The Scientific Consensus on When a Human’s Life Begins

Issues in Law & Medicine, Volume 36, Number 2, 2021

16 Pages Posted: 8 Dec 2021

See all articles by Steven Andrew Jacobs

Steven Andrew Jacobs

Northwestern Prizker School of Law; University of Chicago - Department of Comparative Human Development

Multiple version iconThere are 2 versions of this paper

Date Written: November 15, 2021


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.

Funding Information: This research received no external funding.

Declaration of Interests: The author declares no conflict of interest.

Ethics Approval Statement: The study was approved by The University of Chicago’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Institutional Review Board (IRB16-1228- CR002 on 8/20/18). Informed consent was obtained from all participants involved in the study.

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

Suggested Citation

Jacobs, Steven and Jacobs, Steven, The Scientific Consensus on When a Human’s Life Begins (November 15, 2021). Issues in Law & Medicine, Volume 36, Number 2, 2021, Available at SSRN:

Steven Jacobs (Contact Author)

University of Chicago - Department of Comparative Human Development ( email )

Chicago, IL 60637
United States

Northwestern Prizker School of Law ( email )

750 N. Lake Shore Drive
Chicago, IL 60611
United States

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