Sunday, February 7, 2016

Fetuses: Are they People?

As I've been engaging with folks on twitter lately, the claim keeps resurfacing that fetuses are indeed people.

 In matter of fact, I was even linked to an article.

That's quite the interesting link, so let's break down its contents.

“The life cycle of mammals begins when a sperm enters an egg.”
One of the first arguments an anti-abortion person tends to make is that life starts at conception. In a manner of speaking, this is correct.  The argument then follows, typically, that this means that a newly-fertilized cell (literally, the earliest possible fetal diploid cell) is a person.  We'll come back to exactly why this isn't accurate, but let's consider the implications of such a notion.  This should prove a fun thought experiment.

One might ask, what are such implications?  Consider for a moment that a newborn baby is a citizen.  This means that it has exactly the same rights as any citizen.  Let's pretend for a moment, however, that every single fertilized cell is, indeed, a person.  What this means is, we now have to register them.  Forget about birth certificates: every time you have sex, we're going to have to make absolutely sure whether or not you're actually fertilizing an ovum.  Considering that most citizens in a country like the United States will get a birth certificate, how exactly would we register every single fertilized egg?  Shall we make it mandatory to have a checkup after every copulation?  I mean, we wouldn't want a woman's natural body processes like menstruation to accidentally kill a fertilized ovum which simply didn't connect with the uterine lining, now would we?  Certainly, that fertilized cell would die without some sort of law ensuring every possible fertilized ovum was guaranteed the sanctity of life!

Artist's rendition of an ovum.
Can you tell which mammal this will
develop into?
As we can see, it's probably against our best interest to give Social Security numbers to every potentially fertilized cell.  However, it's good to note that the quote isn't wrong, per se.  I mean, one could claim that the life cycle actually begins with the haploid cells in mammals, because sperm and ova are very much alive, and are also required to form the exact same person.  Is it equally murderous to let them die?  What of the millions of sperm which can't possibly fertilize any ova, being simply unlucky enough to be the first contact?  If a diploid zygote is a human, then I contest a haploid ganymete is half a human.  Although, I think assigning all men an individual social security number and life certificate for every pair of sperm is rather a stupid idea, it would be a fun maths experiment to figure out just how many numbers that would be in the average lifetime.

I think we can see, reasonably well, that a newly fertilized zygote is not, in and of itself, a human.  Even most (but not all) religious people will contend that this is not a logical argument, for some reason.  Zygotes don't contain any of the traits of a human, like a brain, appendages, organs, and so on.  It's literally no different from any other diploid cell at that point.


This media comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 

with identification number #10000.

See that diploid cell?  That's HIV.  Interesting stuff.  Shares most of the basic physical descriptors of a mammalian zygote.  Doesn't look much like an animal.  Let's move on to the next quote.

“Fertilization is the process by which male and female haploid gametes (sperm and egg) unite to produce a genetically distinct individual.”
Again, we've basically touched on this.  That's called fertilization.  For the reasons above, I think we can see why fertilization is not a human.  Humans have very specific features that are distinct from gametes or zygotes, or even fetuses as I'll probably have to demonstrate.  I could be wrong, I've not read the entire article yet.

The genetically distinct bit, of course it's genetically distinct.  It's sharing two sets of DNA.  However, it's not correct to say that this is the point at which the DNA combines.  Again, it's not a proper mixing of DNA immediately from when the fertilization happens, we've got to get past the pronuclei stages, at least.  Literally, it's impossible that one human feature can occur for at least a day.  Also, humanoid features aren't going to happen for a few months really, but that's for another day.

“The oviduct or Fallopian tube is the anatomical region where every new life begins in mammalian species. After a long journey, the spermatozoa meet the oocyte in the specific site of the oviduct named ampulla, and fertilization takes place.” 
“Fertilization – the fusion of gametes to produce a new organism – is the culmination of a multitude of intricately regulated cellular processes.”

Again, they're both correct.  There's nothing wrong with those quotes.

“Human life begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoo developmentn) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).”
Neat.  I've no way to check this quote offhand (though google does help a bit), but I can see that the book in reference is not a highly-technical book on human development, but rather appears to be a middle or high-school level book on human anatomy and physiology.  It's okay for books like this, which are introducing basic concepts, to have simplified language.  This is how we learn everything.  It's exactly the same as if I were to start describing floating point numbers to you right now, I'd have to do so from some context you understand.  I could be wrong, but it doesn't look terribly different from the books we used in middle-school and high-school.  From what I can see, however, it is actually reasonably in-depth.

However, I'm going to use the quote anyway, to illustrate one point the original blog author seemed to miss:

(i.e., an embryo)
Again, the quote's not wrong, actually, especially in context.  However, it's been ripped from it's context here, so let's fix that.  It's absolutely correct to say that life begins before birth.  The definition of 'life' in this context is not the same as 'life' in the context of an actual, live human.  It's signifying the same thing as the previous quotes in this article: it's when fertilization happens, when a body can be allowed to form.  The fact that it then goes on to say that the embryo id est (i.e.), is literally the one example, demonstrates this casual use of the terms, as well as demonstrates that the fertilization isn't actually the same kind of beginning of life as an actual post-natal baby.  Moving on.

“In that fraction of a second when the chromosomes form pairs, the sex of the new child will be determined, hereditary characteristics received from each parent will be set, and a new life will have begun.”
From what I can tell, this is also correct.  It's literally part of the fertilization process.  However, it's also important to note that, apart from a few alleles pairing off into chromosomes, there's literally no sexual characteristics to this zygote, any more than there is a forehead, or a big toe.  These simply aren't things at this point.  It has the potential to develop those things, based upon this set of DNA instructions, but it certainly isn't male or female at this point. Unless, of course, you argue that the only determinant of sex is genetic (and not secondary/chemical/whatever).  The cell isn't producing it's own estrogen or testosterone, so it doesn't really matter what sex it is at this point.

Because it's a simple zygote.  It's not a human.  It can potentially become a human some day, but it's not one right now.

“It should always be remembered that many organs are still not completely developed by full-term and birth should be regarded only as an incident in the whole developmental process.”

Well, that's a wonderful point, but it doesn't tell us anything about the actual argument at hand.  Once a baby is cut free from the umbilical cord and is a breathing, vocalizing, thinking thing (though still perhaps not consciously), it's no longer an embryo.  Most people aren't taking the argument that babies are fetuses, and this article certainly isn't, so I'm not dwelling on this point too much.

I will, however, go so far as to say that a zygote has absolutely zero organs.  I will even go on further to remind our dear readers that, occasionally, some organs never fully develop.  However, the lack of fusion of your brain plate does not make you less human just because it's unfused.  That's literally one of the traits of a newly-born human.  Remember, your sexual organs probably didn't stop developing until you were in perhaps 4th-6th grade, but no one is arguing that a 12 year old is a fetus.  This might be important later.  Maybe not, I've not actually read any further than this so far.

“It is the penetration of the ovum by a sperm and the resulting mingling of nuclear material each brings to the union that constitutes the initiation of the life of a new individual.”
Again, I don't disagree with it.  However, the use of the word 'life' is typically different when we're talking about the development of an organism vs the organism itself.  For people who like to be ambiguous with terms, this shouldn't be a hard concept to grasp, especially when that ambiguity is usually removed in context.  However, I'm not even going to look up the context because this on even explicitly says 'initiation of the life of a new individual.'  It's commonly known that gestation takes 9 months.  That's a long initiation period, but nonetheless, there ya go.

“Although it is customary to divide human development into prenatal and postnatal periods, it is important to realize that birth is merely a dramatic event during development resulting in a change in environment.”
And again, from a clinical standpoint, this is a useful thing to demonstrate.  Also, it's worth noting that most late-term abortions are not the kinds of things mothers want.  Any fetus which has reached its third trimester is not the kind of fetus a mother typically wants to get rid of.  Usually this is done because of extenuating factors, like things that might kill both the mother and the child.  Aborting a late-term fetus to avoid a miscarriage which could kill the mother is not something the mother probably wants.  However, this is a topic for a different time, and I'm not going to address late-term abortions now.  The scope of the list of quotes I'm talking about doesn't seem to encompass it, so neither will I.  Maybe later, but not now.

“Your baby starts out as a fertilized egg… For the first six weeks, the baby is called an embryo.”
 Indeed, this is correct again.  A baby starts out as a fertilized cell, which then engages in mitosis to become (very rapidly) an embryo, for around the first to the eighth week.  This is no different than saying that a cake starts out as its constituent components.  If I remove a cake from my oven at the halfway point of baking, no one would call that a cake.  They might call it something that comes before a cake, but certainly not a cake.  I realize this analogy is a bit crude, but they're forcing my hand here.  It's hard to simplify things like this.  However, the analogy of a bun in the oven is ubiquitous, so blame it on that.  For this purpose, the zygote would be like putting all the stuff in the mixing bowl, the embryo would be like the actual act of mixing and all the stuff before it goes into the oven, and the fetus would be like its time in the oven.

I was going to put a picture of a birthday cake here.
Against my poorer judgement, I decided against it.
So, the rest of this article delves further and further into its own mess of an argument.  It repeats at least one quote, and starts quoting some pro-life stuff, none of which actually supports the argument it's making.  The main crux of it's arguments from here on out appears to be 'some people said life begins at conception so that means it's true.  It doesn't matter what the actual context is, because we don't care about context.  We only care about cherry-picking words that make us look better outside of context.'

I would go on, but I can tell this blog post is getting entirely too long.  Maybe I'll address some more of these issues later.  Probably not, but maybe.

Peace to you all!