Welcome back for Part 2 of this series, in which I’m presenting a pro-life case against abortion. In Part 1 we examined the controversy surrounding abortion, and I argued that the rightness or wrongness of abortion rests predominantly on the nature of the unborn. This was expressed with the question “what is the unborn?”. The objective of this week’s post is to examine the scientific data relevant to the question, and to demonstrate that the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being.
Defining the Pro-life Position
Before delving into the question of the nature of the unborn, let’s define two key terms: “abortion”, and “human being”. Abortion is the intentional killing of a human foetus[i], while a human being is a distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens. Typically, ethicists who argue in favour of abortion contend that the unborn, though a human being in the biological sense, lacks some further property or capacity which grants them personhood. Such arguments will be considered in future posts; this post will deal solely with scientific evidence.
The pro-life position can be clearly and concisely laid out as follows:
- It is wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being.
- Abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being.
- Therefore, abortion is wrong.
Over the course of this series we’ll examine the premises of this argument, and I’ll offer a defence of each by appealing to science and philosophy.
The Scientific Case[ii]
Now we come to the question outlined in Part 1: what is the unborn? Upon reflection, there seem to be two options. Firstly, the unborn could be a distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens from the moment of conception; that is, a human being. Alternatively, it could be some other kind of entity that becomes a human being at birth or at some other stage during pregnancy. Obvious candidates for this kind of entity include (1) a mere clump of cells that do not function in a coordinated manner, (2) a living but non-human being, or (3) a part of the woman’s body. The following paragraphs will outline several scientific facts that undermine these three options and demonstrate that the unborn is a human being.
- The unborn is alive
A common misconception regarding abortion is that no one knows when life begins. Insofar as one uses “life” in the biological sense, this is demonstrably false. Although there is some debate among biologists as to how to define life precisely, there exist several criteria which, if fulfilled, most scientists agree indicate that an organism is living. Intriguingly, the unborn entity fulfils those criteria from the moment of conception, and thus we can infer that human life begins at conception. These criteria are, minimally, threefold: an entity must be able to convert food to energy (metabolism), react to stimuli, and must be capable of cellular reproduction (growth)[iii]. The unborn, from the moment of conception, performs all three of these functions. Therefore, the unborn is alive.
An additional consideration which lends support to the view that the unborn is alive is this: abortion kills something. Of course, everyone knows that an organism that has been killed must have been alive prior to its death. In other words, it’s impossible to kill something that isn’t alive. With these considerations in mind, it’s evident that the unborn is a living entity.
- The unborn is biologically unique
When sperm and egg unite during fertilisation, each contribute twenty-three chromosomes to the formation of the new being. These chromosomes contain the genetic material that guides and directs its development over the course of its life, and they are relevant because they distinguish the unborn from every other cell in the mother’s body. While all the mother’s cells contain the forty-six chromosomes that she received at fertilisation, the cells of the unborn contain forty-six of its own distinct chromosomes. The unborn’s chromosomes consist of a unique combination of the mother’s and father’s chromosomal sequences. Since every cell in the mother’s body contains her unique chromosomal structure, and every cell in the unborn child’s body contains its unique chromosomal structure, the unborn is a distinct being; it is not merely a part of the woman’s body.
- The unborn has the genetic constitution of a human being
In addition to having its own chromosomal makeup, the unborn has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings. Each of the unborn’s chromosomes contains a DNA molecule, which includes sequences called genes. These sequences make up the genome, which is a set of instructions for constructing an organism. Different types of organisms have different genomes, and thus it is possible to determine the type of being an organism is by examining its genome. Upon examination, it becomes clear that “the conceptus [unborn] is a new, although tiny, individual with a human genetic code”[iv].
- The unborn functions as a whole
Another relevant fact is that the unborn, from conception, is a whole organism that directs its own internal growth and maturation. Unlike a dead body, which contains living cells but is unable to function as a coordinated whole, the unborn “is a whole organism, with certain capacities, powers, and properties, whose parts work in concert to bring the whole to maturity… the early embryo… behaves like a single organism with an intrinsic goal-directedness for which its cellular parts interact and communicate”[v]. There are several reasons to think this is the case, one of which is the fact that the embryo forms a natural protective coating for its own benefit and use prior to implantation. This coating, known as a zona pellucida, is not the mother’s organ, nor is it a tumour or some third organism[vi]. Rather, it is an organ of the embryo. Activities such as this, in which cells coordinate to produce organs for the benefit of the whole, are characteristic of whole organisms.
Now that the relevant facts have been outlined, all that remains is to see how they support or undermine the various answers offered as to the nature of the unborn. To recap, the unborn could be:
- A part of the woman’s body.
- A mere clump of cells that lacks the ability to function as a whole.
- A living non-human being, e.g. canine, bovine.
- A distinct, living, and whole member of the species Homo sapiens.
This list is meant only to include the most common suggestions; it is not exhaustive.
Let’s begin by considering whether the unborn could be a part of the woman’s body. Upon first impression, the fact that the unborn is located within the woman’s body does provide some reason to think that it could be her body, or, rather, a part of it. Just as other internal organs, such as her heart and lungs, are both within and part of her body, the unborn could also be part of her body.
However, the fact that the unborn has a unique chromosomal structure from the moment of conception rules this option out. We know that if a cell is part of a woman’s body, then it will have the same chromosomes as every other cell in her body. Since the unborn does not have the same chromosomes, we can conclude that it’s not part of her body.
Alternatively, could the unborn be a mere clump of cells that lack the ability to function as a whole? A shaving of skin cells contains living human cells, but it would be a mistake to think that therefore those cells are a living human being. Similarly, it could be the case that the unborn is a clump of cells that doesn’t qualify as a human being.
Once again there are good grounds for rejecting this suggestion; namely the observation that the unborn, from conception, directs its own internal growth and maturation. In the words of Christopher Kaczor, “the human embryo is a whole, complete organism, a living individual human being whose cells work together in a coordinated effort of self-development towards maturity”[vii]. This observation demonstrates that the unborn is utterly unlike a shaving of skin cells.
Thirdly, it could be the case that the unborn is a living non-human being. There are innumerable other living organisms besides Homo sapiens, and given this, it may at face value seem reasonable to take this position. However, the genetic constitution of the unborn is conclusive evidence against this. If an entity has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings, then it is a human being. The unborn has said genetic constitution, and therefore the unborn is not only a living being, but a living human being.
Of the offered alternatives, this leaves only one: the unborn is a distinct, living, and whole human being. We know the unborn is alive, as it fulfils the biological criteria for life. We know the unborn is a distinct entity because it has a unique chromosomal makeup. We know the unborn is human because it has the genetic constitution characteristic of human beings, and we know the unborn is a whole entity, as it directs its own internal growth and maturation. Hence, pro-choice advocate Peter Singer writes “there is no doubt that from the first moments of its existence an embryo conceived from human sperm and eggs is a human being”[viii].
What is the unborn? It is a distinct, living, and whole human being.
[i] The Clarkson Academy. (2015, November 27). The ethics of abortion part 1 – Scott Klusendorf at The Clarkson Academy (session 1). [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mG6zulqxzlw&t=645s
[ii] I’m indebted to Zachary Arden for his help in writing this section; many thanks!
[iii] Klusendorf, S. (2009). The case for life: Equipping Christians to engage the culture, p. 37. Wheaton Illinois: Crossway.
[iv] Beckwith, F. J. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice, p. 67. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
[vi] Benedict, A. & Moraczewski, A. (n.d.). Is the biological subject of human rights present from conception. The Fetal Tissue Issue: 33-60. As cited in Beckwith, F. (2007). Defending life: A moral and legal case against abortion choice, p. 80.
[vii] Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge p. 113.
[viii] Singer, P. (2000). Writings on an ethical life. New York: Ecco Press, p. 127, as cited in Kaczor, C. (2015). The ethics of abortion: women’s rights, human life, and the question of justice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge p. 7.