Heartbeats and Conception: Arguing Pro-Life Definitions of Personhood

The heartbeat is often the center of the anti-abortion movement. Our local pro-life, opinionated pastor often writes about fetal life having its own heartbeat as part of the basis for trying to convince the newspaper readers that fetuses are people and, therefore, abortion is wrong. A pro-life quote I’ve seen quite often is “If you’re pronounced dead when your heart stops beating, why aren’t you pronounced alive when your heart starts beating?” One of Pro-Life Across America’s anti-abortion billboards, shown on the main page of their website, shows a fully-formed, already birthed, sentient baby next to the words “My heart beat 18 days from conception”. Ohio recently passed a “heart beat” law banning elective abortion when there is a detectable fetal heartbeat. Ireland’s own heartbeat ban was the subject of heated debate when a woman whose miscarriage didn’t dispel the fetus wasn’t allowed to have an abortion and soon died after developing sepsis and going into cardiac arrest. During a pro-life march in Chile in 2016, pregnant women amplified the sound of their fetus’ heartbeats with megaphones. You can buy stickers of a heartbeat line that eventually form the words “pro-life”.


But I argue if pro-life supporters actually believe the heartbeat alone equals human life.

In May of 2017, the journal Biomaterials published a study where scientists found they could build working human heart muscle using spinach leaves. Despite meeting the requirements of having beating human heart tissue, the pro-life movement didn’t give this spinach leaf personhood.

HeatherReagan_TwitterSHORTI would bring up this spinach leaf in a Twitter thread involving a pro-life supporter that said the heartbeat was the thing that defines life: “We now have the technology to grow beating human heart tissues on spinach leaves. I guess the spinach is a person?” Her response was to tell me to quit grasping at straws and splitting hairs before continuing to comment that abortion is murder because it stops a beating heart born from the act of conception. Even if questioning the personhood of a spinach leaf engineered to grow human heart tissue is stupid, the response explaining an additional requirement possibly shows pro-life advocates believe that it takes more than a heartbeat and human tissue to make something a person. 

Much of the pro-life movement also believes that personhood begins at the moment of conception when sperm meets egg. Some pro-life supporters are against ‘chemical birth control’ as some methods can thin the uterine lining, preventing implantation of a fertilized egg they see as a person and therefore “kill a child”. However, if they truly believed personhood begins from the moment of conception and that embryos by themselves are children, the pro-life movement would be rallying hard against fertility clinics and IVF treatments.

Since 1991, 1.7 million embryos have been created for IVF treatments, but were discarded without being used. An additional 23,480 embryos were discarded after being removed from storage. Almost 840,000 embryos have been put into storage for future use.  About 1.4 million embryos have been implanted, but less than 1 in 6 result in pregnancy. This should be a huge issue for anyone that believes personhood begins from the moment of conception. By pro-life logic, over 1.7 children have been killed, 840,000 children are imprisoned in frozen penitentiaries, and fertility clinics are evil for putting in perfectly viable pre-born children in infertile women knowing the likelihood that these children will die because they either will be miscarriage or won’t implant in the uterine wall.

Yet IVF rarely ever appears on the pro-life radar. Students For Life even admits that IVF is not a topic that crops up too often in pro-life circles. Personally, I have seen only one anti-abortion activist so against IVF that he protests fertility clinics regularly and created an anti-IVF Facebook page comparing IVF to human trafficking. (To be fair, he’s anti-abortion abolitionist, which differ from “pro-lifers” because they want to criminalize abortion even in cases where it saves the mother’s life). I recall the previously mentioned local pro-life pastor playing around with the idea of protesting fertility clinics when it got brought up in a conversation in an attempt to distract him from his protesting the local women’s clinic, but so far nothing ever came of it and he’s still doing the same old song and dance of writing opinion letters that abortion kills children and organizing the yearly protest on the town bridge. Even one of the pro-life stars of the anti-abortion film, “Unplanned”, casually mentioned his wife initially went through IVF treatments before decided to pray to God for a child and conceiving a “miracle baby”, seemingly showing that despite being pro-life/anti-abortion the couple weren’t opposed to using a process that wastes potential human life in order to achieve their personal goals of bearing children with their DNA.

This seems strange that pro-life supporters are against killing what they consider to be people in the womb, but are seemingly indifferent to IVF destroying nearly two million “children”. Maybe this indifference towards IVF is an indication that the anti-abortion movement doesn’t wholly believe that embryos are people or that personhood begins at conception.

Perhaps pro-life views on personhood are more complex than they make it out to be. But if pro-life supporters don’t believe that heartbeats and conception truly make a person, then what do they believe when it comes to fetal life having personhood?