The beginning of life and the establishment of the continuum of life are not difficult facts to comprehend for the biologist (embryologist). Unfortunately, these facts have been reinterpreted and redefined in order to satisfy a political point of view. Thus, Human Embryology is in danger of being rewritten as a socio-legal political statement.
Roe v. Wade, adjudicated in 1973, has proven to be the watershed between law and science. Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority, said: "We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer."1
By essentially eliminating the question of life as the time related value for defining rights of the conceived - as opposed to disposal of the conceived - the court was free to establish an arbitrary point, or condition, which fumed out to be convenient for the mother, prior to which disposal would be the legal right of the mother. This point was decided to be viability, which was cited to be between 24 and 28 weeks post-fertilization.2 Blackmun tied viability to personhood, and marked it as the time at which the fetus could survive "outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid."3
Later, in the Webster decision, the majority opinion also written by Blackmun, the decision of Roe v. Wade was affirmed. However, in this decision, Justice Blackmun used an Amici Curiae Brief of 167 Distinguished Scientists and Physicians including 11 Nobel Laureates In Support of Appellees.4
Using a reliable source to list the credentials of the 167, the volumes of American Men and Women of Science were consulted.5 True, the 1992-93 edition was used and this might account for 66 not found if they had died and their listing removed in the interim. But, with that caveat understood 101 were found in the listing. Of that number only 31 used 'development' or 'developmental' in their bios. Of those 31 scientists, 9 were index-described embryologists and one was self-described, but not one was a human embryologist!6 Clearly there is a major problem in establishing credibility for what these scientists say about human development (or what they do not say) "in support of appellees." The human embryologist knows human development best; but, this source of science was not consulted even though the compelling reasons were obvious.
In the above-referred-to Brief, it is written: "there is no scientific consensus that a human life begins at conception, at a given stage of fetal development, or at birth."7 Conception, fetal development and birth are wholly biological (more specifically, embryological) terms. There are no implications of philosophy or theology implied or intended in their statement. The error of this statement is manifest by simple deductive reasoning and through countless observations, experimentally, that the result of fertilization is the beginning of a new life.
Later, in this Brief, it is further written: "The question of when a human life truly begins calls for a conclusion as to which characteristics define the essence of human life. While science can tell us when certain biological characteristics can be detected, science cannot tell us which biological (sic) attributes establish the existence of a human being."8 Here it is absolutely clear that the amici refer to "biological" characteristic(s) to the exclusion of philosophy and theology.
The answer to their statement has been known in human embryology for decades. The best response is to be found in the statement by Wendell M. Stanley, Nobel Prize winner and discoverer of the tobacco mosaic virus:
"The essence of life is the ability to reproduce. This is accomplished by the utilization of energy to create order out of disorder, to bring together into a specific predetermined pattern from semiorder or even from chaos all the component parts of that pattern with the perpetuation of that pattern with time. This is life."9
The Supreme Court has disdained to reconsider what they decided in Roe v. Wade that the beginning of life could not be determined.10,11 Thus, in this artificial vacuum many nonsensical statements have been made, such as that by Eleanor Smeal (then President of the National Organization of Women, NOW) in 1989: "Everybody knows that life begins only after birth."12 Such a vacuum also generates specious arguments as to when the individual becomes human or a human being. Thus one finds published such bizarre claims that the fertilized ovum, or zygote does not have the information for full development;13 that genetic control of development is the equivalent of "molecular control" and that such control is retained by the pregnant mother;14 that sentience, self-awareness, marks the onset of individuation, which is the equivalent of becoming human.15 These are all interesting academic exercises but have no relevance or significance in defining the beginning of life.
By denying the knowledge of when life begins, the Supreme Court established as a priority that point at which the new individual becomes a human being or is invested with personhood. This has led to invoking such ancillary qualities as genetic, developmental, functional, behavioral, social and psychic individualities.16 Thus, this is in concert with Blackmun's applying the fields of medicine, philosophy and theology towards the "difficult question of when life begins."(1)
Life as a phenomenon began in the evolutionary sense approximately 3.5 billion years ago when a replicative (reproductive) event became sustained. Many replicative events probably occurred and were not sustained. But, eventually, one of those events marked the beginning of the continuum of life, within which we exist, today. Now we can see the significance of recognizing reproduction as the essence of life. It sustains the continuum of life.
Thus, in sexual reproduction, which evolved later, and produced the advantage of variety, fertilization became the time at which the new individual began and sustained the continuum. This means that first contact between sperm and ovum, the initial event in fertilization, became (and is) the supreme moment for initiation of the continuum.
With the timed sequence of events after first contact, a process occurs which brings together the chromosomes of the spermatozoan with the chromosomes of the ovum. This is called syngamy. This so-called stage has been suggested as the onset of individuation. In the technical sense this might be correct; however, syngamy occurs as a consequence of first contact, so it will occur anyway.
The failure to recognize first contact as the initiation of the new individual has permitted other arbitrary moments for individuation. Thus, the condition of monozygotic twinning (2 individuals split from one fertilized egg) was introduced as a defining moment of individuation because it was assumed that the early embryo had the potential to divide up to, but not after, 14 days post-fertilization. Therefore, individuation was delayed until the 14 day time.(15) It was, however, ignored that the known embryological facts state that 35% of monozygotic twins occur from splitting of the embryonic cells (blastomeres) early in development from the first one or two division stages.17 Retrospectively, this speaks for early determination of the so called individual.
Another attempt to delay the identification of the new individual (thus, that of new life) may be found in the conversion of the definition of conception. Taber's Cyclopedic Medical Dictionary defines conception as: "The union of the male sperm and the ovum of the female; fertilization."18 Mosby's Medical Dictionary also declares conception is equivalent with fertilization.~9 Stedman's 22nd edition medical dictionary defines it as: "implantation of the blastocyst in the uterine lining." It says nothing about fertilization.20 However, Stedman's 26th edition defines conception as: "the act of conceiving or becoming pregnant; fertilization...."21 This same edition defines pregnancy as "conception until birth of the baby".(21) Dorland's Medical Dictionary uses two definitions of conception: 1. "the onset of pregnancy, marked by implantation of the blastocyst"; and 2. "the formation of a viable zygote."22 Dorland's dictionary is somewhat contradictory in that pregnancy is defined as: "having a developing embryo or fetus in the body."(22) Taber's dictionary defines pregnancy as: "carrying a developing embryo in the uterus."(18) Mosby's Dictionary defines pregnancy as: "the gestational process, comprising the growth and development within a woman of a new individual from conception through the embryonic and fetal periods to birth."19 From where might such contradictions arise? The following might provide a clue: In Albert Rosenfeld's book Second Genesis.23 in a discussion of chemical contraceptives, a footnote states as follows:
"Because these substances do not prevent the sperm from penetrating and fertilizing the ovum -the classic definition of conception - they are not strictly contraceptives. What they do is prevent the newly fertilized egg from implanting itself in the uterus. Since the interference occurs after conception, some hold that such practice constitutes abortion. A way around this impasse has been suggested by Dr. A.S. Parkes of Cambridge: Equate conception with the time of implantation rather than the time of fertilization - a difference of only a few days."
Political correctness weaves its way in and out of the science of human embryology!
Embryology is the study of development of the new individual from beginning to end. We should, therefore, be alerted as to what contemporary and renowned human embryologists have to say about the beginning of a new life and the beginning of the human being:
Conversely, it is worthwhile to note that this author has never seen a statement denying the truth of the above. Only when the biological facts have become politicized has there appeared any equivocation.
The Supreme Court of the United States must ultimately come vis-a-vis with the known biological facts of human embryology and admit to the disingenuous interpretation of the beginning of life embodied in Roe v. Wade and affirmed in the Webster case.
In summary: The fertilized egg is a living entity, a human being, a human individual, and, a person, all one and inseparable. The reason why this is true is the following:
from the moment when the sperm makes contact with the ovum, under conditions we have come to understand and describe as normal, all subsequent development to birth of a living newborn is a fait accompli. That is to say, after that initial contact of sperm and egg there is no subsequent moment or stage which is held in arbitration or abeyance by the mother, or the embryo or fetus. Nor is a second contribution, a signal or trigger, needed from the male in order to continue and complete full development to birth. Human development is a continuum in which so-called stages overlap and blend one into another. Indeed, all of life is contained within a time continuum. Thus, the beginning of a new life is exacted by the beginning of fertilization, the reproductive event which is the essence of life.
4 William L. Webster et al. v. Reproductive Health Services et al. Amici Curiae Brief of 167 Distinguished Scientists and Physicians, Including 11 Nobel Laureates In Support of Appellees. October, 1988. [Back]
7 William L. Webster et al. v. Reproductive Health Services et al. Amici Curiae Brief of 167 Distinguished Scientists and Physicians, Including 11 Nobel Laureates In Support of Appellees. October, 1988. p. 2. [Back]