One of the looming questions in the abortion debate relates to when human life begins. From a scientific perspective, this question has been solved for centuries, thanks in part to the work of a seventeenth-century Italian scientist by the name of Francesco Redi. And it’s left the opponents of the scientific view appealing lamely to outdated religious definitions.
In 1688, Redi debunked a then-popular theory, namely, spontaneous generation, that claimed that dead things could spontaneously give rise to new life. This view dates back at least to Aristotle, who mistakenly taught (and by the way, this is where it’s about to get a little gross) that certain insects spontaneously originated “from putrefying earth or vegetable matter,” while “others are spontaneously generated in the inside of animals out of the secretions of their several organs.”
|An illustration from Francesco Redi’s 1688 work
debunking spontaneous generation. (h/t Scientus)
It was based on a simple mistake: if you leave meat out, it’ll eventually start rotting, and you’ll see maggots and flies crawling around on it, and the dead meat seems to be turning into these living creatures. Of course, what was really happening was that maggots and flies were eating the rotting meat, and then laying tiny eggs, which eventually hatched. But people generally didn’t know that, until Francesco Redi used a simple experiment to disprove spontaneous generation:
Francesco took eight jars, placed meat in all the jars, but covered four of the jars with muslin. Maggots developed in the open jars but did not develop in the muslin-covered jars.
In other words, dead things (like rotting meat) don’t suddenly become baby flies. So no matter who or what we’re talking about, from maggots to men, a simple principle is at play: living things come directly from other living things. Dead things don’t suddenly spring to life.
For some reason, in the abortion debate, this is still a revolutionary idea. The scientific position, shared by pro-lifers, is simple: the father’s (living) sperm and the mother’s (living) egg form a (living) offspring when the two fuse (a moment in time known as conception or fertilization). This living offspring is both alive and is distinct from each parent. As Evangelium Vitae puts it:
[F]rom the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.
Simple, scientific stuff. Two living beings create a third living being. The “pro-choice” side of the debate can’t acknowledge this without admitting that the “choice” in question is the killing of a living human being (albeit a tiny one), and yet they can’t deny it, either. To deny it would be to say that, at some point in the pregnancy cycle, a non-living embryo simply springs to life: the very sort of absurd spontaneous generation that Redi’s opponents believed in.
So what does the pro-abortion side do? Ignores the science, and obfuscates instead. Let me show you what I mean.
|19th century engraving of
Faustus and the Homunculus
The online website My Family Doctor routinely hosts debates on a variety of issues including, “When Does Life Begin? Medical Experts Debate Abortion Issue.” They began the article thusly:
In every political season, abortion emerges as one of the most hotly debated topics. It draws in everybody—from the religious to the political. But what about the scientists?
In fact, My Family Doctor seems to have had trouble finding actual scientists willing to claim that life begins after conception (for precisely the reason outlined above). The only doctors, scientists, and scientific organizations mentioned in the piece either agree that life begins at conception, or avoided answering the question. This is part of a broader pro-choice strategy of simply ignoring the science and hoping that it’ll go away:
“Pro-choice docs would say that it is not their business to determine for a patient when life begins,” says Diana Philip, interim executive director of the National Coalition of Abortion Providers and its sister organization, the Abortion Conversation Project. “Ultimately each patient determines the value and definition of life and that definition lies within her own mind and heart.”
See? Who cares about the science, when “each person” can make up their own “definition of life” within their own heart? Maybe Francesco Redi’s opponents could have employed a similar tactic, printing bumper stickers like “Don’t believe in spontaneous generation? Don’t leave rotting meat out.”
The reason the pro-abortion side is reduced to holding their ears until science goes away is that science is really clearly on the pro-life side. As Donna J. Harrison, M.D., of the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists put it, “any biologist in the world can tell you that a mammal’s life begins when the sperm from the father unites with the egg from the mother.”
Harrison’s debate opponent wasn’t actually a doctor or a scientist at all (despite the article’s introduction), but a professor from the University of Puget Sound’s Department of Religion, Dr. Suzanne Holland. Following the pro-choice strategy described above, Holland ignores science almost completely, and refuses to actually say when life begins. She gives four possible answers. First, the position that she falsely ascribes to the Catholic Church:
As we saw above, the Catholic position is based on fertilization, not simply “genetic determinism” revolving around a “unique genome.” After all, identical twins have the same genome, but distinct epigenetics. If this really were the Catholic Church’s position, She’d have to deny that each twin was a unique individual.
Holland proceeds to lay out three alternative views, each holding to some view of spontaneous generation: that the non-living child simply springs to life. The first alternative is the
Those who hold the embryologic view think life begins when the embryo undergoes gastrulation, and twinning is no longer possible; this occurs about 14 days into development. (Some mainline Protestant religions espouse a similar view.)
This view requires holding that at some indistinct point in the second week of development, a non-living being becomes a living being by losing its ability to divide into two distinct individuals. This is ironically anti-scientific, since this same process of cellular division and reproduction is used in other organisms to prove that they are alive, not dead. Likewise, this view would “prove” that plants and microbes aren’t alive, since they reproduce asexually.
Proponents of the neurological view adhere to brainwave criteria; life begins when a distinct EEG pattern can be detected, about 24 to 27 weeks. (Some Protestant churches affirm this.) Interestingly, life is also thought to end when the EEG pattern is no longer present.
This requires believing that a non-living creature somehow brought itself to life by … generating its own brain. Plus, several people who showed no EEG activity were declared “dead” before fully recovering, like Karen Arbogast or Zack Dunlap. So maybe that’s not the best rubric to use, particularly standing alone? Finally:
Holland doesn’t actually commit to any of these positions. To do so would open herself up for debate on the issue (and show the absurdity of each view). All she’s trying to do is muddy the waters, to make the issue of when life begins look unclear. It’s not. And since she can’t marshal any science to support her claim, Holland is left claiming that some unspecified Protestant and Jewish groups support her. But the question of when life begins is a scientific question, whatever else it may be. If some religious group comes along and defines it at your fourteenth birthday, that doesn’t invalidate the science. It invalidates the religious group.
Of course, if it was the pro-life side using religious dogmas to deny objective science, we would be ridiculed in popular culture, and quite reasonably, for waging a “war on science.” But we’re quite comfortable with the science here.
Newborn Golden Retriever puppies
Traditional ways of classifying catalog animals according to their adult structure. But, as J. T. Bonner (1965) pointed out, this is a very artificial method, because what we consider an individual is usually just a brief slice of its life cycle. When we consider a dog, for instance, we usually picture an adult. But the dog is a “dog” from the moment of fertilization of a dog egg by a dog sperm. It remains a dog even as a senescent dying hound. Therefore, the dog is actually the entire life cycle of the animal, from fertilization through death.
One of the major triumphs of descriptive embryology was the idea of a generalizable life cycle. Each animal, whether an earthworm, an eagle, or a beagle, passes through similar stages of development. The major stages of animal development are illustrated in Figure 2.1. The life of a new individual is initiated by the fusion of genetic material from the two gametes—the sperm and the egg. This fusion, called fertilization, stimulates the egg to begin development. The stages of development between fertilization and hatching are collectively called embryogenesis.
So every new individual creature, whether an earthworm, a beagle, or a human being, is an individual from the moment of fertilization. Whether we say “dog” or “puppy,” “human” or “fetus” is purely semantics. From fertilization through death, a dog remains a dog, and a human being remains a human being.