Rubio, Cuomo, and what science tells us about when life begins

By Paul Stark

zygoteSen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) recently sparred with host Chris Cuomo on CNN over the beginning of human life. Cuomo denied Rubio’s contention that science has established that the life of a human being begins at conception. “It having a DNA map—so does a plant,” Cuomo said.

But a plant doesn’t have human DNA. A plant life isn’t a human life. Rubio, obviously, was talking about human life.

Writing at Slate, Amanda Marcotte also takes issue with Rubio’s contention. “Actual biologists, for what it’s worth, argue that life is continuous and that a fertilized egg is no more or less alive than a sperm or an unfertilized egg,” she argues. “Human sperm cells, much like fertilized eggs, have human DNA.”

This is remarkably biologically uninformed. Life in general is continuous (sperm and egg are alive), but the life of an individual human being is not continuous. It has a beginning and an end. Rubio, obviously, was referring to the beginning of the life of an individual human being.

Human sperm cells do have human DNA. So do human skin cells and human heart cells. But none of those cells are whole organisms. They are merely parts of larger organisms, not human beings themselves. The zygote/embryo/fetus is an actual human organism—an individual member of the species Homo sapiens, like each one of us—at the earliest stages of his or her development. That is simply not true of sperm cells.

The embryology textbook Human Embryology & Teratology makes the point clear: “Although life is a continuous process, fertilization … is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed.”

Indeed, Rubio’s position is fully established by science. “Human development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, a zygote,” explains The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology. “This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”

In his exchange with Rubio, Cuomo also showed a deeper confusion. Cuomo said Rubio’s scientific assertions were actually a matter of “faith. That’s not science.” But here Cuomo mixed two different issues. The first is a scientific question: When does the life of a human organism begin? That’s what Rubio was talking about, and his answer was correct. The second is a moral question: When does this developing member of our species become valuable and deserving of respect and protection?

Science shows that human embryos and fetuses are human beings in the biological sense. The real question is how we ought to treat these young human beings. This isn’t a matter of religious “faith,” but basic morality. Do all human beings have a right to life, or do only some? Is human equality true or just a myth?

And, on that foundational question, Rubio made his own position clear in the previous night’s debate: “I believe that every single human being is entitled to the protection of our laws.”

On the science and on the morality, Rubio is right.

Editor’s note. Mr. Stark is Communications Associate for MCCL, National Right to Life’s state affiliate.