You’re wrong.” The student I was speaking to looked at me calmly and confidently. “Life doesn’t begin at fertilization,” he continued. “Life begins when there’s brain activity. You’re dead when your brain stops; you’re alive when your brain starts.”  

In attempting to make the case that a certain level of cognitive function is necessary to grant human rights, this young man had made a pro-life case to himself. I didn’t need to convince him; I only needed to help him delve a little deeper into the premise he had just presented.

“You’re correct,” I told him. “We do define death as complete, irreversible brain death. Do you know what that looks like in the human body?” 

He shook his head no, so I continued. 

“When you have complete, irreversible brain death your body stops functioning in a coordinated manner for the health of the whole. Do you know when your body starts functioning in a coordinated manner for the health of the whole?” 

“No,” he said.

“Well,” I said, quoting Dr. Maureen Condic, “‘At the moment of fertilization the zygote starts functioning in a coordinated manner for the health of the whole. That is the very hallmark of what it means to be an organism.’ So if we’re going to define death by when your body stops functioning in a coordinated manner for the health of the whole, shouldn’t we define life by when that starts?” 

He thought about it and then slowly said to me, “I guess so.” 

Bringing the point home, I asked, “Is there any other point where it would be logical to define the beginning of life?” 

“No” he said again. “You’re right.”

In just a short conversation, I was able to help this student understand the logical connection between the beginning and ending of life—one he instinctively knew existed, but didn’t yet understand. By the end of our conversation, he knew, both logically and scientifically, that human rights ought to begin when humans begin.

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