Researcher attacked over study showing 96% of biologists believe life begins at conception

An image of an unborn child.
An image of an unborn child. | (Photo: Reuters)

A University of Chicago doctoral student says he was alarmed by the backlash he received after publishing the result of a survey showing a majority of biologists believe life begins at conception.  

Writing in Quillette last week, Steve Jacobs noted that soon after he was awarded his Ph.D, he was interviewed by several conservative news outlets about a working paper that was linked with his dissertation on balancing abortion rights and the rights of preborn babies, in which he explored key questions that have dominated abortion politics in the United States for decades. His dissertation, which also sought to explain why the abortion debate continues and whether it could be resolved, was titled "Balancing Abortion Rights and Fetal Rights: A Mixed Methods Mediation of the U.S. Abortion Debate."

Jacobs reported the data on the views of both pro-life and pro-choice Americans as it relates to various policies, including where their views overlap, such as restrictions on late-term procedures and improving the adoption process.

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Yet it was the responses of biologists from all over the world about when life begins — the overwhelming majority of whom indicated support for abortion — that proved most interesting to journalists. 

Of the 5,577 biologists who responded to a survey he sent out, 96 percent affirmed that life begins at fertilization.

"It was the reporting of this view — that human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are biological humans — that created such a strong backlash. It was not unexpected, as the finding provides fodder for conservative opponents of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court suggested there was no consensus on 'the difficult question of when life begins' and that 'the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, [was] not in a position to speculate as to the answer,'” Jacobs wrote.

The majority of the sample of biologists he surveyed identified as politically liberal (89%), pro-choice (85%) and non-religious (63%). Among the U.S. biologists surveyed who expressed party preference, most identified as Democrats (92%).

Among the responses he received in emails included:

"Is this a studied fund by Trump and ku klux klan?”

“Sure hope YOU aren’t a f---ing christian!!”

“This is some stupid right to life thing…YUCK I believe in RIGHT TO CHOICE!!!!!!!”

One of the more measured yet still hostile responses was: "Sorry this looks like its more a religious survey to be used to misinterpret by radicals to advertise about the beginning of life and not a survey about what faculty know about biology. Your advisor can contact me.”

Jacobs' questions, however, were not loaded with pro-life lingo, he noted; he opted to leave them open-ended, asking respondents to elaborate on specific elements of the view that “a human’s life begins at fertilization.”

It was only after assessing in essay form statements such as “From a biological perspective, a zygote that has a human genome is a human because it is a human organism developing in the earliest stage of the human life cycle” that respondents were informed that the survey was related to the controversial public debate about abortion. And that is when Jacobs started receiving hostile responses and was thus able to explore the reasons why people reacted as they did.

"I have concluded that one of the biggest reasons the abortion debate can’t be bridged is mistrust. I think this is primarily due to the stakes being so high for both sides. One side sees abortion rights as critical to gender equality, while the other sees abortion as an epic human rights tragedy — as over a billion humans have died in abortions since the year 2000," Jacobs said.

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