What science tells us about the unborn

Editor’s note. This originally ran in two separate issues of the newsletter of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life earlier this year. Part One ran yesterday on National Right to Life News Today.

Evidence is decisive

The evidence, then, shows that the unborn is a living organism of the human species from his or her beginning at conception. Thus, to kill the unborn by abortion or for embryo-destructive research is to kill a human being. This is not a moral claim about whether such killing is right or wrong, but a factual one, based on the scientific evidence of embryology.

Objections to this conclusion stem from scientific ignorance, confusion or misunderstanding. I consider common objections below.

Objection #1: ‘No one knows’

The claim that “no one knows when life begins” is so often repeated that it bears addressing. While there is indeed debate about when a human being becomes (if she isn’t by nature) valuable and deserving of full moral respect (i.e., a “person”), the strictly biological matter is clear, as I explained previously. The life of a human being, a living member of our species, begins at conception.

(Contrary to what many pro-choice advocates apparently believe, agnosticism regarding the unborn is actually a decisive reason to refrain from killing her. A hunter does not shoot into the brush unless he is sure that his target is not a person.)

Objection #2: Potential of sperm and egg

Some say that if the unborn is a human being, then we must (absurdly) conclude that the sperm and egg are also human beings, for they also have the potential to become a child, a teenager and eventually an adult.

This is bad biology. The sperm and egg are simply parts of larger organisms. When they unite they cease to be and something new comes into existence: the zygote, a whole organism with the active capacity to develop into a mature member of its species, given only a suitable environment and nutrition. Each of us was once a zygote, but none of us was ever a sperm or egg.

Objection #3: Somatic cells

Some people compare the zygote and embryo to regular somatic (body) cells, which are also human, living and possessing of a full genetic code. Since these cells are not actual human beings—brushing skin cells off my arm is not the killing of hundreds of tiny humans—the zygote or embryo is not an actual human being either, the critic reasons.

But there is a crucial difference. The unborn is its own organism, not a mere part of another. The unborn from conception is a distinct and complete individual whose parts work together in a coordinated fashion to develop the whole to maturity. That is not true of skin or other somatic cells, which function as mere parts of a larger organism.

Objection #4: Twinning

Defenders of embryo-destructive research sometimes say that because very early embryos can split into two distinct embryos—an event called twinning—the early embryo must not itself be a unitary individual. But the conclusion does not follow.

When a flatworm is cut in half, or when an organism is cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, a single organism gives rise to two distinct organisms. In both cases the original entity is a unitary, self-integrating, whole individual. The scientific evidence shows that the embryo likewise functions as its own organism, from the zygote stage forward, regardless of whether twinning occurs.

Objection #5: Brain death

The irreversible cessation of brain activity is used as a criterion for the death of a human being, even though some of the body’s organs can live after brain death. For this reason, some advocates of embryo-destructive research claim that the life of a human being does not begin until the unborn develops a brain.

But brain death is accepted as a criterion only because it signals the end of the body’s ability to function as an integrated organism, for which the brain, in older humans, is essential. After brain death there is no longer a unitary organism. By contrast, the embryo from conception is a unitary organism, actively developing herself to the next stage of human life. The brain, at this earliest stage, is not yet necessary for her to function as such.

All, or only some?

Because the scientific facts are clear, the permissibility of taking unborn human life hinges on a moral question. Do all human beings merit full moral respect and protection, as you and I uncontroversially do—or only some?

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