Is the unborn a biological human being? I will try to illustrate the importance of this question with a story. When I was younger, a group of friends and I were riding our bikes through the neighborhood. One of my friends was peering into the river as we rode by and shouted “OOOHHH EWW! AWESOME. SO GROSS!” and immediately screeched to a halt and jumped off of his bike. He was so excited that he didn’t stand his bike on the kick-stand as he eagerly grabbed a stick and ran towards the river. After exchanging confused and excited glances at each other, the rest of us followed our temporary leader down into the rocks, weeds, and mud to see what the excitement was all about.
One of the younger kids in the group, Andy, decided that he didn’t really want to go down there because he wasn’t a fan of surprises or gross things. “GUYYYSS!! GUUUUUUYYYSS!! What is it?”, he asked.
“Shut up and come down here, Andy!”, responded one of the boys.
“But what iiiiiiiiisss it? Is it a fish?”
“Guys? Where’d you go?”
Silence. So Andy decides to go a little closer to the river.
“AAAH!!” he screams as someone throws a mangled, dead seagull over a bush and into Andy’s face. “That’s not cool, guys. You suck. It smells bad. Ew”
The Difference Between Fish And Human
I tell this story (that may or may not be entirely accurate… you know how memories are) in order to illustrate a point. When Andy was asking “what is it?” he was asking because he wanted to know how he ought to respond. If it was just the skeleton of a fish, he would have likely responded one way. But if it was the corpse of a recently drowned human being, he would have likely responded entirely differently. He may have enjoyed looking at the fish bones, but he may have run screaming if it was a recently deceased human corpse.
Likewise, when we are discussing ethical issues like abortion, it is important for us to know what is actually happening. I recently posted a video (on my Facebook wall) of a developing fetus at 7 weeks. It was making no moral claims whatsoever. It was merely a description of what happens during fetal development at that time. A woman (friend of a friend) commented and told me that the video was offensive, but I didn’t understand how a morally neutral examination of a developing human being could possibly be offensive. After all, shouldn’t we know what is being killed in the act of abortion? I asked her to clarify what she was offended by, but she never responded. But I can understand the implications.
If abortion kills a human being, it very quickly becomes a complex moral issue. So the crucial question imposes itself.
The Crucial Question
Does abortion kill a human being?
If you have spent any time at all engaging with pro-choice defenders, you’ve probably heard them deny that the unborn is human. You may have heard them suggest that we don’t know when a ‘fertilized egg’ becomes a human being. You may have even heard something like “the embryo is no more human than a skin cell!”, as they scratch their arm and slough off millions of cells and expect you to mourn the deaths of millions of tiny humans. One of my favorite objections is when someone says that ‘masturbation kills millions of humans” or that “pro-lifers ought to mourn the loss of a human being every time a woman gets her period”.
In this post, I hope to put these nonsensical objections to rest.
The fact of the matter is rather simple. It is something we learn about in elementary school or when our parents have “the talk” with us. When a mommy and daddy love each other very much, they engage in certain behaviors that end up creating a new baby brother!
Back to the Basics – the birds and the bees
I’m not entirely sure where the pro-choicer’s parent went wrong when discussing where babies come from with their grossed out, prepubescent son or daughter. Perhaps the conversation was so uncomfortable that they just told their kids that the stork brings the baby to mommy at the hospital. In case you still believe in the stork theory of human reproduction, let me just inform you right now. Spoilers: Storks have nothing to do with human procreation.
A new child is created by the union of a sperm cell (from daddy) and an egg cell (from mommy). The sperm enters the egg, it’s outer layer disintegrates, and then the DNA from both cells combine together to make a new, unique genetic combination within the egg cell. At this point, the fertilized egg*, or the zygote emerges. The zygote is the first stage of human development. At this stage, the zygotic cell begins to divide by mitosis, and will continue to grow into a more developed human organism.
And this is apparently the point of contention? When conception is completed, that is is the point at which a new human organism comes into existence. This new human being has all of the features of a living organism. She has a separate DNA from her mother, metabolism, goal-oriented development, replication, interaction with the world outside, etc. Her life began at this point, and she will continue to develop long after this point.
If a pro-choice advocate claims that “a zygote isn’t a human”, they have a fundamental confusion surrounding the basic biology of human reproduction.
Stages of Development
It is important to note that many people make a distinction between “zygote” and “baby”, as if this distinction proves something. Unfortunately, it proves nothing except for their misunderstanding of how scientists label different stages of human development.
Many different animals have stages that we, as a human race, have given labels. A chicken, a human, a frog, and an elephant all go through “embryonic” stages. However, this does not mean they are merely an embyro.
An elephant mommy and daddy make an elephant embryo.
A chicken mommy and daddy make a chicken embryo.
And a human mommy and daddy make a human embryo.
A human zygote that develops into a human embryo.
A human embryo that develops into a human fetus.
A human fetus that develops into a human infant.
A human infant that develops into a human toddler.
And so on, and so forth.
The common thread throughout human development is rather simple. It is a human being. This is human development. There is no way for you to divorce the concept of “embryo” from the kind of embryo it is. Ignoring the adjective “human” doesn’t make the human embryo any less human.
If you are interested in learning more about human development in the womb, here is a great summary of what happens.
We’ve known this for a really, really long time.
Contrary to what some people claim, there is no debate as to when the human being begins. Former Planned Parenthood President, Dr. Alan Guttmacher, wrote a book called Life in the Making in 1933. In this book, referencing the fact that the zygote is the beginning of a human life, he says “This all seems so simple and evidence that it is difficult to picture a time when it wasn’t part of the common knowledge.”
This was in 1933.
There is no disagreement among experts in this area. And I mean literally none. There isn’t even some random, fringe dude with an honorary masters degree from My Backyard University who denies this basic fact of biology.
If you want a full, comprehensive list of 40 quotes from medical textbooks that show this consensus, go no further! Click right here and read through them all.
If you still do not believe that a human being’s life begins at conception, you are denying basic biological facts. You really ought to rethink your intellectual integrity because there is no justification whatsoever for the anti-scientific and anti-intellectual view that a human being’s life begins sometime other than conception.
But… what if we really don’t know when human life begins?
Alright, so let’s suppose that we could ignore universal expert scientific consensus. Let’s ignore facts about reality that we’ve known about for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. Let’s ignore all that and appeal to ignorance.
Perhaps we really don’t know when human life begins.
Well, wouldn’t the most responsible thing for us to do is not kill them? Let’s imagine a situation where we have the option to destroy a building. We’re on a demolition team and this building has been scheduled to be imploded. You’re just about to push the doomsday button and someone asks you, “Hey, are there any humans in there?” and you realize that you are not sure.
You, being the responsible demolition man that you are, have no choice. You have to blow up the building anyway!
No. Of course not.
If we are ignorant of whether or not there is a human being in the building, we have a moral obligation to avoid blowing up the building until we know for sure that there are no humans in there.
So even if we appeal to anti-scientific sentiments like ignorance about when human life begins, that still does not justify abortion in any way.
So wait… what’s the difference between an abortion and a period? Or masturbation? Or scratching off skin cells?
The answer to this is simple.
Gametes (sperm and egg cells) and somatic cells (like skin cells) are done developing. Gametes, when left alone, continue to be gametes until they die. A somatic cell will also continue to be a skin cell until it dies. When you leave a zygote alone, in its normal environment, it will continue to develop into a more complex human organism. There is a very, very important difference between a gametic/somatic cell and a developing human organism. I hope you can see that.
I hope this post helps in basic scientific literacy, as well as a promotion of the pro-life perspective. When we ask the most important question, “what does abortion do?”, we have to answer it with “abortion ends the life of a defenseless, innocent human being”. There is no way around this.
About Elijah Thompson
If you are interested in more about the defense of the pro-life position, please check out my podcast and accompanying blog, The Fetal Position. I regularly discuss the science and philosophy behind the pro-life position, as well as engage any and all pro-choice arguments that may present a challenge to the pro-life perspective. If you have any comments or questions, feel free to contact me through my website or on twitter, Follow @ElijiahT or Follow @Fetal_Position