Of Acorns, Eggs and Captive Violinists: When Does Human Life Begin?

The abortion issue is very complex, possessing many dimensions: personal, legislative, judicial, religious and scientific.  There is, however, one central debate around which every other point revolves ― the status of the unborn child.  Is it human?  Is it alive?  And, most importantly, is it a person?

being human


Science: When Does Life Begin?

Pro-abortionists commonly assert that the question of when human life begins is a metaphysical or religious matter.  If pro-lifers attempt to debate from this perspective, they will lose every time.  The abortion advocate can then claim that abortion is a matter for “a woman, her god and her physician” to decide, and that any attempt to restrict abortion is a violation of their religious freedom.  This means that the central question is never resolved.  This, of course, is exactly what pro-abortionists want, because then their killing can continue unimpeded.

Pro-lifers must stress that science determines the point at which the preborn child is a human person, not religion.  If abortion advocates attempt to debate from the scientific standpoint, they will inevitably lose ― but only if pro-lifers are prepared to refute the pseudo-scientific arguments they use to support their position.

In the years immediately before and after Roe v. Wade, pro-abortionists argued that the unborn child was just “spare tissue.”  As one example, Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood asked in 1985, “Is the fetus alive?  Is it alive?  Algae is alive, and earthworms, and your appendix.  Mold on the bread in the refrigerator is alive.  People are not agreed on what a life is.” 1

They did not hold this position for long, because pro-lifers proved scientifically that the unborn child met all the definitions of “life” as described in every embryology and fetology textbook.2


Some Pro-Abortion Arguments

Pro-abortionists who argue against the personhood of the unborn child now typically use one of these four methods: the body part argument, the acorn case or the egg simile, and the story about the captive violinist.


The Body Part Argument

To begin with, pro-abortionists commonly confuse body parts with the entire child.  For example, eugenicist Garrett Hardin (1915-2003) wrote:

A set of blueprints is not a house; the DNA of a zygote is not a human being.  There is no moral obligation to conserve DNA ― if there was, no man would be allowed to brush his teeth and gums, for in this brutal operation hundreds of sets of DNA are destroyed daily.3

This is a classic pro-abortion diversion.  Of course the DNA of a zygote is not a human being; but the zygote in its entirety is a human being.  If a soldier loses an arm during combat, we know that the arm is not a human being, but the soldier, no matter how wounded, is still a human being, a person.


The Acorn Case and Egg Simile

Some pro-abortionists say that a chicken egg is not a chicken, and that an acorn is not an oak, inferring that the unborn child is not a person and can be disposed of.

Of course the chicken egg is not a chicken, but this is irrelevant, since neither eggs nor chickens are human.  And we know that acorns are not oaks, but, once again, neither an acorn nor an oak is a human being.  We can chop down fully-grown oak trees for a construction project or eat drumsticks and omelets to our heart’s content, and nobody will charge us with murder.


The “Captive Violinist” Argument

Finally, we have the venerable “captive violinist” argument.  This story attempts to make the point that, even if an unborn child is a living human person, he has no right to use another person’s body without their consent.

The story features a famous violinist who is about to die of kidney disease.  His friends kidnap a person (let’s call him “Charles”), and “hook him up” to the violinist in order to keep him alive.  The pro-abortionists say that Charles has no obligation to sustain the violinist against his will and may “unplug” him, just as a woman may “unplug” the fetus who is using her body against her will.

Here are a few responses to this argument:

  • The first gaping hole in this story is that the woman gives consent for the possibility of pregnancy every time she has intercourse.  Even if she is using birth control, every method has failures, and she knows full well that there is a chance, however small, that she might become pregnant.  Some claim that the use of contraception is like locking the doors of a house, and if someone breaks into your house you can eject them.  In other words, the use of birth control is a “Keep Out!” sign.  This analogy fails, of course, because of the frequent failure of birth control (some two million cases annually in the United States alone).  This means that, 2 – 15% of the time, the woman knows that she is going to unlock her door and replace the “Keep Out!” sign with a welcome mat.
  • Secondly, nobody needs to kidnap anyone to keep the violinist alive because of the existence of dialysis.  He will remain alive even if he is never connected to anyone, but the preborn child will die if he or she is “disconnected” from the mother by abortion.
  • Most fundamentally, even if Charles unplugs himself from the violinist, the latter is going to die of kidney disease anyway, where the unborn child is being directly killed by abortion.  A more accurate analogy would be if Charles was never connected to the violinist in the first place, but deliberately sought him out and then shot him in the head, killing him.



The Abortion Debate Continued…

Most pro-abortionists now realize that they have lost the factual battle, and many are admitting that the unborn child is indeed a living human person.  Instead of turning away from the killing, however, they justify abortion on the grounds that some persons are worth sacrificing for the convenience of others. Here are some examples:

  • The former President of Planned Parenthood, Faye Wattleton, said, “I think we have deluded ourselves into believing that people don’t know that abortion is killing.  So any pretense that abortion is not killing is a signal of our ambivalence, a signal that we cannot say yes, it kills a fetus.”4
  • Ann Furedi, head of England’s largest chain of abortion mills, says, “We can accept that the embryo is a living thing in the fact that it has a beating heart, that it has its own genetic system within it, it’s clearly human in the sense that it’s not a gerbil and we can recognize that it is human life, but the point is not when does life begin but when does it begin to matter.”5
  • Even the utilitarian Peter Singer, who approves of both abortion and the infanticide of handicapped infants, says, “There is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being.”6



This is a terribly dangerous attitude.  If we can define for ourselves when human life “matters,” then we can dispose of it whenever it becomes inconvenient to us.  This is precisely what the Nazis did when they spoke of “life unworthy of life” (lebensunwerten Lebens),7 where the right to life is not assumed, but must be earned.  Once we think like this, all that remains is the tiny step towards classifying people according to their utility, as Hitler did.

Many nations, of course, have already begun this process at both ends of life, by starving both handicapped newborns and the sick elderly.  Professors Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva justified infanticide of newborns when they wrote, “Both a fetus and a newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’”8


Conclusion: When Does Life Begin?

Most pro-abortionists tie themselves in knots when asked when personhood begins.  Some say at birth; some say at quickening; still others say “when the mother accepts the life that is growing within her.”

But science shows us that the development of the human person from fertilization until death is an unbroken continuum.  There is no single point at which we can say “the unborn child is now a living human person, where it was not a living human person one minute ago.”

We have seen, however, that there is simply no debate among honest, informed people ― both pro-life and “pro-choice” ― that abortion kills human beings.



+ Endnotes

[1] “Let’s Tell the Truth About Abortion.” 22-page pamphlet distributed by Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood in 1985 [Fight Back Press, Post Office Box 61421, Denver, Colorado 80206].

[2] Some examples: “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo)” [Keith L. Moore.  The Developing Human:  Clinically Oriented Embryology [Philadelphia:  Saunders], 2003 (7th Edition), page 16:2; “Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote” [T.W. Sadler.  Langman’s Medical Embryology Philadelphia:  Lippincott Williams & Wilkins], 2006 (10th Edition), page 11; “[The zygote], formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being” Keith L. Moore.  Before We Are Born:  Essentials of Embryology [Philadelphia:  Saunders], 2008, page 2.

[3] Garrett Hardin, professor of biology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Redbook Magazine, May 1967. Also quoted on page 101 of Ruth Barnett.  They Weep On My Doorstep.  Beaverton, Oregon:  Halo Publishers, 1969.

[4] Faye Wattleton. “Speaking Frankly.”  Magazine, May/June 1997, page 67.

[5] Ann Furedi, head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), quoted in Hilary White. “‘Abortion is Genocide’:  UK Pro-Lifers Defend Scottish Bishop’s Holocaust Comparison.”  LifeSite Daily News, September 25, 2012.

[6] Peter Singer. Practical Ethics [Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press] (2nd Edition), 2008, pages 85 and 86.

[7] Karl Binding and Alfred Hoche. Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens (“The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life”), 1920.

[8] Professors Alberto Giubilini of Milan, Italy, and Francesca Minerva of Australia, quoted in Warner T. Huston. “Professors:  Babies Don’t Know They’re Killed in Abortions.”  com, May 7, 2012.

Brian Clowes, PhD

Dr. Brian Clowes has been HLI’s director of research since 1995 and is one of the most accomplished and respected intellectuals in the international pro-life movement. Best known as author of the most exhaustive pro-life informational resource volume The Facts of Life, and for his Pro-Life Basic Training Course, Brian is the author of nine books and over 500 scholarly and popular articles, and has traveled to 70 countries on six continents as a pro-life speaker, educator and trainer.

Leave a Comment