Can We Really Be So Sure When Human Life Begins? What Recent Neurobiological Data Might Entail for the Abortion Debate

[1] Since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate has entered a new phase.  And yet in another sense, nothing is new.  The same old arguments get made on both sides with neither side really engaging the other.  On one hand, there are those of the Pro-Choice movement, in accord with Roe vs. Wade’s decision on the right to privacy and Feminist arguments concerning a woman’s right to control her own body.  On the other hand, there are those of most Pro-Life proponents arguing that since human life begins in the womb, abortion is the murder of a human life.  (Some Christians taking this position also argue that personhood begins in the womb on allegedly Biblical grounds, for God is said to have known us in the womb [Jeremiah 1:5].)  Both sides are talking past each other, with the Right claiming it has both science and Christian faith on its side concerning the personhood of the fetus.  Even the media seems to depict the dispute this way: Women’s Rights vs. Science and Faith.

[2]  Yet, science cannot specifically identify when human life begins.  The origin of human life is ultimately a question of politics and philosophy, not biology.[i] Findings in neurobiology suggest that, despite bodily similarities between homo sapiens and the fetus, the fetus may not become recognizably human until well into mid-pregnancy.

[3] I confess a definite perspective on this question.  It runs in the family.  My Norwegian grandmother Anna, born in 1879 with a Haugean, daily Bible-reading piety inherited from her elders, frequently functioned as a mid-wife in her rural Southern Norway homeland.  I am told that there were times when pregnancies were suddenly terminated on her watch, especially in the case of some struggling families and unmarried women.  Her youngest daughter, my immigrant street-wise theologically conservative mother, Edna, was known to educate me on sexual questions as early as the late 1950s with phrases like, “You know, Maak [her Brooklyn accent], men can make all the laws they want about abortion.  But the truth is, a girl can always get one.  And I want her to get it if she must in a hospital, not with a coat-hanger in some back ally.”  I’m married into a family with a similar point of view.  My wife Betsey never met her Aunt Edna, because her father’s sister died tragically while receiving the kind of coat-hanger abortion care which my mother lamented.

[4] Yes, I’ve been nurtured with a definite proto-feminist openness to abortion, a position with 19th-century roots (if not older).  But I can say that the members of my family with their openness to the legitimacy of abortion never accused anti-abortion proponents of being less Christian than we were.  We could even have friends on the other side, and we never demonized them.  The disagreement we had with those on the other side was over whether you should prioritize a fetus over the welfare of a pregnant woman – a philosophical or ethical concern, not a faith disagreement.  I’ve even grown up to make a case for the conclusions of my family.  In a comprehensive study of every church/denominational statement issued on abortion prior to 1990 I demonstrated that theological differences do not divide these denominations on this issue.  You can identify similar theological arguments for both the pro-life and the pro-choice positions in these statements.  Indeed, in their social statements disagreeing about abortion, the core of the disagreements is that Christian denominations disagree over philosophical questions of when human life begins, and over which philosophical concepts best depict human nature.[ii]  Little has changed in these denominations’ positions in the last 35 years.


[5] Neurobiological research on the fetus combined with new insights from the theory of evolution offer fresh perspectives on when human life begins.  Evolutionary scientists are starting to contend that what distinguishes homo sapiens from other animals is our superior ability to cooperate across genetic lines.[iii] And it seems that our superior abilities to cooperate are largely functions of the proportionately larger frontal lobe of the brain which human beings have.  This part of the brain seems to be what makes social interactions, abstract thought, language, and consciousness possible.[iv] In short, a case can plausibly be made that the fetus is not really human until these mental tools have developed.  And new research, especially that conducted by Miikihito Shibata, Kartik Pattabiraman, Nenad Sestan, and others at the Yale School of Medicine found that it is the 2nd trimester of pregnancy which is the most crucial time for the formation of the neural connections of the prefrontal cortex with the rest of the brain, the connections which creates human cognitive flexibility and the possible growth of working memory.[v]

[6] These same Yale researchers also found that retonic acid in the brain is crucial in the expansion of the prefrontal cortex – acid which then in turn promotes human complexity.  Apparently this acid switches on the gene CBLN2 which is crucial in forming connections with the frontal cortex, all not happening until the 2nd trimester.[vi] Only after this happens is the fetus capable of  distinctively human thought and behavior, capable of the cooperation which distinguishes humans from other living things.

[7] Let’s now review the consensus in the neurobiological guild about human brain development.  In the first trimester, the various parts of the brain rapidly develop and separate as distinct parts.  Neurons and synapses (brain connections) develop.  In the 2nd trimester, the brain begins to take command of bodily functions.  At this point, there is little unique about the human fetus’ brain in comparison to the brains of other living things.  Only by the end of this trimester (6 months since initial conception) has the fetal brain begun to look structurally like the adult human brain.  It is not before the 3rd trimester that the brain is capable of learning and that consciousness is possible.[vii] Indeed, then, a case could be made that the fetus is not truly human until the 7th month of pregnancy (human uniqueness understood in terms of being capable of cooperation or even of consciousness)!  In that case, abortion prior to the 7th month would not be the termination of a human life.


[8] Above all, this article is about getting both sides in the debate to take the science seriously.  The Pro-Life group needs to concede that it is by no means firmly established that human life begins at conception or in the first trimester.  Life begins at this time, but it is not necessarily human life.  The Pro-Choice side needs to recognize that its position is being heard by the Right as advocating murder and that the Left’s strongest arguments are provided by scientific data possibly supporting the non-human status of the fetus until 6 or 7 months of pregnancy.  Grappling with the scientific data may open the doors to a civil debate, based on common data.  It is worth a try to get the neurobiological data into the public forum and media.  In that case, we ought collectively to get this word out in the ELCA, the ecumenical community, and the public at large.

[9] One other issue to be addressed in the dispute is the Christian Pro-Life tendency to appeal to the Bible (see Jeremiah 1:5 noted above and related texts).  The new scientific data I have been recounting do not rule out that late in the pregnancy human life exists in the womb.  And when we keep in mind the simultaneity of time from God’s perspective[viii], it makes sense to identify a human being with the fetus and even the embryo as the Bible might seem to make.  In God’s sight, at this very moment as this 73-year old writes these words, my mother is carrying the fetus which would develop into this author.  In that sense, God knows me now in my mother’s womb.

[10] We’ve learned from Quantum Physics that scientific results are always only probabilities.  We may discern new data yet on when human life begins, which entail that these reflections and other efforts to use scientific data are always revisable.  If such scientific modes of thought were to take root in the abortion debate, American society and all of us could become a lot more civil, as we became a little less certain about the “absolute truth” of our positions.  Let’s try to get more scientifically-minded and get these insights better known among Lutherans and in American society.






[i] Sahotra Sarkar, “When human life begins is a question of politics – not biology,” The Conversation (September, 2021)

[ii] see Mark Ellingsen, “The Church and Abortion: Signs of Consensus,” The Christian Century (Jan. 3-10, 1990): 12-15.

[iii] Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper Collins, 2015).

[iv] Bill Hathaway, “Mid-pregnancy may be defining period for human brain,” Yale News (Oct. 4, 202)..

[v] “Regulation of the prefrontal patterning and connectivity by retinoic acid,” Nature (Oct. 2021): 483-488.

[vi] “Hominini-specific regulation of CBLN2 increases prefrontal spinogenesis,” Nature (Oct. 2021): 489-494.

[vii] Sara Landberg, “When Does a Fetus Develop a Brain?”, Healthline (Sept. 30, 2020).

[viii] Augustine, Confessions, IX.XIII.16

Mark Ellingsen 

Mark Ellingsen is Professor of Church History at the Interdenominational Theological Center.  He is the author of over 400 published articles (several on the abortion controversy) and 26 books, most recently a book he co-authored with Civil Rights leader James Woodall, titled Wired for Racism? How Evolution and Faith Move Us to Challenge Racial Idolatry (New CIty Press).