Polaroid Babies

Richard Stith
The Elliot Institute News
Special Report -- Nov. 6, 2006
Reproduced with Permission

Conflicting Perspectives On Human Embryo Development

Why do many pro-choice people find our arguments against early abortion not just unconvincing but absurd? Consider, for example, the ridicule that the defense of human embryos sometimes draws. In order to have any hope of winning the debate, defenders of unborn life must understand how an argument that seems wholly reasonable to us can strike our opponents as a bizarre (therefore religious) doctrine wholly unconnected to the real world.

I submit that pro-life arguments seem absurd to any listener who has in the back of the mind a sense that the embryo or fetus is being constructed in the womb.

Here's an analogy: At what point in the automobile assembly-line process can a "car" be said to exist? I suppose most of us would point to some measure of minimum functionality (viability), like having wheels and/or a motor, but some might insist on the need for windshield wipers or say it's not fully a car until it rolls out onto the street (is born). We would all understand, however, that there's no clearly "right" answer as to when a car is there. And we would also agree that someone who claimed the car to be present from the insertion of the first screw at the very beginning of the assembly line would be taking an utterly absurd position. To someone who conceives of gestation as intrauterine construction, pro-life people sound just this ridiculous. For a thing being constructed is truly not there until it is nearly complete. (Moving from ordinary language to metaphysics, we would say that a constructed thing does not have its essential form until it is complete or nearly complete. And it can't be that thing without having the form of that thing.)

Now, this way of thinking (treating gestation as construction, assembling, fabrication, making) has not only intuitive appeal today but a grand pedigree. For thousands of years, it was the dominant (though not the exclusive) way to conceive of what was happening in the womb. Thus Job exclaims to God: "You poured me out like milk and curdled me like cheese. You clothed me with skin and flesh and knit me together . . ." No one knew of the ovum until the 1830s, and, despite its name, semen ("seed") didn't seem to develop on its own. So, for the ancients and medievals, it made sense to posit an outside constructor or fabricator, either God or one of the parents, who worked inert seminal material into a human shape, as one does with clay, during the early stages of pregnancy. And, quite reasonably, abortion of the incomplete and still relatively amorphous mass was not considered the destruction of someone with an essential human form (though it may have been forbidden as in terference with a sacred process).

But, at quickening (animation, enlivening), the unborn child exhibited something that no merely constructed thing could do: It moved itself. (This was judged to occur in mid-pregnancy, a position that did not become untenable until, again, after the 1830s, when the invention of the stethoscope first made possible the detection of the early fetal heartbeat.) The greatest of all fabrications must therefore have taken place, a soul (anima) must have been inserted by God. From this point on, construction from the outside was over and development from the inside began. And so now abortion constituted homicide, the killing of a human person. For, unlike a constructed entity, which is not present until nearly the end of the construction process, a developing being is already there as soon as it starts developing.

Why does self-development entail continuity of being? There are many ways to get at the answer here. Heideggerians could point to "de-velop" as an un-veiling or un-wrapping (cf. "en-velop"). (Heidegger himself would no doubt privilege German and point to ent-wickeln -- "un-wrap." In Spanish, one would unwrap in the sense of un-roll -- des-arrollar.) One could also just point to our ordinary language, to our lived world, in which development connotes continuity. We would say that the first little sprout we saw come out of the ground five years ago is the same plant as the pear tree we now see, unless someone tells us that some grafting (construction) has occurred--for example, that the sprout developed into an apple tree but its original branches were trimmed off and pear branches grafted on.

The difference between making and developing is not just an accident of language. Suppose we're back in the pre-digital days and you've just taken a fabulous photo, one you know you will prize, with your Polaroid camera. (Say it's a picture of a jaguar that has now darted back into the jungle, so that the photo is unrepeatable.) You are just starting to let the photo hang out to develop when I grab it and rip its cover off, thus destroying it. What would you think if I responded to your dismay with the assertion: "Hey man, it was still in the brown-smudge stage. Why should you care about brown smudges?" You would find my defense utterly absurd. Just so for pro-lifers, who find dignity in every human individual: To say that killing such a prized being doesn't count if he or she is still developing in the womb strikes them as outrageously absurd.

By contrast, if I had simply destroyed a blank, unexposed piece of your film, you would have been much less upset. You really would have lost little more than a smudge. Passive potential does not count for much. Only developing potential already contains its own form (essence, identity), is already the what that it is in the process of manifesting.

I conclude that pro-choice folks think pro-life claims regarding embryos to be not only wrong but also absurd whenever they think (even unconsciously) that embryos are under construction in the womb. And pro-life folks find pro-choice denials of prized human dignity in embryos to be equally absurd whenever they think that the unborn child develops (indeed, develops itself, unlike the Polaroid photo) from the moment of fertilization.

The two sides are not quite parallel in this, however: Human beings do develop. To think they are constructed is flatly erroneous. This error remains intuitively plausible and has a decent cultural pedigree, so therefore those who make it should not be dismissed as utterly irrational or evil, even though they may seem so from the viewpoint of one who bears in mind the facts of human development. But they are absolutely wrong. We know with certainty that quickening is an illusion, that the child is developing from the beginning, not being made from the outside, for its form lies within it, in its active potency, in its activated DNA. From the point of view of natural science (and natural theology) delayed animation (quickening) is no longer needed to explain human development, and Occam's razor should cut it out of our debates. "Viability" is similarly irrelevant to human identity if we bear in mind that the child is developing rather than being constructed. The pear tree was already a pear tree even when it still needed frequent watering and fertilizer, even in the years before it began bearing fruit.

The "construction" image is often present when someone favors abortion. Thus Dalton Conley argued in The New York Times a while ago that most Americans think of a fetus as "an individual under construction." They must have this making-a-fetus in mind whenever they refer to current fetal-embryonic characteristics (for example, "it's so small," "it has no brain") in order to prove the unborn child at a certain moment in time is not yet a human being. For current appearance doesn't matter much when one is asking what a developing being is. (Recall the pear tree again.)

Of course, everything changes for the postmodern academics who think mere humanity not a locus of dignity at all, that only experience and not being matters, that what one is doesn't count, that human personhood is only an epiphenomenon rather than a nature. If the only rule of ethics were, for example, "reasoning processes should not be interrupted," then it would be absurd to oppose the abortion of a human embryo that had not yet developed a brain. Similarly, no logical mistake is made by a utilitarian who thinks that the only evil is pain, that at a certain stage a fetus cannot feel pain, and thus that abortion is obviously OK with regard to that fetus (though any short- or long-term painful consequences for his or her mother would still need to be considered before approving of abortion).

In other words, those who hold both to the truth of human development and to the truth of universal human dignity will seek to respect life from conception. But those who fall into ignorance or denial of one or the other of these truths will find our arguments against abortion to be absurd.

Richard Stith is professor of law at Valparaiso University School of Law.This article originally appeared in First Things.

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