Q: When does life begin? My sense is that consciousness does not enter the body until a baby is many weeks old.
This is a question that has evoked many answers over time. When we study human embryology, we learn that the embryo undergoes a full evolution from zygote (or fertilized egg) through plant and animal stages of development. Like a plant in the earth, the embryo is “rooted” in the placenta, drawing all necessary nutrients for its emergent body through the umbilical cord. That connection is maintained until birth.
We now know from the research pioneered by Cleve Backster and detailed in The Secret Life of Plants by Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird that even plants appear to be sentient, although lacking a nervous system and a brain. Using measurements of conductivity similar to those of a polygraph, Backster was able to observe and measure reactivity in plant tissue in response to a variety of stimuli. The most interesting story I heard in this regard was about the experiment where a number of plants were wired with electrodes in one room, with responses being transmitted to polygraphs in the next room. In one experiment, a man came into the room and “killed” one of the plants by uprooting it and crushing it. The electrodes registered a strong and immediate reaction – like a plant “scream.” Later, after soothing music had been played and the plants had calmed down, the same man re-entered the room. The plants had an immediate stress reaction to the presence of the “murderer.”
Many other studies have demonstrated how plants are impacted by music and other types of sound in their immediate environment.
If plants have a rudimentary cellular consciousness – which is more fully developed in animals which have central nervous systems and brains, of course – then it seems reasonable to conclude that an embryo, being of the same cellular and then animal nature, also has consciousness – a consciousness that can recognize threat, pain, soothing music, and so on. And in fact, many pregnant mothers have placed headphones on their burgeoning bellies to play music for their gestating child. I noticed that my children and grandchildren, in the first moments of life beyond the womb, instantly recognize their mother’s voice and turn toward it. Many also seem to recognize their father’s voice as well in the first minutes after birth, before they are bombarded with the other noises of our world.
Some religions believe that the soul enters the body with the first breath and departs with the last breath. The soul, however, is distinct from bodily life. The living body, equipped with both cellular consciousness and animal instinctual awareness, becomes the scaffolding upon which the higher consciousness of the soul can enact its unfolding story of human and spiritual development.
So my answer to the question is that both life and consciousness are present in ever-developing degrees from the moment of conception – because the body is composed of cells and cells are both alive and conscious at a very rudimentary level. As the child’s brain develops, consciousness evolves beyond the cellular level to the reptilian brain, then on to that of the higher animals…all prior to birth. I can’t say for sure whether or not the potential for human consciousness is present before birth or whether it enters at the first breath as the soul. I have heard stories from people who recall hearing conversations – highly emotional conversations – between their parents while still in utero…and have verified this remembrance years later with their parents. This is not exactly scientific evidence, but it is still suggestive when you hear this multiple times.
All of this discussion goes to the difficult topic of abortion, of course. Having given birth to four children myself, I know that I personally would never have been able to terminate a pregnancy unless I knew for sure that the embryo/fetus was irrevocably damaged – and usually nature takes care of that with a miscarriage, which in fact happened to me with my first pregnancy. However, I would not deprive other women of their freedom of choice in determining whether or not they are able and willing to not only gestate a child, but care for them responsibly after birth. Back-alley abortions performed on desperate women were a horrible solution. At the same time, I am distressed by the current high level of pregnancies terminated by abortion as a method of birth control. To me, the zygote/embryo/ fetus is both alive and conscious – and therefore as sacred as life itself. My hope is that birth control is practiced effectively PRIOR to conception so that this heart-rending and difficult choice never needs to be made, and that all pregnancies are intentional so that each child is welcomed into this world with joy and all-embracing love.