When does human life begin?

Linley SandersData Journalist
April 13, 2022, 4:23 PM GMT+0

YouGov occasionally asks members of its panel if they have poll question ideas. This article was inspired by one of those submissions, which asked us to explore when Americans believe life begins.

In the decades since the Supreme Court ruled that women have a constitutional right to abortion access, there has been a debate around when human life begins.

This question is often at the center of proposed laws to restrict abortion access, with many anti-abortion advocates asserting that human life starts at conception, at which point the egg is fertilized. Others believe that it starts when a heartbeat can be detected, and even more say life does not begin until birth. This is critical because many believe abortion should be illegal after human life has begun — and how they define life could determine whether they find current abortion regulations too permissive or too restrictive.

A new YouGov poll indicates that opinions on this question vary based on political party and a person’s overall view on abortion. For instance, U.S. adult citizens who believe that abortion should either be always illegal or illegal in most circumstances are five times as likely (50%) to say life begins at conception than are Americans who believe abortion should generally be legal (10%). People who support abortion legalization in most cases are more likely than people who generally oppose it to say life starts later: in the third trimester (17% vs. 5%) or at birth (26% vs. 8%).

The question of when life begins is also related to support for certain abortion bans. In Texas, a new law called Senate Bill 8 restricts abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, which is before many women know they are pregnant. These types of bans are frequently referred to as “heartbeat abortion bans” because they prohibit the procedure around the same time that cardiac activity can be detected in a fetus.

Americans are split evenly on whether abortions should be banned after around six weeks of pregnancy, with 41% in support and 41% opposed. Support is much higher (67%) among people who believe life begins within the first eight weeks of pregnancy, when an embryo develops into a fetus and during the time when a heartbeat can usually be detected. Republicans (69%) and people who generally think abortion should be illegal (66%) are similarly likely to support an abortion ban at six weeks.

The Texas law, which has inspired copycat bills in other states with a Republican legislature, also allows private citizens in the state to sue anyone who assists someone in their state with getting an abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected. This component of the law is opposed by about half of Americans (49%) with 31% in support. Most Republicans and people who think abortion should generally be illegal support it.

See the toplines and crosstabs from this U.S. News Poll

Methodology: The U.S. News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adult citizens interviewed online between March 31 - April 4, 2022. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, and education based on the 2018 American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, as well as 2016 and 2020 Presidential votes (or non-votes). Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. citizens.

Panelists were asked the following in a March 8 - 11, 2022 survey: "This survey is being conducted by YouGov's U.S. News Team. We appreciate you taking the time to answer our questions. While we try to ask questions that are interesting and informative to the American people, we are always looking for possible topics and questions from elsewhere. That is why we are asking YOU to help us brainstorm questions that YOU would like to see asked on a YouGov survey. On the next page, we ask that you share three ideas for questions that could be asked of all Americans. You can write about anything that interests you. We plan to carefully review your responses and will hopefully incorporate some of them into future surveys. Please share with us one survey question you would like to see asked of all Americans. It can be on any topic, including the news, politics, entertainment, or life in general." In all, the survey asked respondents to submit up to three suggested questions. This survey was prompted by the response, “When do you believe life begins?”

Image: Getty

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