By Elijah Thompson
Editor’s note. This first appeared at “The Fetal Position” and is reposted with permission.
Occasionally a pro-choice person will give me a link to an article attempting to refute the idea that a new human organism begins to exist when the process of conception is successfully completed. There is ample scientific evidence for that statement, and that evidence can be found here.
The article “The unscientific nature of the concept that ‘human life begins at fertilization,’ and why it matters” (by Richard J. Paulson, M.D) was recently sent to me by someone and I’d like to address what is being said in the article. This response turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, but that is likely due to the number of assumptions Dr. Paulson infused into his statements, without reasonable justification. So a lot had to be unpacked.
The first two paragraphs express reasonable concerns about misinformation and disinformation. The author then proceeds to unironically provide ideologically-motivated misinformation, disguising his conclusions behind the objectivity of science. As Dr. John Lennox said, “nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists,” and Paulson demonstrates that not famous M.D.s are not immune.
You get a feel for his perspective when he refers to embryos as “aggregates of cells” (aggregates is science-speak for clump, I suppose), rather than what they are; developing human organisms. In fact, the entire third paragraph is where he reveals why he doesn’t like the idea that a new human life begins at conception.
While he doesn’t come right out and say it, this part of the article reeks of an ideological motivation that drives a conclusion, rather than the science itself. That becomes very clear when he asserts that “handling an embryo with the potential to produce a pregnancy is not the same as handling a human life”. I have to wonder how he is using the term “human life” here, because the newly created zygote/embryo is a unified whole human organism, with separate DNA, metabolism, and goal-oriented development that is entirely separate from the mother. He never defines human life or human being; he just asserts his views and expects the reader to accept it as fact, I guess.
I suspect he is sneaking a philosophical understanding of personhood into the debate, possibly unknowingly. And I’m not sure which would be worse; unknowingly bringing philosophy into it (indicating his own ignorance of the subject) or knowingly obfuscating the biological and philosophical categories. Given his professional background, I don’t want to assume ignorance. But that leaves only deliberate confusion, and I don’t like that either.
The fourth paragraph is where he begins discussing the science, and starts off by suggesting that saying a human life begins at fertilization “… is a categorical designation in conflict with the scientific observation that life is a continuum,” and goes onto say that both sperm and egg cells are alive. This unfortunate response is all too common among ideologically motivated people who use science to confuse the issue, deliberately or not.
When we say human life begins at fertilization, we are not denying that life is on a continuum. We recognize that somatic cells and gametes are alive, and that those two alive things combine together to create something else that is alive. Ultimately, this isn’t a critique of what we are saying, it is a demonstration of his misunderstanding of what we’re saying.
He concludes the paragraph with, “[f]rom a biological perspective, no new life has been created,” and he’s right if we’re using life as a category, like he is. But we’re not. We are saying that a new human life, meaning a new human organism, comes into existence. And this is a fact of biology that remains unchallenged by Dr. Paulson’s confusion.
He also says, “[t]he zygote has the same size as the egg; other than for its new genotype, the cell (comprising the cytoplasm and the rest) is nearly identical to the egg cell.” The components of a newly created zygote may be similar to the egg cell it came from, but it is now in a brand new biological category.
A successful conception event changes everything about what is happening, biologically.
Before conception, the egg will continue to be an egg cell until it is flushed out during menstruation.
But after conception, the egg ceases to exist as an egg and becomes a zygote and begins growing and developing. Eggs do not develop; organisms develop. The egg is a haploid gamete, the zygote is a diploid organism. The organism that you are today came into existence when the process of fertilization was successfully completed. You are numerically identical to that zygote. You are not numerically identical to the egg or the sperm cell that existed before you did.
The “new genotype” that Dr. Paulson dismissed with nothing more than a casual mention is a lot more important than he made it seem. I would expect an M.D. to recognize the profound difference between a haploid gamete and a diploid organism, but sometimes the viewpoints of medical professionals are clouded by ideology.
The fifth paragraph begins with “‘human life’ implies individuality,” implying that the embryo is not an individual and is therefore not a human life. This is certainly not something I expect to hear from an MD writing for Fertility and Sterility. The entity created by a successful conception event is a separate, integrated, whole human organism with its own DNA, metabolism, and development. Sometimes the zygote has a different biological sex than the mother, and it will go on to develop an entirely different set of organs as it grows older. It is not a part of the woman’s body in any meaningful sense. Unfortunately, Dr. Paulson does not offer any definition of what he means by “individuality,” but we can pick up some clues from the rest of the paragraph.
As a side note, I am constantly disappointed by the lack of language precision used by pro-choice people. It’s almost like they thrive on ambiguous terminology.
Continuing in the fifth paragraph, he admits to referring to the embryos as individuals, but waves it away by saying that “each of the totipotent cells that comprise these embryos is, at least theoretically, capable of producing a complete new individual.” I find this phrasing amusing, and I wish he would have gone into more detail about what he meant by it.
I was initially amused because he is attempting to make the case for why the embryo is not an individual, but then says that the cells that make up the embryo can be used to make a new individual. So apparently the parts of the embryo can create a new individual but the embryo itself isn’t an individual. Like I said, I wish he would have gone into more detail about what he meant by that, but I guess that’s all we get.
Technically, any of our cells could be used to create a new individual. It’s complex, but you can take the DNA from a skin cell and put it into a denucleated egg cell and clone yourself. We have adult stem cells in our adult bodies, and it is also possible to induce pluripotency in our somatic cells. Maybe we are not an individual because of these advancements in medical technology.
He then says “multiple individuals can arise from the implantation of a single embryo, as in the case of identical twins. Therefore, we know that the preimplantation embryo is not actually an individual,” which is a conclusion that doesn’t follow from his previous statement at all. Some species of planaria are able to reproduce asexually by taking a part of their individual body and creating another individual body by each part regrowing the now missing part of the body.
But nobody views a flatworm as not an individual flatworm because it has the capacity to turn into multiples. The preimplantation embryo’s ability to create an identical twin does not mean that it is not an individual, it just means that it is able to twin at that stage.
He concludes the fifth paragraph with, “it is only after implantation that the early embryo can further differentiate into the organized cell groups that enable the developing conceptus to progress further in embryonic and eventually fetal development,” which is true, but has nothing to do with any of the points he is making. The developing embryo is, in fact, an individual organism that will continue to develop into an older member of its species unless interrupted by an outside force (like an abortionist killing it). He seems to affirm that the embryo does engage in development, which is something individual organisms do.
And this is the end of his attempt to use science to show that a new human life does not begin when conception is successfully completed. His two points (life is a continuum and the embryo is not an individual) have both been addressed by me here, and his conclusion isn’t even remotely close to warranted. I am curious to know when Dr Paulson believes that a new human organism comes into existence. If it’s not when fertilization is successfully completed, when is it?
I debated whether or not I would address his statements about faith and religion, and decided… yes. Yes I will.
He says, “’Life begins at fertilization’ may certainly be considered a religious concept; because religious ideas are based on faith, no further proof is necessary. It is pointless to use science as an argument against faith-based dictums.”
There have been volumes published on the misunderstanding that faith is somehow in conflict with science, but given that he doesn’t go into much detail here, I would only be speculating about how he views faith. Based on my experience, people who say things like this often view faith as something inherently irrational, unless of course they are placing their faith in their spouse, a pilot, or a jack to hold up a vehicle.
I do find it amusing that he says it is pointless to use science as an argument against faith-based dictums, right after attempting to use science to argue against what he refers to as a faith based dictum. I hope he doesn’t just dismiss any argument against his position as a “faith based dictum,” because then he would be the one who has made up his mind and “no further proof is necessary.”