The Scientific Consensus on When a Human’s Life Begins

October 1, 2021
Edition: Fall 2021
Volume: 36
Issue: 2
Article: 5

Table of Contents


Peer-reviewed journals in the biological and life sciences literature have published articles that represent the biological view that a human’s life begins at fertilization (“the fertilization view”). As those statements are typically offered without explanation or citation, the fertilization view seems to be uncontested by the editors, reviewers, and authors who contribute to scientific journals. However, Americans are split on whether the fertilization view is a “philosophical or religious belief” (45%) or a “biological and scientific fact” (46%), and only 38% of Americans view fertilization as the starting point of a human’s life. In the two studies that explored experts’ views on the matter, the fertilization view was the most popular perspective held by public health and IVF professionals. Since a recent study suggested that 80% of Americans view biologists as the group most qualified to determine when a human’s life begins, experts in biology were surveyed to provide a new perspective to the literature on experts’ views on this matter. Biologists from 1,058 academic institutions around the world assessed survey items on when a human’s life begins and, overall, 96% (5337 out of 5577) affirmed the fertilization view. The founding principles of the field Science Communication suggest that scientists have an ethical and professional obligation to inform Americans, as well as people around the world, about scientific developments so members of the public can be empowered to make life decisions that are consistent with the best information available. Given that perspective—and a recent study’s finding that a majority of Americans believe they deserve to know when a human’s life begins in order to make informed reproductive decisions—science communicators should work to increase the level of science awareness on the fertilization view, as it stands alone as the leading biological perspective on when a human’s life begins.

Keywords: fertilization; when life begins; when a human’s life begins; science communication; abortion; human rights; personhood; scientific consensus

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About the Authors

Affiliation: J.D., Northwestern University School of Law, 2016; Ph.D., The University of Chicago, 2019.