.” A bill like this gives our legislature the right to decide that some people’s religious beliefs are right and other people’s beliefs are wrong.

They are preventing choice, not for abortion rights, but for religious beliefs. Because personal core beliefs are the only basis for deciding when life begins, just like a person’s core belief in a religion is personal.


I also like to ask people this question, “What religion are you?” When they answer, the follow-up question is “prove it to me.” The proof has to be something internal to them, not their behaviors like attending a service or something like that. Show me the proof that you are the religion that you are supposed to be, or maybe that God wants you to be. Let’s be honest. It can’t be proven. 

Even if you could prove your own religious beliefs are “meant to be,” there is no way to prove that everyone else needs to believe the same things. The majority cannot nor should they want to force intangibles like religious beliefs on others–any more than they would want others to force beliefs on them. That’s what religious freedom really means. 

I hope our courts will provide us with a firewall for this outrageous bill and other surges of religious intolerance.


Remember that fiasco? One hundred years ago a Tennessee school teacher (John Scopes) was found guilty of teaching the concept of evolution, which was outlawed in that state. Even though Scopes lost, the arguments for teaching evolution “went viral” for the times. Four decades later, the Tennessee legislature changed their minds and let the teaching of evolution be legal again. Apparently it takes a long time to admit to being wrong.

Have your local school put on a production of “Inherit the Wind” and see if the Scopes arguments aren’t still of interest today. Then have them write a play called “When Life Begins.” I’d like to see it!

*Update March 3: Thankfully, Iowa legislators have tabled this bill for now. They are, instead, debating a bill that defunds Planned Parenthood and one that prevents almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. In Iowa, as nationally, the governor and the legislature is majority Republican.  

Nancy Heather Brown is a retired, Emmy Award-winning television producer whose career has included interviewing, writing, and editing for a span of four decades. Today, she enjoys learning new things and reflecting upon the creative process and the world of ideas both inside and outside the box.  Her opinions are her own and don’t necessarily represent the opinions of this web site. 

“Why Science Can’t Say When a Baby’s Life Begins” by Sarah Zhang, Wired

Ricki Lewis, PhD Posted Oct. 3, 2013—What we DO know about development in the womb

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