Free Lesson: Pro-Life Language: How Words Build a Culture of Life

In this lesson, students will examine the phrase “from conception to natural death” and discuss ways we as pro-lifers can use language to help protect all human beings, even humans excluded by that phrase. Use this brief lesson as an addition to an ethics, religion, philosophy, or English class.

Lesson overview

  • Introduction (5 minutes): Read Background information aloud to the students.
  • Lecture (20 minutes): Read “From creation to natural death”: why word choice matters aloud to students. Review unknown terms as you read.
  • Discussion (25 minutes): Engage the students in a discussion using the discussion questions provided in the lesson.

Lesson objectives

  • Understand the real impact and meaning behind the words “conception” and “natural death”
  • Learn what words and phrases we can use instead to include all human beings under our protection

Other resources


Background information

Sometimes, pro-life activists say that we have a duty to protect all human beings“from conception to natural death.” But what does that actually mean? Many pro-life organizations and Catholic Church documents describe the beginning and end of a human being’s life in this way, but from the perspective of scientific accuracy, this phrase has taken on a new meaning in recent years that excludes preborn children created in laboratories and sick people who choose to die by “unnatural” means such as physician assisted suicide. Today we will discuss why we shouldn’t describe human beings as valuable “from conception to natural death,” but rather use the phrase “from creation until death.

  “From creation to natural death”: why word choice matters

So what’s wrong with the word “conception”?

The traditional phrase “from conception to natural death,” which describes the creative power of God and is most commonly seen in Catholic Church documents, has become troublesome. In our contemporary world, the word “conception” no longer means the biological beginning of a human being and has instead taken on a political agenda. In 1965, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) modified their definition of conception to mean the implantation of the new human being in his mother’s womb.  Even the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “conception” as “the process of becoming pregnant involving fertilization or implantation or both.” Implantation, as we know from embryology, occurs 5-7 days after a human being has been created. Defining life as beginning at implantation is an erroneous step that is not only illogical but invites science to manipulate and/or destroy the human person in the laboratory.

What words can we use instead to describe the very first moment of a human being’s existence?

In other words, when does the life of every human being begin? At American Life League, we say that a human being’s life begins at creation—when the hand of God creates a new, unique, and unrepeatable human being. Biologically, we know that a person’s life can begin at the very first moment of the first stage of fertilization. But a person’s life also can begin long after fertilization for people like identical twins when a single embryo splits into two embryos during the natural twinning process. For one of those twins, you can’t say their life began at fertilization.

When we say that a human being’s life begins at creation, we are taking into account all those babies whose biological beginning happened at a point other than fertilization. No human person should be denied the right to life based on how the beginning of his life is defined. As Pope Saint John Paul II reminds us in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae,

Human life is sacred and inviolable at every moment of existence, including the initial phase which precedes birth. All human beings, from their mothers’ womb, belong to God who searches them and knows them, who forms them and knits them together with his own hands, who gazes on them when they are tiny shapeless embryos and already sees in them the adults of tomorrow whose days are numbered and whose vocation is even now written in the “book of life”.

Evangelium Vitae, section 61

The main point we have to remember as pro-lifers is that every human being’s life is sacred from the very moment of a person’s existence—whether that is in the fallopian tube or the test tube.  No preborn child can magically arrive in the womb without first beginning his or her life in one of these two ways.  We are created equal in the image and likeness of God no matter how our life is initially created.  Every human being’s life has intrinsic value. Every human being’s life is unique and unrepeatable. While we shouldn’t get caught up in the semantics of language and politics, we also need to make an effort to use language when we argue the pro-life position which does not deny any person the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

What’s wrong with the phrase “natural death”?

The phrase “natural death” is used by the Catholic Church in church documents because it expresses the natural, normal end of earthly life (CCC 1006-1007). However, like the term conception, the phrase “natural death” has been hijacked by the proponents of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide, making the phrase problematic for pro-lifers.

Logically, “natural death” doesn’t even make sense. When we think of the phrase “natural death,” we envision a person dying in their old age from natural causes. In reality, the phrase then excludes people dying from “unnatural” causes, like murder, car accidents, and war. Just as the word “conception” excludes certain preborn babies (created through natural or scientific means), the phrase “natural death” does not adequately describe death in political and legal circles.

But perhaps the greatest argument against using such terminology is that in today’s world, the phrase “natural death” has taken on a new, twisted, legal meaning. The phrase “natural death” allows medical examiners, in states where physician assisted suicide is legal, to certify death by euthanasia or suicide as “natural.” There is nothing natural about a physician prescribing or administering a lethal dose of medicine to kill the patient instead of cure or comfort him. As a people of life, we face a dangerous crossroads. If we continue to use “natural death” to describe the end of a human being’s life, we would be buying into the culture of death which labels the sick and dying, some of our most vulnerable citizens, as worthless trash, a burden on society.

Discussion Questions

Engage students in a discussion using the questions provided.

  1. Even though terms like conception, fertilization, and implantation are all valid scientific terms, why shouldn’t we use them to describe the beginning of every human being’s life?

In recent years, these terms have been politicized so that they are defined in such a way that they exclude very young children from the full protection of the law. As defenders of every human being’s life, we have an obligation to avoid language that disrespects human lives and excludes the most vulnerable from protection.

  1. How does using the term “conception” exclude cloned humans and IVF babies?

Unlike the creation of a human being from the fruit of the love between a husband and wife as God intended, IVF and human cloning artificially reproduce a human being in a cold, sterile laboratory. Technically, such babies were not “conceived,” leaving them defenseless in world focused on consumerism and productivity. If we only protect the innocent human beings who were conceived in the way that God intended, we allow for the destruction of precious human beings for research, artificial reproductive technologies and worse.

  1. What is the biggest problem with saying we protect life until “natural death”?

Although “death” is an acceptable term to describe the end of life, “natural death” assumes that each person dies in the exact same way. The fact that many people die unnaturally, such as through murder, accidents, or assisted suicide, demands the necessity to respect all human beings, regardless of how their lives end. Each human being is such a great gift that to waste it would be a grave offense against God.  Hurrying death is a grave moral evil.

  1. As a describing word, what does “natural” mean in the phrase “natural death”? What groups of people might this phrase exclude?

When people say “natural death,” they usually mean dying from natural causes, not assisted suicide. However, as pro-lifers, we want to protect every human being, even lives in danger of death through unnatural means. This phrase excludes people who die from car accidents and other types of accidents that are work related or otherwise, in clinical trials, and from various forms of imposed death including lethal injections and lethal drugs of other kinds prescribed for patients who want to take their own lives (assisted suicide).This might seem like being overly picky, but it’s important to realize the impact of the language we use to describe our pro-life beliefs.

  1. So, the Catholic Church uses the phrase “from conception to natural death.” Is the Church wrong?

No. The Church created that phrase decades ago to clarify the issue of threats to the life and dignity of every human person for the many languages and cultures that make up the Body of Christ. Since that time, proponents of the culture of death have twisted these terms to have a different meaning in a godless, self-serving culture where human beings are either viewed to be inconvenient or otherwise unworthy of living. As pro-lifers, we have to work hard to sift through the political jargon of our time to make sure that all human beings are protected.

  1. What situations might come up where we should avoid using the phrase “from conception until natural death”? In what situations should we use that phrase?

When you argue the pro-life position, you should always choose terms which treat every human person with dignity and respect. Always explain why you use certain words and phrases

The only case when you would use the phrase “from conception to natural death would be in Church situations where that is the language chosen by the Catholic Church to refer to human beings.

  1. Why should we bother about language?

As pro-life advocates, we need to know and understand the terminology used by the culture of death to describe beginning and end of life issues so we can ensure that new laws being passed protect and defend every person—not just certain people!