When does human life begin?
By Andy Coghlan An international poll has shown there’s a wide range of opinion about when human life “begins” biologically. The results foreshadow voting on a controversial constitutional amendment next week in Colorado to confer legal rights on embryos at the point of fertilisation. A “yes” vote could make it easier to outlaw abortion in that state, and encourage similar amendments to be tabled elsewhere in the US. But in the international poll, only 22.7% of voters selected fertilisation as the point when human life begins. Detection of fetal heartbeat came highest, polling 23.5% of the 650 or so votes. Implantation of the embryo in the womb lining came third, with 15%. Respondents were given a dozen possible tick-box answers, and and asked to tick the one they agreed with. “We can’t tell [Colorado] voters the right or wrong answer, because our results suggest there isn’t one,” says Jaclyn Friedman of Reproductive Biology Associates, the IVF clinic in Atlanta, Georgia, which commissioned the poll. Friedman also stresses that the poll question asked respondents when human life began in a biological sense of being an original entity. “We didn’t ask when it’s a person,” she says. “There’s a distinction between when a group of cells is considered living, and when it deserves human rights, and that’s what comes into play with this amendment.” The amendment proposes not only that fertilisation is when human life begins, but also that this is when someone becomes a person, deserving the same legal rights and protection under the American Constitution as any baby, child or adult citizen. “People might say this or that is when life begins, but it doesn’t necessarily confer legal rights on that entity,” says Thomas Elliott of Reproductive Biology Associates, who will present the full results of the poll next week in San Francisco at the Annual meeting of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine. The poll also demonstrates the wide religious and geographic spread of opinion on when biological life begins. Not surprisingly, Roman Catholics had the highest proportion voting for “sperm-egg” fusion, around 31%. By contrast, a third of Jewish respondents, 29% of agnostics and 27% of Muslims opted for fetal heartbeat. So too did 38% of IVF patients. Geographically, only 13% of UK respondents opted for “sperm-fusion”, with 43% choosing “fetal heartbeat”. In complete contrast, 47% of Australasians voted for “sperm-egg” and a tiny 7% for “fetal heartbeat”. The spread in North America was more even, with 27% choosing “sperm-egg”,