Chauvinism, Rape and the Separation of Church & State: Answering Questions About Abortion (Part 4 of 9)

I am Legend is an intense movie. If you haven’t seen it, the movie is a post-apocalyptic story about a man living in virtual solitude trying desperately to survive and maintain sanity. He’s got a loyal dog, watches taped replays of daily TV shows, keeps a rigid schedule, and even has a few “friends.” As part of the daily routine, Dr. Neville, played by Will Smith, goes to a movie rental store (remember those?) to check out the next film from the shelf. While there, he continues a long-standing “conversation” with Fred. Fred is a mannequin.

There’s not a drop of life in Fred, but Neville interacts with the window decoration as if it were a person. However, no matter what the good Doctor thinks, Fred is not alive. But what separates Fred and Dr. Neville? Why is one alive and the other not? Understanding this idea is fundamental to understanding the abortion issue so let’s see what we find.

(If you’ve not read the first few posts in this series, please go back and read #1 at least before reading further here.)

When talking about abortion, are we talking about two persons: the mother and father, or three persons: the mother, the father, and the child?

Fred is not alive, and the reason is because it fails to meet a few simple criteria necessary to qualify as a living thing. To qualify an entity must be able to take in energy and use it, respond to stimuli, and reproduce; they must also have precise organization and have the capacity for growth and development(1). A rock can do none of those things. Neither can Fred. You, on the other hand, and butterflies, tulips, and tiger sharks can. Therefore, all those things are alive, but what about a zygote?

Zygote is the medical term for the new entity produced when a male’s sperm penetrates a female’s egg at a moment called conception. Just to be thorough I searched this question a few different ways and it’s almost universally accepted a zygote meets the necessary criteria to be considered alive (2). Human embryologist and author of the textbook “Human Embryology” said,

“[W]e begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual.” (3)

I found one interesting exchange involving a Ph.D. in biology who stopped short of calling a zygote an organism, but neither would she equate a zygote with a rock. She offered a great quote that well illustrates the dilemma we face:

But if you are trying to coerce me into a religious debate about when human life begins, then please stop here.  You are wasting your time and my time.  The question is NOT scientifically addressable, and so–as I’ve said several times before–it must remain in the realm of philosophy.

We will get back to this idea, but first let’s continue the process.

Knowing the zygote is alive doesn’t necessarily prove anything. A sunflower is alive but there is no moral or civic prohibition against killing it. There has to be more to the zygote than simple aliveness to qualify it as a person.

Alive things exist in two basic kingdoms: animal and plant. (At least that was true when I was in high school; now there are as many as six kingdoms due to the microscopic categories like Monera and Protista (4)). So before moving forward we must determine what kingdom this zygote belongs to, and more specifically what species.

This question is answered under a microscope. We could make the distinction between a plant or animal cell very quickly by observing the components of the cell itself. The absence of Chloroplasts, for example, would rule out the possibility of the zygote being part of the plant kingdom. Identifying what part of the animal kingdom requires much more precise evaluation.

Chromosomes are the first clue. With the exception of humans with Down’s or Turner’s syndrome, the human cell has 46 chromosomes, 23 from mom and 23 from dad. With 46 chromosomes identified we would know the zygote is one of a smaller number of species. For example, we know a turkey has 80 chromosomes and a kangaroo has 16, where the Sable Antelope has 46 like you and me (5). But really it’s the information within the chromosomes themselves that provide the “fingerprints” necessary to define the species. This information is contained in the DNA, and it’s absolutely distinct within the varying species. So given the correct equipment a zygote can be scientifically identified through its chromosomes and DNA as a Homo Sapiens.

So we know it’s alive and we know it’s human, but is it just an extension of the mother? For instance, a liver cell would be identifiable as both alive and human, but it would simply be a part of the larger human. Is that also true of the zygote? In a word, no.

Bruce M. Carlson, M.D., Ph.D., retired professor of anatomy in the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology in the Medical School for the University of Michigan said,

“Through the mingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes, the zygote is a genetically unique product of chromosomal reassortment, which is important for the viability of any species.” (6)

Dr. Barry Starr of Stanford University expressed the same idea in a simpler way,

…all of the cells in your body started from a single cell. That single cell then divided many, many times to turn into the 50 trillion or so cells that make up you. Almost all of the cells in your body share the same DNA as was found in that first cell (7).

Starr later points out there are only a few exceptions to the stated rule, including the reproductive cells, like sperm, which only have 23, exactly half of the required chromosomes. This is critical to understanding the uniqueness of the zygote. While mom’s liver and lungs would have the exact same DNA as almost every other cell in her body, the zygote and every cell the zygote produced would have a distinct DNA. At the moment of conception we are no longer talking about a part of the mother’s body. You may not want to call it a life, but it’s a scientifically irrefutable fact it’s not part of the woman’s body.

At the moment a 23 chromosome male sperm unites with a 23 chromosome female egg both the sperm and egg are gone leaving a brand new, 46 chromosome, living, human in its most foundational stage.

This begs an incredibly important question. If  a thing is alive and something else intervenes to make the thing stop being alive, what is that action called? If you’re reading this and you’re an advocate for abortion, you really have to think about that question.

Think about it another way; why do people get abortions? I’m not talking about the circumstances surrounding their decision. Those motivations are varying and intense. But at the most base level, the reason women have abortions is because they’re pregnant. That may sound ridiculously simple, but let it simmer for a minute. A woman chooses to ingest a chemical or undergo a surgical procedure designed to end a pregnancy, a pregnancy defined by the existence of the alive thing we previously explored. One thing takes an action to make another thing no longer alive…

Scientifically speaking, there really is no debate as to whether the zygote is human, or alive; the question then becomes is this human zygote a life? Which brings us back to the Ph.D.’s quote from above,

The question is NOT scientifically addressable, and so–as I’ve said several times before–it must remain in the realm of philosophy.

She’s already answered the scientific “alive” question, but now we’re forced to deal with the more philosophical “a life” question, and this is where the conversation turns ugly and elitist.

We don’t need a science text-book or an experienced embryologist to know a baby is the little thing in a mommy’s tummy when she’s pregnant. It’s tiny, but it’s a baby. It’s not finished developing, but it’s a baby. The reason there are experts who work with the heart breaking grief caused by a miscarriage is because we know we’re talking about a baby. When parents want the baby, there’s no denying the humanity of the developing child. We post ultrasound pictures on facebook, schedule baby showers, and start buying clothes because there’s a mother with child. It’s only when the child is unwanted the conversation of personhood comes into play. It’s not an issue of science, it’s an issue of preference.

My firstborn son has Cerebral Palsy and living with him forces me to rethink many things. These ponderings led to the inception of one of my other blogs, “Nobody’s Normal.” Caedmon helped me realize Normal is a nasty idea which places that which I’m comfortable with as the standard of Normalcy in the world. And anything outside that selfishly defined quality of Normal is less important or valuable than anything that meets the criteria. Normal picked on you in middle school. Normal violently attacked people of color in the ’60s. Normal drove the Holocaust. And Normal fuels the abortion industry today.

Those of us who have benefited from being born decided we’re humans and deserve all the rights being human entails. We’ve also decided those who haven’t been born don’t meet our arbitrary standard and we’ve withheld their rights.

Those of us who can walk, talk without an impediment, happen to be out of the womb, etc. have made the elitist choice to withhold fundamental human rights from our children because we decided they don’t qualify. This will be covered more thoroughly in the article on compromise, but for now we must realize we have individuals in power subjectively withholding  rights from a group of people based on their elitist criteria of Normal.

We’ve seen individuals, or groups of people, denied personhood in the past and it resulted in some of the worst atrocities in human history. This rejection of personhood is the singular justification for abortion today.

A woman thinks she might be pregnant when she misses her period. The period doesn’t occur because the 23 chromosome egg she would regularly pass united with a 23 chromosome sperm and the two became a zygote, and the zygote is alive. Because it’s alive, the woman’s body produces a hormone called HCG to take care of the new being, and pregnancy tests detect the hormone to confirm she’s with child. In less than 40 weeks there will be diapers to change because a pregnancy means there’s a baby growing inside. If this weren’t true why would the woman be getting an abortion?

An abortion involves three people: the mother, the father, and the child. In rare instances the father is unwelcome and isn’t involved in the process, but even then there is a child to consider. (If you’re wondering about abortion in instances of rape or incest, please read the third article in the series.)

I’ll let an expert have the final word; Dr. Alfred M. Bongiovanni, the late professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania said,

“I have learned from my earliest medical education that human life begins at the time of conception. I submit that human life is present throughout this entire sequence from conception to adulthood and that any interruption at any point throughout this time constitutes a termination of human life.”

(Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice: The Heart of the Debate by Randy Alcorn. Christian Counseling Today, Vol. 19, No. 1)

All images provided by – Zygote by rajcreationzs; DNA by jscreationzs; pregnancy test by winnond

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