By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College ([email protected])
Elevating human embryos and fetuses to a revered, exalted, even sacred status is fetal idolatry, according to Rev. John Swomley, Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics, St. Paul School of Theology. Fetal idolaters have transformed a mindless, senseless fetus the size of my thumb into a kind of demigod—a helpless, innocent, unborn baby with awareness and feelings—a baby that is playfully sucking its thumb and only needs to grow—a conscious baby that will undergo excruciating pain as it is torn apart in an abortion—a pre-born baby with the sacred, inalienable, self-evident, fundamental right to life. Yet, the scientific reality is quite different.
When does life begin?
Regarding the abortion issue, a central question is “When does life begin?” The scientific answer is that single-celled life forms evolved from non-life by natural processes almost four billion years ago. This first question is usually quickly followed by the second: “When does a human being first appear?” The answer is that it depends on one’s definition of “human being”, since what was once an ancient ape-like primate slowly evolved over millions of years into many different species of the genus Homo and finally us, Homo sapiens. Many fetal idolaters, however, reject the fact of our evolution in favor of some variation of an ancient creation myth in Genesis.
Fetal idolaters believe that a divinely planned human life with a soul begins at the moment of conception. But there is no magic “moment” of conception. Instead, there is a time span of up to 48 hours. After a sperm penetrates the egg, its genes remain separate from the egg genes for a day or more. Sometimes several sperm penetrate the egg and it takes time for the egg to eject the extra chromosomes.
Also, although fertilization brings together all 46 human chromosomes a great deal of information is still missing in the human embryo. This information can only emerge inside the uterus from the biochemical and physical interactions of the developing embryo with its surroundings. As one example, our 20-30 thousand genes can’t possibly control the precise development and interconnections of the 100 billion neurons in the human brain.
In addition, with our rapid advances in cell biology, biochemistry and genetic engineering technologies it is now possible to clone humans from body cells. So if my appendix is removed and thrown out, millions of potential human beings would have been “killed”. (Cloning has become a “tunnel of madness” for the Roman Catholic Church.)
Stages of embryological development
Following fertilization the zygote (fertilized egg) begins to divide. After 3 days it has become a ball of 16 cells, still about the same size as the original zygote. This ball of cells then hollows out and becomes a blastula. By the 7th day, if not destroyed, it has attached to the inner lining of the uterus and pregnancy has medically begun.
By the 4th week following conception, the human embryo is about the size of a pencil eraser. It has no human face, hands, feet, or cerebral cortex. It has no functional sense organs to see, smell, hear or experience anything. It has a pronounced tail and superficially looks something like a tadpole. It also has a barely visible embryonic tubular heart that has started to beat. (The recorded sound of this beating embryonic heart continues to be used by the anti-choice forces, even in the U.S. Congress. But our heart is just a very good pump. Fish, reptiles and mammals all have beating hearts. We are not human because of a beating heart!)
By the 6th week a human embryo is about one-half inch long. It has an eye spot on each side of its head. Its reptilian-like face has slits where the mouth and nose will eventually be. Arm and leg buds have appeared. By the end of the 7th week the tail is almost gone and the face is more pig-like than human.
By the 8th week the developing fetal skeleton is cartilage, not bone. Very tiny arms and legs with fingers and toes are developing. (Technology now allows these fingers and toes to be photographed and sent across the web, galvanizing the anti-choice supporters.)
By the 9th week most major organs exist in rudimentary form. But it will take several more months for these organs to grow in size, complexity and organization to the point where they can function. The abortion pill (RU-486 or Mifepristone) can still be used at this time.
About 50% of all abortions in the U.S. have occurred by the 8th week and about 90% by the 12th week. These percentages would be much higher if all the legal obstacles erected by the anti-choice male power structure were overturned. Only 2% of abortions occur after the 19th week, almost always because of a wanted pregnancy that went terribly wrong.
By the 23rd week the human fetus is still too underdeveloped to live outside the uterus. Its lungs can’t exchange air, its skin is not waterproof, its kidneys will fail, and the blood vessels in its brain will collapse and rupture. Almost all will die if delivered. If delivered one week later, at 24 weeks, only 20% of infants will have good outcomes. Another 40% will have serious abnormalities and the remaining 40% will likely die.
Brain development and humanness
Those who picket reproductive care centers often carry greatly magnified photos of tiny baby-looking fetuses with arms and legs, fingers and toes. They also play recordings of fetal heart beats. But what make us human are not our fingers and toes, nor our eyes, legs, or hearts. Many other mammals have sharper vision and more powerful legs. And our heart, although a superb pump (as are the hearts of all mammals), can be replaced without any claim that a new “person” now exists.
What makes us human is our large brain. Our humanness—our sentience, reason and will—our ability to love, hate, enjoy, grieve and suffer—is all found in our brain. If my brain could be transplanted, my “personhood” would go with my brain, not stay back with my body. Scientists know for a fact that this brain of ours gradually evolved over hundreds of millions of years from an ancient fish brain.
By the 10th week of pregnancy a fetus still doesn’t have functioning eyes, ears, a cerebral cortex, or brain waves associated with consciousness. Its brain volume is about l/500th that of a newborn. There is some reflex motion that doesn’t require a brain. But the groundwork for human consciousness and awareness still does not exist.
By the 24th week, the large scale linking up of neurons critical for human consciousness and awareness has just begun. Continuous brain waves do not begin to occur until about the 28th week and EEGs associate with thought and consciousness don’t occur until sometime after the 30th week. Fetuses younger than this still lack the necessary brain architecture to think like humans. Significant development of neuronal activity in the cortex continues long after birth.
Regarding fetal pain, although fetuses have started to form pain receptors by 8 weeks, the thalamus (that part of the brain which routes information to other areas) doesn’t start to form until after the 20th week. Without the thalamus no awareness of pain is possible.
Furthermore, there is no scientific evidence for any “ghost in the machine” that is separate from our brain and lives on after death. While modern neuroscience cannot conclusively rule out that possibility, there is now considerable evidence to the contrary.
“Without the brain we are merely a lump of thoughtless meat that might respond automatically in some simple ways as an amoeba might.”
Some final thoughts
The argument that a fertilized egg or embryo is somehow a prepackaged human destined to be born contradicts all that scientists have learned. Knowledge of human embryology is why biologists use words like “zygote,” “blastula,” “embryo” and “fetus”, not “baby.” Possibly the public’s attitude toward abortions would have been more mature and reasonable if students had learned some basic human embryology in school. But instead, in dozens of states students are only taught that “abortions murder babies” and legislators continue to pass laws based on medieval theologies and pseudoscience that in effect, treat women as obligatory breeding machines. Who is asking the question: when will women, themselves, achieve full personhood?
Demigod or parasite?
Fetal idolaters elevate embryos to demi-god status. But a desperate woman seeking a quick abortion may view the same embryo as she might view an internal parasite, to be quickly removed. Of course, it’s abhorrent to most people to compare a human embryo to a parasite and there are differences. But there are also similarities. An internal parasite and an unwanted embryo are both un-welcomed organisms that live and grow inside a host at whose expense they obtain food and shelter and release wastes. They both harm the host in one way or another. The host’s defenses often attempt to expel both. In fact, up to 25% of all pregnancies are spontaneously expelled.
What about miscarriages?
Christian fundamentalists believe that the millions of new “American” embryos coming into existence each year all have divine souls and were all planned by God. Yet, research reveals that 10-25% of all pregnancies miscarry. In addition, every year over 100,000 women have dangerous tubal pregnancies requiring emergency surgery. Obviously, a significant percentage of conceptions are never “destined” to be born.
Fetal idolaters dismiss miscarriages as God’s Will and show little interest in pouring money and energy into reducing the miscarriage rate. One would think that if they were really committed to saving these millions of “innocent human beings” miscarried they would support spending billions of dollars to stop all these “little people” from being flushed down the toilet. Terrorism pales in significance to this vast ongoing tragedy—a disaster of biblical proportions! All of these saved pre-born humans could then be implanted into millions of women, or else frozen until extremely expensive technologies can be invented for their ongoing development, birth and adoption.
 The Guttmacher Foundation reported that in 2008 there were 6.4 million pregnancies to the 62 million women of reproductive age. Of those, 19% ended in abortion, 66% ended in live birth, and 15% ended in miscarriage. That means there were approximately 1.21 million abortions.