When does life begin is probably the most fundamental question in the abortion debate. The pro-life side occasionally assumes that people know the answer to this, and the pro-choice side often seems to ignore the question entirely.

Yet it is the single most important question in this debate, because if we can agree that human life begins at or after the 12th week of pregnancy, then the abortion debate and the question of the 8th Amendment would be over. If life is not present before the 12th week, then you won’t find a sensible pro-life advocate who would have any problem whatsoever with abortions happening prior to that stage.

However, on a scientific or biological level, we know that human life starts much earlier than the 12th week. Even without reference to science, an examination of language and a bit of philosophy provides sufficient evidence for this claim.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a person’s birthday happens every year, and that whenever possible, this person celebrates it in one way or another. Pragmatically speaking, what is being celebrated here is the anniversary of the day when you came out or were brought out to the outer world from the inside of your mother’s womb. Whichever verb (came out or brought out) is used for the previous sentence is not that important. What is truly relevant is the pronoun, which in this case is you.  

In order for a person to come out of a place, let’s say a supermarket or an office, that person had to be a person before coming out of that place. In other words, if we took you as an example, then you had to be you (a person) before coming out of that supermarket, otherwise it would not have been you who actually performed the action. In the exact same way, if we took you again as an example, then you had to be you (a person) before coming out of that womb, otherwise it would not have been you who actually performed the action.

This should then lead us to ask ourselves a couple of other questions. If you were already you inside your mother’s womb, then when did this independent existence begin?  In other words, when did you start just being in the first place? And if it wasn’t in the womb that you became you, when and where did your identity as an individual come into being? Was it at 12 weeks of gestation, the point at which the Irish government believes abortion becomes unacceptable, or was it earlier than this?

As unusual as it may sound, these questions can all be answered if we think of yet another question: when were you conceived? Indeed, it is an unusual question which not a lot of people tend to ask to friends or colleagues, probably because of the personal or intimate nature of what took place on this date, nine months prior to your birth. Nevertheless, this question couldn’t be more important as a contribution to the debate about abortion..

Firstly, being conceived is not the same as being born. It is neither exiting a place nor being moved from one location to another. In other words, before you were conceived, not only were you not in another place, but actually there was no you at all. That is why the importance of the question “when were you conceived?” does not lie in the answer, but on the fact that it is possible to ask such question in the first place. Just think about it. To be conceived is to start being and there are no more questions that could be asked about you prior to that conception moment, as you were neither a sperm nor an egg and you simply did not exist.  What’s true here is the following: that once you were conceived, you existed as a person. This was the point at which your life began.

Once a person thinks about this fundamental question a bit deeper, then he or she will easily discover how the relativism used by those advocating the legalisation of abortion does not hold firm. After fully considering the starting point of your own life, it is then no longer enough to claim that an unborn child is only human when wanted, and only a bunch of cells when is aborted.

Another example that further illustrates this incongruence is the pro-choice justifications for abortions in cases of Down Syndrome, or where sex selective abortions take place. In order to have Down Syndrome, one needs to be a human being first and foremost, just as you need to be a human being in order to be a boy or a girl. If you can detect this genetic condition or the biological sex before birth, then it is necessary to acknowledge the humanity of the unborn child in question. This proves that what is being considered is not merely a cluster of cells.

When a mother is pregnant, there is at least one person inside her womb from the moment of conception up until the moment of birth. It may be possible to deny that person’s right to exist, on grounds of disability, or gender, or simple inconvenience. In the same manner, it may be possible to say that his or her right to life only truly commences at the 12th week of pregnancy, or at some other arbitrary point chosen for reasons of political expediency. But it is not possible to deny that he or she is there, or that they have been there since the moment of conception, the moment they began to be.

This central truth is worth bearing in mind over the coming weeks, when some of the loudest voices will be from those denying the humanity of the unborn child, or trying to divide the unborn into categories: some of which can be disposed of through abortion, and some of which cannot. At the heart of the matter, is the tiny, growing unborn.

Once upon a time, that unborn person was you.