ANDERSON – During a debate in the Indiana House of Representatives, John Jacob repeatedly accused his fellow lawmakers of condoning murder. Jacob, a Republican from Indianapolis, exhorted his colleagues to stand up for the unborn. “I am pleading with you,” he said.

You could hear the anguish in his voice as he repeated his argument: Life begins at fertilization. Abortion ends that life. Abortion is murder.

House Speaker Todd Huston reminded Jacob not to question the motives of his colleagues, but Jacob wouldn’t bend. “There is a right and a wrong, Mr. Speaker,” he said. “Murder is wrong.”

It’s worth noting that Jacob’s theory on when life begins isn’t supported by science.

In an essay for the Guttmacher Institute, public policy expert Rachel Benson Gold noted that theologians and philosophers had been debating the question for centuries. Does life begin when the infant draws that first breath or sometime sooner? It’s a debate, she wrote, that might never be settled.

“However, on the separate but closely related question of when a woman is considered pregnant,” she wrote, “the medical community has long been clear: Pregnancy is established when a fertilized egg has been implanted in the wall of a woman’s uterus.”

Especially now, when legislatures nationwide are debating what to do about abortion, the question of when pregnancy begins is an important one. It draws a line between preventing a pregnancy and ending one.

The discussion also matters to women trying to get pregnant through in vitro fertilization.

If a fertilized egg is human life, what does that mean for those tens of thousands of embryos now stored in laboratories across the country? Can they remain frozen? Can they be discarded?

What happens now is that eggs retrieved from a patient are inseminated and then placed in an incubator. After five to six days, those that fail to progress are discarded. The rest might be examined for chromosomal abnormalities, and some might be thrown away or donated for research.

Would any of this be allowed in a state where life begins at the moment a sperm cell meets an egg?

Those are the sorts of questions now on the minds of physicians like Ginny Ryan, a fertility specialist at UW Medicine in Seattle. “We worry about the ability to provide good care,” Ryan told the website MedPage Today.

In that same Indiana House debate, Rep. Karen Engleman, a Republican from Georgetown, argued for an amendment that would have removed exceptions for rape and incest. She spoke of her own experience as a pregnant teenager who decided to keep her child. “I made the right decision,” she said. “I do not think a baby is a choice. It’s a child.”

She acknowledged that her measure would have forced a 10-year-old rape victim to carry a child to term.

Rep. Rita Fleming, a Democrat from Jeffersonville, spoke from her experience as an obstetrician. “Imagine a child of 80 pounds having a 7-pound baby coming through her birth canal,” Fleming said. “That is inhumane. We cannot do this to our children.”

Rep. Cindy Ziemke, a Republican from Batesville, proposed an amendment that would have allowed abortions for any reason up to 13 weeks of gestation. “This allows time for a woman and her doctor to choose when to terminate her pregnancy,” Ziemke said. “This is to preserve women’s rights in this state so they do have those first 13 weeks to weigh and measure this decision.”

Democratic Rep. Ed DeLaney of Indianapolis called on his colleagues to support the amendment. He noted opinion polls suggesting that most Hoosiers want their legislators to compromise, to find common ground. “Let’s set an example for the rest of the country,” he said.

This debate will continue to play out in statehouses from coast to coast. It might also play out in elections this fall. 

Kelly Hawes is a columnist for CNHI News Indiana. He can be reached at Find him on Twitter @Kelly_Hawes.