The pro-choice view survives on widespread ignorance of biology

Through Secular Pro-life I frequently post content about how the human zygote is the first stage of a human being’s life cycle. Often when I point this fact out, people will suggest I’m strawmanning the pro-choice view. They assert that no one really denies the basic biology; the important issues to the abortion debate are personhood [i.e. yes the fetus is biologically human but is she philosophically a “person”?] and bodily rights.

But the longer I participate in the abortion debate, the more strongly I suspect that most people actually care more about the biology than the rest. 
[For any readers who genuinely don’t already know: human sperm and human ova (eggs) are gametes (sex cells). They are not organisms. They are haploid cells (typically have 23 chromosomes each) created through a process called meiosis. A human organism is formed through fertilization; the sperm enters the egg to create a diploid cell (typically 46 chromosomes). This cell is called the zygote and it now multiplies through mitosis. Fertilization is a specific event that marks the transition from multiple gametes to a single organism and from meiosis to mitosis. These are basic biological facts. Read more here.]
To begin with, I’ve had so many debates with countless people who make 100% false assertions in defense of their pro-choice views. Here are some real examples of assertions people have made over the years:
  1. Sperm are organisms
  2. Gametes are organisms
  3. Neurons are organisms
  4. Skin cells are organisms
  5. Literally all cells are organisms
  6. Embryos are made of “non-living” cells
  7. Embryos don’t have heartbeats
  8. Embryos don’t have hearts at all
  9. Heartbeat doesn’t begin until several months into pregnancy
  10. Consciousness is defined as breathing air outside with working lungs
  11. Human life cycles have no specific beginnings or ends
  12. Human embryos are analogous to unfertilized chicken eggs
  13. Human sperm are analogous to frog tadpoles
  14. If abortion kills humans, masturbation is genocide
  15. If abortion kills humans, blow jobs are cannibalism
  16. If abortion kills humans, menstruation is murder
  17. If an embryo is a human organism, so is snot. Or poop.
  18. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is not supported by science
  19. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is a religious view
  20. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is a hotly contested view among many different and equally valid views in embryology
And so on.
I try to be careful not to give too much weight to comments from random people online. It’s a pet peeve of mine when “news” articles allege a new controversial view among a subset of Americans only for the author’s evidence to be screencaps of five otherwise ignored Tweets. You can find anything on the internet, so try not to over-extrapolate.

But the views I’m describing above are a lot easier to find than the 278th comment under a YouTube video. For example here’s a gamete/organisms equivocation that got over 40,000 retweets:
In addition to the countless and popular anecdotes, a recent dissertation out of the University of Chicago (which I’ve summarized in detail elsewhere) found that most Americans think “When does human life begin?” is (1) an important question (2) that people deserve to know the answer to so they can be informed about their reproductive decisions (3) that is best answered by biologists because (4) it’s an objective issue that can be informed by scientific knowledge. And of the Americans who chose biologists as the authority best suited to answer this question, 56% believed the biologists’ answer would strengthen the pro-choice side of the debate! (In fact the biologists affirmed that human life begins at fertilization.)

In other words, in the abortion debate, biology is important to most people, and yet a whole lot of them have no idea what the facts actually are.

This widespread ignorance bolsters the pro-choice side, and that’s why, I think, some abortion rights activists work so hard to obscure the biological reality. Last year multiple activists tried (completely incorrectly) to deny that embryos have heartbeats. When states have passed laws requiring doctors to provide information on fetal development or offer the woman the option to view her ultrasound or hear the heartbeat, pro-choicers have described these regulations as restrictions on abortion. We’ve seen alleged experts muddle the lines between their political views and the scientific facts over and over and over
If the general public already understood the basic biology and cared only about philosophical issues, abortion rights advocates wouldn’t need to do this song and dance. But people do care and don’t know about biology, and that’s why I’m going to keep repeating myself: the fetus is a human organism, and abortion kills humans.

Other Sources:

The pro-choice view survives on widespread ignorance of biology

Through Secular Pro-life I frequently post content about how the human zygote is the first stage of a human being’s life cycle. Often when I point this fact out, people will suggest I’m strawmanning the pro-choice view. They assert that no one really denies the basic biology; the important issues to the abortion debate are personhood [i.e. yes the fetus is biologically human but is she philosophically a “person”?] and bodily rights.

But the longer I participate in the abortion debate, the more strongly I suspect that most people actually care more about the biology than the rest. 
[For any readers who genuinely don’t already know: human sperm and human ova (eggs) are gametes (sex cells). They are not organisms. They are haploid cells (typically have 23 chromosomes each) created through a process called meiosis. A human organism is formed through fertilization; the sperm enters the egg to create a diploid cell (typically 46 chromosomes). This cell is called the zygote and it now multiplies through mitosis. Fertilization is a specific event that marks the transition from multiple gametes to a single organism and from meiosis to mitosis. These are basic biological facts. Read more here.]
To begin with, I’ve had so many debates with countless people who make 100% false assertions in defense of their pro-choice views. Here are some real examples of assertions people have made over the years:
  1. Sperm are organisms
  2. Gametes are organisms
  3. Neurons are organisms
  4. Skin cells are organisms
  5. Literally all cells are organisms
  6. Embryos are made of “non-living” cells
  7. Embryos don’t have heartbeats
  8. Embryos don’t have hearts at all
  9. Heartbeat doesn’t begin until several months into pregnancy
  10. Consciousness is defined as breathing air outside with working lungs
  11. Human life cycles have no specific beginnings or ends
  12. Human embryos are analogous to unfertilized chicken eggs
  13. Human sperm are analogous to frog tadpoles
  14. If abortion kills humans, masturbation is genocide
  15. If abortion kills humans, blow jobs are cannibalism
  16. If abortion kills humans, menstruation is murder
  17. If an embryo is a human organism, so is snot. Or poop.
  18. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is not supported by science
  19. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is a religious view
  20. The idea “the zygote is the first stage of a human’s life cycle” is a hotly contested view among many different and equally valid views in embryology
And so on.
I try to be careful not to give too much weight to comments from random people online. It’s a pet peeve of mine when “news” articles allege a new controversial view among a subset of Americans only for the author’s evidence to be screencaps of five otherwise ignored Tweets. You can find anything on the internet, so try not to over-extrapolate.

But the views I’m describing above are a lot easier to find than the 278th comment under a YouTube video. For example here’s a gamete/organisms equivocation that got over 40,000 retweets:
In addition to the countless and popular anecdotes, a recent dissertation out of the University of Chicago (which I’ve summarized in detail elsewhere) found that most Americans think “When does human life begin?” is (1) an important question (2) that people deserve to know the answer to so they can be informed about their reproductive decisions (3) that is best answered by biologists because (4) it’s an objective issue that can be informed by scientific knowledge. And of the Americans who chose biologists as the authority best suited to answer this question, 56% believed the biologists’ answer would strengthen the pro-choice side of the debate! (In fact the biologists affirmed that human life begins at fertilization.)

In other words, in the abortion debate, biology is important to most people, and yet a whole lot of them have no idea what the facts actually are.

This widespread ignorance bolsters the pro-choice side, and that’s why, I think, some abortion rights activists work so hard to obscure the biological reality. Last year multiple activists tried (completely incorrectly) to deny that embryos have heartbeats. When states have passed laws requiring doctors to provide information on fetal development or offer the woman the option to view her ultrasound or hear the heartbeat, pro-choicers have described these regulations as restrictions on abortion. We’ve seen alleged experts muddle the lines between their political views and the scientific facts over and over and over
If the general public already understood the basic biology and cared only about philosophical issues, abortion rights advocates wouldn’t need to do this song and dance. But people do care and don’t know about biology, and that’s why I’m going to keep repeating myself: the fetus is a human organism, and abortion kills humans.

Other Sources:

Even very pro-choice biologists acknowledge a human life begins at fertilization.

If you haven’t already, you should really read Biologists’ Consensus on ‘When Life Begins’, a dissertation by Steve Jacobs out of the University of Chicago. This blog post is going to be long, so here’s the summary:

  • Most Americans think “When does human life begin?” is an important question that people deserve to know the answer to so they can be informed about their reproduction decisions.
  • Most Americans think the group best suited to answer this question is biologists because Americans view this as an objective issue that can be informed by scientific knowledge.
  • Over 90% of biologists, including 69% of “very pro-choice” biologists and 80% of “pro-choice” biologists, affirm a human life begins at fertilization.
If you want more details, read on.
A scientific or philosophical question?

There’s a lot of communication breakdown in the abortion debate because “when life begins” can be either a scientific or philosophical question (or, as Jacobs puts it, a descriptive or a normative question). Often, people switch between these two approaches without even noticing. For example:

A human life begins at fertilization, so fetuses deserve legal protection throughout all of pregnancy.

This argument starts with a scientific fact and ends with a philosophical position without explaining how the speaker went from the first to the second. Here is sort of the reverse:

No one has the right to use another person’s body, so the fetus isn’t really a separate life until viability.

The speaker starts with a philosophical position and tries to use it to assert a scientific claim. Both examples are sloppy, slipping between science and philosophy without noticing or talking about it.

Jacobs decided to dig deeper into this communication breakdown. Do most Americans think the beginning of human life is a biological question or a philosophical one? Do they think the question matters in terms of the abortion debate? Who would they consider authoritative sources on this question? And what do those in authority (according to American opinion) think the answer is?

Our philosophical views stem from our scientific understanding

Before Jacobs explains his methodology and results, he does a great job reviewing how our society has traditionally viewed the interplay between science and philosophy on this issue. He cites historical examples demonstrating that people have generally believed that the philosophical (normative) flows from the biological (descriptive): whenever we know, scientifically, that we are dealing with a human life, we should protect that human. This was true even when people weren’t sure about fetal life until they could feel the baby kick: once they could feel that kick, they thought that life should be protected. And when we learned the human in the womb was alive quite a bit earlier, we outlawed abortion quite a bit earlier.

Even in Roe v. Wade, this connection between science and philosophy didn’t change: SCOTUS didn’t say “Yes, of course the embryo is a human life but abortion should be legal anyway for XYZ reasons.” Instead SCOTUS asserted that we can’t know when human life starts, and only with that lack of knowledge can we justify abortion. During oral arguments the justices and attorneys involved openly acknowledged that if we recognized the fetus as a human person, Roe v. Wade would have been “almost an impossible case”:

Justice Potter Stewart: Well, if it were established that an unborn fetus is a person within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, you would have almost an impossible case here, would you not? 

Ms Weddington [attorney representing Jane Roe]: I would have a very difficult case. 

Justice Potter Stewart: You certainly would because you’d have the same kind of thing you’d have to say that this would be the equivalent to after the child was born. 

Ms Weddington: That’s right. 

Justice Potter Stewart: If the mother thought that it bothered her health having the child around, she could have it killed. Isn’t that correct? 

Ms Weddington: That’s correct.

As Jacobs summarizes:

Courts and lawmakers have a long and consistent history of using a fetus’ developmental landmarks to form their view on when a fetus is classified as a human, which they then use as the bright line that separates legal abortions from illegal abortions. 

In other words, historically the biological question of when human life begins has mattered a lot to society, especially in terms of abortion. But does it still?


Yes, it does.

Most Americans think “When does a human’s life begin?” is an important question, best answered by biologists.

Jacobs surveyed 2,899 American adults. Here’s a quick overview of the questions and results:

  1. “How important is the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?’ in the US abortion debate? (1 = unimportant, 10 = important)” 87% rated the question as important
  2. “Americans deserve to know when a human’s life begins so they can be informed in their abortion positions and reproductive decisions. (1 = do not agree, 10 = agree)” 84% agreed
  3. “Which group is most qualified to answer the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?’”
    • Biologists (81%)
    • Religious leaders (7%)
    • Voters (7%)
    • Philosophers (4%)
    • Supreme Court Justices (2%)
  4. “Why do you think they are most qualified?” 91% of those who chose biologists argued that when life begins is an objective issue and biologists’ scientific knowledge makes them best suited to resolve the issue
It’s worth noting that the sample of Americans surveyed were mostly pro-choice (63%) and still the vast majority viewed when life begins as a biological question that was important to the abortion debate. Also worth noting—to my mystification—more than half (56%) of those who chose biologists as the relevant experts believed the biologists’ input would strengthen the pro-choice side of the abortion debate.
Wha…? How? What great scientific ignorance makes people think that input from biologists will make the pro-choice view make more sense? I recognize I must be really stuck in my worldview here, because it’s hard for me to imagine what they thought the biologists would say—perhaps some made-up crap about how embryos don’t have hearts or there’s no consensus on when life begins. I mean to be fair, given the rampant purposeful misinformation pushed by abortion rights activists masquerading as disinterested scientists, I can hardly blame the non-scientific pro-choice public for believing science is on their side.
And yet—surprise!—biologists did have a consensus, and nope, it did not strengthen the pro-choice side. 

The vast majority of biologists—even most pro-choice biologists—affirm a human life begins at fertilization.

Jacobs surveyed 5,502 biologists from 1,058 academic institutions. Of the biologists surveyed:
  • 63% were non-religious,
  • 85% were pro-choice, and
  • 95% held a PhD.
They were asked whether the following statements were correct:
  1. Implicit statement A: The end product of mammalian fertilization is a fertilized egg (‘zygote’), a new mammalian organism in the first stage of its species’ life cycle with its species’ genome.
  2. Implicit statement B: The development of a mammal begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote
  3. Explicit statement: In developmental biology, fertilization marks the beginning of a human’s life since that process produces an organism with a human genome that has begun to develop in the first stage of the human life cycle
91% said implicit statement A is correct, as did 88% for implicit statement B. That number dropped to 75% for the explicit statement, and it broke down along political lines. The following proportions of biologists (based on their own descriptions of their political position) said the explicit statement was correct:
  • 92% of very pro-life biologists
  • 92% pro-life
  • 86% neutral
  • 80% pro-choice
  • 69% very pro-choice
(As an aside for our readers, 70% of atheist biologists and 72% of agnostic biologists agreed with the explicit statement that fertilization marks the beginning of a human’s life.)
Figure 3 from the dissertation. Click to enlarge.
Jacobs also asked participants the open-ended question “From a biological perspective, how would you answer the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?'” Jacobs explains:

Most participants wrote about various points during pregnancy: when the sperm fertilizes the egg, when the zygote implants in the uterus, cell differentiation, neurogenesis, the first heartbeat, the first brain waves, the first pain response, fetal viability, and birth.

Jacobs categorized every answer that was after fertilization but before viability as “pre-viability.” The results, broken down by the biologists’ abortion stances, are as follows:

Figure 5 from the dissertation. Click to enlarge.

Unsurprisingly, very pro-choice biologists were more likely to choose an answer other than fertilization, and significantly more likely to say that—again, from a biological perspective—life begins at birth (can’t decide if this is hilarious or sad). Still, the strong majority of all biologists—even very pro-choice biologists—affirmed that a human’s life begins at fertilization.

I assume this means we can now add “life begins at conception” to the pro-science memes, right?

Further Reading:

Related Secular Pro-Life blog posts:

Other Sources:

Even very pro-choice biologists acknowledge a human life begins at fertilization.

If you haven’t already, you should really read Biologists’ Consensus on ‘When Life Begins’, a dissertation by Steve Jacobs out of the University of Chicago. This blog post is going to be long, so here’s the summary:

  • Most Americans think “When does human life begin?” is an important question that people deserve to know the answer to so they can be informed about their reproduction decisions.
  • Most Americans think the group best suited to answer this question is biologists because Americans view this as an objective issue that can be informed by scientific knowledge.
  • Over 90% of biologists, including 69% of “very pro-choice” biologists and 80% of “pro-choice” biologists, affirm a human life begins at fertilization.
If you want more details, read on.
A scientific or philosophical question?

There’s a lot of communication breakdown in the abortion debate because “when life begins” can be either a scientific or philosophical question (or, as Jacobs puts it, a descriptive or a normative question). Often, people switch between these two approaches without even noticing. For example:

A human life begins at fertilization, so fetuses deserve legal protection throughout all of pregnancy.

This argument starts with a scientific fact and ends with a philosophical position without explaining how the speaker went from the first to the second. Here is sort of the reverse:

No one has the right to use another person’s body, so the fetus isn’t really a separate life until viability.

The speaker starts with a philosophical position and tries to use it to assert a scientific claim. Both examples are sloppy, slipping between science and philosophy without noticing or talking about it.

Jacobs decided to dig deeper into this communication breakdown. Do most Americans think the beginning of human life is a biological question or a philosophical one? Do they think the question matters in terms of the abortion debate? Who would they consider authoritative sources on this question? And what do those in authority (according to American opinion) think the answer is?

Our philosophical views stem from our scientific understanding

Before Jacobs explains his methodology and results, he does a great job reviewing how our society has traditionally viewed the interplay between science and philosophy on this issue. He cites historical examples demonstrating that people have generally believed that the philosophical (normative) flows from the biological (descriptive): whenever we know, scientifically, that we are dealing with a human life, we should protect that human. This was true even when people weren’t sure about fetal life until they could feel the baby kick: once they could feel that kick, they thought that life should be protected. And when we learned the human in the womb was alive quite a bit earlier, we outlawed abortion quite a bit earlier.

Even in Roe v. Wade, this connection between science and philosophy didn’t change: SCOTUS didn’t say “Yes, of course the embryo is a human life but abortion should be legal anyway for XYZ reasons.” Instead SCOTUS asserted that we can’t know when human life starts, and only with that lack of knowledge can we justify abortion. During oral arguments the justices and attorneys involved openly acknowledged that if we recognized the fetus as a human person, Roe v. Wade would have been “almost an impossible case”:

Justice Potter Stewart: Well, if it were established that an unborn fetus is a person within the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment, you would have almost an impossible case here, would you not? 

Ms Weddington [attorney representing Jane Roe]: I would have a very difficult case. 

Justice Potter Stewart: You certainly would because you’d have the same kind of thing you’d have to say that this would be the equivalent to after the child was born. 

Ms Weddington: That’s right. 

Justice Potter Stewart: If the mother thought that it bothered her health having the child around, she could have it killed. Isn’t that correct? 

Ms Weddington: That’s correct.

As Jacobs summarizes:

Courts and lawmakers have a long and consistent history of using a fetus’ developmental landmarks to form their view on when a fetus is classified as a human, which they then use as the bright line that separates legal abortions from illegal abortions. 

In other words, historically the biological question of when human life begins has mattered a lot to society, especially in terms of abortion. But does it still?


Yes, it does.

Most Americans think “When does a human’s life begin?” is an important question, best answered by biologists.

Jacobs surveyed 2,899 American adults. Here’s a quick overview of the questions and results:

  1. “How important is the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?’ in the US abortion debate? (1 = unimportant, 10 = important)” 87% rated the question as important
  2. “Americans deserve to know when a human’s life begins so they can be informed in their abortion positions and reproductive decisions. (1 = do not agree, 10 = agree)” 84% agreed
  3. “Which group is most qualified to answer the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?’”
    • Biologists (81%)
    • Religious leaders (7%)
    • Voters (7%)
    • Philosophers (4%)
    • Supreme Court Justices (2%)
  4. “Why do you think they are most qualified?” 91% of those who chose biologists argued that when life begins is an objective issue and biologists’ scientific knowledge makes them best suited to resolve the issue
It’s worth noting that the sample of Americans surveyed were mostly pro-choice (63%) and still the vast majority viewed when life begins as a biological question that was important to the abortion debate. Also worth noting—to my mystification—more than half (56%) of those who chose biologists as the relevant experts believed the biologists’ input would strengthen the pro-choice side of the abortion debate.
Wha…? How? What great scientific ignorance makes people think that input from biologists will make the pro-choice view make more sense? I recognize I must be really stuck in my worldview here, because it’s hard for me to imagine what they thought the biologists would say—perhaps some made-up crap about how embryos don’t have hearts or there’s no consensus on when life begins. I mean to be fair, given the rampant purposeful misinformation pushed by abortion rights activists masquerading as disinterested scientists, I can hardly blame the non-scientific pro-choice public for believing science is on their side.
And yet—surprise!—biologists did have a consensus, and nope, it did not strengthen the pro-choice side. 

The vast majority of biologists—even most pro-choice biologists—affirm a human life begins at fertilization.

Jacobs surveyed 5,502 biologists from 1,058 academic institutions. Of the biologists surveyed:
  • 63% were non-religious,
  • 85% were pro-choice, and
  • 95% held a PhD.
They were asked whether the following statements were correct:
  1. Implicit statement A: The end product of mammalian fertilization is a fertilized egg (‘zygote’), a new mammalian organism in the first stage of its species’ life cycle with its species’ genome.
  2. Implicit statement B: The development of a mammal begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote
  3. Explicit statement: In developmental biology, fertilization marks the beginning of a human’s life since that process produces an organism with a human genome that has begun to develop in the first stage of the human life cycle
91% said implicit statement A is correct, as did 88% for implicit statement B. That number dropped to 75% for the explicit statement, and it broke down along political lines. The following proportions of biologists (based on their own descriptions of their political position) said the explicit statement was correct:
  • 92% of very pro-life biologists
  • 92% pro-life
  • 86% neutral
  • 80% pro-choice
  • 69% very pro-choice
(As an aside for our readers, 70% of atheist biologists and 72% of agnostic biologists agreed with the explicit statement that fertilization marks the beginning of a human’s life.)
Figure 3 from the dissertation. Click to enlarge.
Jacobs also asked participants the open-ended question “From a biological perspective, how would you answer the question ‘When does a human’s life begin?'” Jacobs explains:

Most participants wrote about various points during pregnancy: when the sperm fertilizes the egg, when the zygote implants in the uterus, cell differentiation, neurogenesis, the first heartbeat, the first brain waves, the first pain response, fetal viability, and birth.

Jacobs categorized every answer that was after fertilization but before viability as “pre-viability.” The results, broken down by the biologists’ abortion stances, are as follows:

Figure 5 from the dissertation. Click to enlarge.

Unsurprisingly, very pro-choice biologists were more likely to choose an answer other than fertilization, and significantly more likely to say that—again, from a biological perspective—life begins at birth (can’t decide if this is hilarious or sad). Still, the strong majority of all biologists—even very pro-choice biologists—affirmed that a human’s life begins at fertilization.

I assume this means we can now add “life begins at conception” to the pro-science memes, right?

Further Reading:

Related Secular Pro-Life blog posts:

Other Sources:

A Pro-Life Response to “The unscientific nature of the concept that ‘human life begins at fertilization,’ and why it matters”

Image: Competing protest signs. One reads “Keep abortion safe and legal.”
The other reads “Face it… abortion kills a person.”



[This article originally appeared at The Fetal Position and is reprinted here with permission.]


Occasionally a pro-choice person will give me a link to an article attempting to refute the idea that a new human organism begins to exist when the process of conception is successfully completed. There is ample scientific evidence for that statement, and that evidence can be found here.

The article The unscientific nature of the concept that “human life begins at fertilization, and why it matters (by Richard J. Paulson, M.D.) was recently sent to me by someone and I’d like to address what is being said in the article. This response turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, but that is likely due to the number of assumptions Dr. Paulson infused into his statements, without reasonable justification. So a lot had to be unpacked.

The first two paragraphs express reasonable concerns about misinformation and disinformation. The author then proceeds to unironically provide ideologically-motivated misinformation, disguising his conclusions behind the objectivity of science. As Dr. John Lennox said, “nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists,” and Paulson demonstrates that not famous M.D.s are not immune.

You get a feel for his perspective when he refers to embryos as “aggregates of cells” (aggregates is science-speak for clump, I suppose), rather than what they are; developing human organisms. In fact, the entire third paragraph is where he reveals why he doesn’t like the idea that a new human life begins at conception. While he doesn’t come right out and say it, this part of the article reeks of an ideological motivation that drives a conclusion, rather than the science itself. That becomes very clear when he asserts that “handling an embryo with the potential to produce a pregnancy is not the same as handling a human life.” I have to wonder how he is using the term “human life” here, because the newly created zygote/embryo is a unified whole human organism, with separate DNA, metabolism, and goal-oriented development that is entirely separate from the mother. He never defines human life or human being; he just asserts his views and expects the reader to accept it as fact, I guess.

I suspect he is sneaking a philosophical understanding of personhood into the debate, possibly unknowingly. And I’m not sure which would be worse; unknowingly bringing philosophy into it (indicating his own ignorance of the subject) or knowingly obfuscating the biological and philosophical categories. Given his professional background, I don’t want to assume ignorance. But that leaves only deliberate confusion, and I don’t like that either.

The fourth paragraph is where he begins discussing the science, and starts off by suggesting that saying a human life begins at fertilization “… is a categorical designation in conflict with the scientific observation that life is a continuum,” and goes onto say that both sperm and egg cells are alive. This unfortunate response is all too common among ideologically motivated people who use science to confuse the issue, deliberately or not. When we say human life begins at fertilization, we are not denying that life is on a continuum. We recognize that somatic cells and gametes are alive, and that those two alive things combine together to create something else that is alive. Ultimately, this isn’t a critique of what we are saying, it is a demonstration of his misunderstanding of what we’re saying. He concludes the paragraph with, “[f]rom a biological perspective, no new life has been created,” and he’s right if we’re using life as a category, like he is. But we’re not. We are saying that a new human life, meaning a new human organism, comes into existence. And this is a fact of biology that remains unchallenged by Dr. Paulson’s confusion.

He also says, “[t]he zygote has the same size as the egg; other than for its new genotype, the cell (comprising the cytoplasm and the rest) is nearly identical to the egg cell.” The components of a newly created zygote may be similar to the egg cell it came from, but it is now in a brand new biological category.

A successful conception event changes everything about what is happening, biologically.

Before conception, the egg will continue to be an egg cell until it is flushed out during menstruation.

But after conception, the egg ceases to exist as an egg and becomes a zygote and begins growing and developing. Eggs do not develop; organisms develop. The egg is a haploid gamete, the zygote is a diploid organism. The organism that you are today came into existence when the process of fertilization was successfully completed. You are numerically identical to that zygote. You are not numerically identical to the egg or the sperm cell that existed before you did.

The “new genotype” that Dr. Paulson dismissed with nothing more than a casual mention is a lot more important than he made it seem. I would expect an M.D. to recognize the profound difference between a haploid gamete and a diploid organism, but sometimes the viewpoints of medical professionals are clouded by ideology.

The fifth paragraph begins with “‘human life’ implies individuality,” implying that the embryo is not an individual and is therefore not a human life. This is certainly not something I expect to hear from an MD writing for Fertility and Sterility. The entity created by a successful conception event is a separate, integrated, whole human organism with its own DNA, metabolism, and development. Sometimes the zygote has a different biological sex than the mother, and it will go on to develop an entirely different set of organs as it grows older. It is not a part of the woman’s body in any meaningful sense. Unfortunately, Dr. Paulson does not offer any definition of what he means by “individuality,” but we can pick up some clues from the rest of the paragraph.

As a side note, I am constantly disappointed by the lack of language precision used by pro-choice people. It’s almost like they thrive on ambiguous terminology.

Continuing in the fifth paragraph, he admits to referring to the embryos as individuals, but waves it away by saying that “each of the totipotent cells that comprise these embryos is, at least theoretically, capable of producing a complete new individual.” I find this phrasing amusing and I wish he would have gone into more detail about what he meant by it. I was initially amused because he is attempting to make the case for why the embryo is not an individual, but then says that the cells that make up the embryo can be used to make a new individual. So apparently the parts of the embryo can create a new individual but the embryo itself isn’t an individual. Like I said, I wish he would have gone into more detail about what he meant by that, but I guess that’s all we get. Technically, any of our cells could be used to create a new individual. It’s complex, but you can take the DNA from a skin cell and put it into a denucleated egg cell and clone yourself. We have adult stem cells in our adult bodies, and it is also possible to induce pluripotency in our somatic cells. Maybe we are not an individual because of these advancements in medical technology.

He then says “multiple individuals can arise from the implantation of a single embryo, as in the case of identical twins. Therefore, we know that the preimplantation embryo is not actually an individual,” which is a conclusion that doesn’t follow from his previous statement at all. Some species of planaria are able to reproduce asexually by taking a part of their individual body and creating another individual body by each part regrowing the now missing part of the body. But nobody views a flatworm as not an individual flatworm because it has the capacity to turn into multiples. The preimplantation embryo’s ability to create an identical twin does not mean that it is not an individual, it just means that it is able to twin at that stage.

He concludes the fifth paragraph with, “it is only after implantation that the early embryo can further differentiate into the organized cell groups that enable the developing conceptus to progress further in embryonic and eventually fetal development,” which is true, but has nothing to do with any of the points he is making. The developing embryo is, in fact, an individual organism that will continue to develop into an older member of its species unless interrupted by an outside force (like an abortionist killing it). He seems to affirm that the embryo does engage in development, which is something individual organisms do.

And this is the end of his attempt to use science to show that a new human life does not begin when conception is successfully completed. His two points (life is a continuum and the embryo is not an individual) have both been addressed by me here, and his conclusion isn’t even remotely close to warranted. I am curious to know when Dr. Paulson believes that a new human organism comes into existence. If it’s not when fertilization is successfully completed, when is it?

I debated whether or not I would address his statements about faith and religion, and decided… yes. Yes I will.

He says, “’Life begins at fertilization’ may certainly be considered a religious concept; because religious ideas are based on faith, no further proof is necessary. It is pointless to use science as an argument against faith-based dictums.”

There have been volumes published on the misunderstanding that faith is somehow in conflict with science, but given that he doesn’t go into much detail here, I would only be speculating about how he views faith. Based on my experience, people who say things like this often view faith as something inherently irrational, unless of course they are placing their faith in their spouse, a pilot, or a jack to hold up a vehicle.

I do find it amusing that he says it is pointless to use science as an argument against faith-based dictums, right after attempting to use science to argue against what he refers to as a faith based dictum. I hope he doesn’t just dismiss any argument against his position as a “faith based dictum,” because then he would be the one who has made up his mind and “no further proof is necessary.”



A Pro-Life Response to “The unscientific nature of the concept that ‘human life begins at fertilization,’ and why it matters”

Image: Competing protest signs. One reads “Keep abortion safe and legal.”
The other reads “Face it… abortion kills a person.”



[This article originally appeared at The Fetal Position and is reprinted here with permission.]


Occasionally a pro-choice person will give me a link to an article attempting to refute the idea that a new human organism begins to exist when the process of conception is successfully completed. There is ample scientific evidence for that statement, and that evidence can be found here.

The article The unscientific nature of the concept that “human life begins at fertilization, and why it matters (by Richard J. Paulson, M.D.) was recently sent to me by someone and I’d like to address what is being said in the article. This response turned out to be a lot longer than I expected, but that is likely due to the number of assumptions Dr. Paulson infused into his statements, without reasonable justification. So a lot had to be unpacked.

The first two paragraphs express reasonable concerns about misinformation and disinformation. The author then proceeds to unironically provide ideologically-motivated misinformation, disguising his conclusions behind the objectivity of science. As Dr. John Lennox said, “nonsense remains nonsense, even when talked by world-famous scientists,” and Paulson demonstrates that not famous M.D.s are not immune.

You get a feel for his perspective when he refers to embryos as “aggregates of cells” (aggregates is science-speak for clump, I suppose), rather than what they are; developing human organisms. In fact, the entire third paragraph is where he reveals why he doesn’t like the idea that a new human life begins at conception. While he doesn’t come right out and say it, this part of the article reeks of an ideological motivation that drives a conclusion, rather than the science itself. That becomes very clear when he asserts that “handling an embryo with the potential to produce a pregnancy is not the same as handling a human life.” I have to wonder how he is using the term “human life” here, because the newly created zygote/embryo is a unified whole human organism, with separate DNA, metabolism, and goal-oriented development that is entirely separate from the mother. He never defines human life or human being; he just asserts his views and expects the reader to accept it as fact, I guess.

I suspect he is sneaking a philosophical understanding of personhood into the debate, possibly unknowingly. And I’m not sure which would be worse; unknowingly bringing philosophy into it (indicating his own ignorance of the subject) or knowingly obfuscating the biological and philosophical categories. Given his professional background, I don’t want to assume ignorance. But that leaves only deliberate confusion, and I don’t like that either.

The fourth paragraph is where he begins discussing the science, and starts off by suggesting that saying a human life begins at fertilization “… is a categorical designation in conflict with the scientific observation that life is a continuum,” and goes onto say that both sperm and egg cells are alive. This unfortunate response is all too common among ideologically motivated people who use science to confuse the issue, deliberately or not. When we say human life begins at fertilization, we are not denying that life is on a continuum. We recognize that somatic cells and gametes are alive, and that those two alive things combine together to create something else that is alive. Ultimately, this isn’t a critique of what we are saying, it is a demonstration of his misunderstanding of what we’re saying. He concludes the paragraph with, “[f]rom a biological perspective, no new life has been created,” and he’s right if we’re using life as a category, like he is. But we’re not. We are saying that a new human life, meaning a new human organism, comes into existence. And this is a fact of biology that remains unchallenged by Dr. Paulson’s confusion.

He also says, “[t]he zygote has the same size as the egg; other than for its new genotype, the cell (comprising the cytoplasm and the rest) is nearly identical to the egg cell.” The components of a newly created zygote may be similar to the egg cell it came from, but it is now in a brand new biological category.

A successful conception event changes everything about what is happening, biologically.

Before conception, the egg will continue to be an egg cell until it is flushed out during menstruation.

But after conception, the egg ceases to exist as an egg and becomes a zygote and begins growing and developing. Eggs do not develop; organisms develop. The egg is a haploid gamete, the zygote is a diploid organism. The organism that you are today came into existence when the process of fertilization was successfully completed. You are numerically identical to that zygote. You are not numerically identical to the egg or the sperm cell that existed before you did.

The “new genotype” that Dr. Paulson dismissed with nothing more than a casual mention is a lot more important than he made it seem. I would expect an M.D. to recognize the profound difference between a haploid gamete and a diploid organism, but sometimes the viewpoints of medical professionals are clouded by ideology.

The fifth paragraph begins with “‘human life’ implies individuality,” implying that the embryo is not an individual and is therefore not a human life. This is certainly not something I expect to hear from an MD writing for Fertility and Sterility. The entity created by a successful conception event is a separate, integrated, whole human organism with its own DNA, metabolism, and development. Sometimes the zygote has a different biological sex than the mother, and it will go on to develop an entirely different set of organs as it grows older. It is not a part of the woman’s body in any meaningful sense. Unfortunately, Dr. Paulson does not offer any definition of what he means by “individuality,” but we can pick up some clues from the rest of the paragraph.

As a side note, I am constantly disappointed by the lack of language precision used by pro-choice people. It’s almost like they thrive on ambiguous terminology.

Continuing in the fifth paragraph, he admits to referring to the embryos as individuals, but waves it away by saying that “each of the totipotent cells that comprise these embryos is, at least theoretically, capable of producing a complete new individual.” I find this phrasing amusing and I wish he would have gone into more detail about what he meant by it. I was initially amused because he is attempting to make the case for why the embryo is not an individual, but then says that the cells that make up the embryo can be used to make a new individual. So apparently the parts of the embryo can create a new individual but the embryo itself isn’t an individual. Like I said, I wish he would have gone into more detail about what he meant by that, but I guess that’s all we get. Technically, any of our cells could be used to create a new individual. It’s complex, but you can take the DNA from a skin cell and put it into a denucleated egg cell and clone yourself. We have adult stem cells in our adult bodies, and it is also possible to induce pluripotency in our somatic cells. Maybe we are not an individual because of these advancements in medical technology.

He then says “multiple individuals can arise from the implantation of a single embryo, as in the case of identical twins. Therefore, we know that the preimplantation embryo is not actually an individual,” which is a conclusion that doesn’t follow from his previous statement at all. Some species of planaria are able to reproduce asexually by taking a part of their individual body and creating another individual body by each part regrowing the now missing part of the body. But nobody views a flatworm as not an individual flatworm because it has the capacity to turn into multiples. The preimplantation embryo’s ability to create an identical twin does not mean that it is not an individual, it just means that it is able to twin at that stage.

He concludes the fifth paragraph with, “it is only after implantation that the early embryo can further differentiate into the organized cell groups that enable the developing conceptus to progress further in embryonic and eventually fetal development,” which is true, but has nothing to do with any of the points he is making. The developing embryo is, in fact, an individual organism that will continue to develop into an older member of its species unless interrupted by an outside force (like an abortionist killing it). He seems to affirm that the embryo does engage in development, which is something individual organisms do.

And this is the end of his attempt to use science to show that a new human life does not begin when conception is successfully completed. His two points (life is a continuum and the embryo is not an individual) have both been addressed by me here, and his conclusion isn’t even remotely close to warranted. I am curious to know when Dr. Paulson believes that a new human organism comes into existence. If it’s not when fertilization is successfully completed, when is it?

I debated whether or not I would address his statements about faith and religion, and decided… yes. Yes I will.

He says, “’Life begins at fertilization’ may certainly be considered a religious concept; because religious ideas are based on faith, no further proof is necessary. It is pointless to use science as an argument against faith-based dictums.”

There have been volumes published on the misunderstanding that faith is somehow in conflict with science, but given that he doesn’t go into much detail here, I would only be speculating about how he views faith. Based on my experience, people who say things like this often view faith as something inherently irrational, unless of course they are placing their faith in their spouse, a pilot, or a jack to hold up a vehicle.

I do find it amusing that he says it is pointless to use science as an argument against faith-based dictums, right after attempting to use science to argue against what he refers to as a faith based dictum. I hope he doesn’t just dismiss any argument against his position as a “faith based dictum,” because then he would be the one who has made up his mind and “no further proof is necessary.”



Pro-choice articles euphemizing “heartbeat.”

Definitions of “heartbeat.”
To my knowledge there’s no unifying authoritative definition of “heartbeat.” Embryology textbooks do use the term. For example:

“Blood flow begins during the fourth week, and heartbeats can be visualized by Doppler ultrasonography.” – The Developing Human, Moore et al, 10th Edition (2013) 

“The heartbeat is initiated around the twenty-first day, and its continual beating is required for normal heart development.” – Larsen’s Human Embryology, Schoenwolf et al, 5th Edition (2015) 

But in neither case do they explicitly define the word “heartbeat.” Merriam Webster defines the term as “one complete pulsation of the heart.” Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (9th Edition) defines “heartbeat” as “a complete cycle of cardiac muscle contraction and relaxation.” By these definitions the embryo does have a heartbeat from approximately 3-4 weeks postfertilization/5-6 weeks LMP onward.

The embryonic heart.
As we explained in more detail here, by 4 weeks postfertilization/6 weeks LMP, the embryo’s heart is beating as it uses coordinated muscle contractions to unidirectionally pump blood, exchanging well-oxygenated blood from the chorionic sac with poorly oxygenated blood from the embryo’s body via multiple paired veins. The heart has also started partitioning into four chambers (atria and ventricles), which are observable by 5 weeks postfertilization/7 weeks LMP.

All of this information is taken directly from the embryology textbook The Developing Human by Moore et al, 10th Edition, 2013. Keep these facts in mind as you read the descriptions below.

(Click to enlarge.)

Vague and evasive articles.
A number of outlets have run articles quoting pro-choice medical professionals making at best misleading and at worst flatly false claims about the embryonic heart. As we go over these articles, please notice the following themes:

1) None of these articles specifically define “heartbeat.” Most just describe the embryonic heart in markedly vague terms and then declare its activity doesn’t qualify as a heartbeat without explaining why not.


2) Nearly all the articles quote medical professionals directly working for or affiliated with abortion rights advocacy groups, but generally the articles omit mention of these affiliations (the exception being Jezebel, which is refreshingly upfront).

Anti-Abortion Extremists Are Controlling the Narrative on ‘Heartbeat Bills’ Jezebel, 6/5/19

  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.”
  • The author references the Guardian article listed below.
  • Dr. Catherine Romanos, family physician and abortion provider: Calling the embryo’s cardiac flutter a “heartbeat,” she said, is tantamount to pseudoscience–and capitulation to the efforts of Republicans and anti-abortion activists who have forced their language into the mainstream.

Doctors’ organization: calling abortion bans ‘fetal heartbeat bills’ is misleading, The Guardian, 6/5/19

  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.”
  • Dr. Ted Anderson, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), states “What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.”
  • Author Jessica Glenza states “Instead of using ‘fetal heartbeat bills’, as the laws are often called by anti-abortion campaigners, the Guardian will make ‘six-week abortion ban’ the preferred term for the laws, unless quoting someone, in order to better reflect the practical effect of the laws.”
    • Glenza is either unaware of or neglects to mention the fact that so far nearly all of the legislation outlaws abortion not at a specific gestational age but when a heartbeat is detectable. (See the text of the bills for Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio.) 
    • Currently, only Missouri’s heartbeat legislation outlaws abortion based on gestational age: the bill states no abortion shall be performed at 8 weeks or later.
    • It’s unclear, then, why “six week abortion ban” would better reflect the laws than “fetal heartbeat bills.”

Dear News Media: It’s not a heartbeat when there is no heart, Medium, 5/28/19

  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.”
  • Author Kathy Gill: “At four weeks after conception, an embryo has no heart.”
  • Gill references the LiveScience and Wired articles listed below.
  • Gill implies there’s no heartbeat until the 20th week: “It takes muscle to generate a heartbeat. British researchers reported in February that the fetal heart ‘does not have fully organized muscle tissue until the 20th week.'”

Embryos Don’t Have Hearts, The Cut, 5/24/19

  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.” although OBGYN Sarah Horvath (also of ACOG) implies a colloquial understanding – the “lub dub”:
    • Horvath: “The characteristic ‘lub-dub’ of the heart is created by the valves in a four-chambered heart opening and closing.” 
    • This definition wouldn’t exclude the embryonic heart. As early as the 4th and 5th week (postfertilization) valves control the blood flow into and through the heart (Moore et al, Figures 13-10 & 13-11).
    • The article neglects to mention that ACOG is committed to increasing access to abortion
  • Author Katie Heaney: “Though pulsing cells can be detected in embryos as early as six weeks, this rhythm–detected by a doctor, via ultrasound–cannot be called a ‘heartbeat,’ because embryos don’t have hearts.”
  • OBGYN Robyn Schickler: What is detectable at or around 6 weeks can more accurately be called “cardiac activity.” Essentially communication between a group of what will eventually become cardiac cells. 
    • This article at least states up front that Schickler is a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, although it doesn’t mention the group’s stance on abortion. On their website they talk about “anti-choice politicians” and explain that they “advocate for the right to access safe and affordable abortion care in our communities.”
  • OBGYN Jennifer Kerns: “These are cells that are programmed with electrical activity, which will eventually control the heart rate–they send a signal telling the heart to contract, once there is a heart.”
  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat,” although author Rachael Rettner potentially implies a colloquial understanding:
    • Rettner:”The ‘beat’ isn’t audible; if doctors put a stethoscope up to a woman’s belly this early on in her pregnancy, they would not hear a heartbeat.” So possibly she believes a heartbeat must be audible via stethoscope to count as a heartbeat?
    • But audio detection of heartbeat is imprecise. Even fetal Doppler (significantly more sensitive than a stethoscope) can’t reliably detect heartbeat until 10 to 12 weeks according to WebMD.
    • Whether we can yet hear the heartbeat doesn’t change whether the process that causes the sound–the heart’s contractions as it pumps blood–is already happening.
  • Dr. Saima Aftab: At 6 weeks the ultrasound detects “a little flutter in the area that will become the future heart of the baby.” She says this happens when a group of cells gain the capacity to fire electrical signals.
  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.”
  • Author Adam Rogers: “What the bills call a heartbeat–it’s not that.” “It’s a cluster of pulsing cells.”
  • OBGYN Sarah Horvath of ACOG: “Our ultrasound technology has gotten good enough to be able to detect electrical activity in a rudimentary group of cells.” “Heartbeat” conjures an organ which expands and contracts, but a six-week embryo has yet to develop that structure.
  • OBGYN Jennifer Kerns: “[The rhythm specified in the bans] is a group of cells with electrical activity. … We are in no way talking about any kind of cardiovascular system.”
Euphemism list:
  • cardiac flutter – Jezebel
  • electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue – Guardian
  • pulsing cells – The Cut
  • cardiac activity – The Cut
  • what will eventually become cardiac cells – The Cut
  • cells programmed with electrical activity – The Cut
  • little flicker – The Cut
  • a little flutter – LiveScience
  • detection of cardiac rhythm – Wired
  • cluster of pulsing cells – Wired
  • fetal pole cardiac activity – Wired
  • electrical activity in a rudimentary group of cells – Wired
  • group of cells with electrical activity – Wired
Further Reading:

Pro-choice articles euphemizing “heartbeat.”

Definitions of “heartbeat.”
To my knowledge there’s no unifying authoritative definition of “heartbeat.” Embryology textbooks do use the term. For example:

“Blood flow begins during the fourth week, and heartbeats can be visualized by Doppler ultrasonography.” – The Developing Human, Moore et al, 10th Edition (2013) 

“The heartbeat is initiated around the twenty-first day, and its continual beating is required for normal heart development.” – Larsen’s Human Embryology, Schoenwolf et al, 5th Edition (2015) 

But in neither case do they explicitly define the word “heartbeat.” Merriam Webster defines the term as “one complete pulsation of the heart.” Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (9th Edition) defines “heartbeat” as “a complete cycle of cardiac muscle contraction and relaxation.” By these definitions the embryo does have a heartbeat from approximately 3-4 weeks postfertilization/5-6 weeks LMP onward.

The embryonic heart.
As we explained in more detail here, by 4 weeks postfertilization/6 weeks LMP, the embryo’s heart is beating as it uses coordinated muscle contractions to unidirectionally pump blood, exchanging well-oxygenated blood from the chorionic sac with poorly oxygenated blood from the embryo’s body via multiple paired veins. The heart has also started partitioning into four chambers (atria and ventricles), which are observable by 5 weeks postfertilization/7 weeks LMP.

All of this information is taken directly from the embryology textbook The Developing Human by Moore et al, 10th Edition, 2013. Keep these facts in mind as you read the descriptions below.

(Click to enlarge.)

Vague and evasive articles.
A number of outlets have run articles quoting pro-choice medical professionals making at best misleading and at worst flatly false claims about the embryonic heart. As we go over these articles, please notice the following themes:

1) None of these articles specifically define “heartbeat.” Most just describe the embryonic heart in markedly vague terms and then declare its activity doesn’t qualify as a heartbeat without explaining why not.


2) Nearly all the articles quote medical professionals directly working for or affiliated with abortion rights advocacy groups, but generally the articles omit mention of these affiliations (the exception being Jezebel, which is refreshingly upfront).

Anti-Abortion Extremists Are Controlling the Narrative on ‘Heartbeat Bills’ Jezebel, 6/5/19

  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.”
  • The author references the Guardian article listed below.
  • Dr. Catherine Romanos, family physician and abortion provider: Calling the embryo’s cardiac flutter a “heartbeat,” she said, is tantamount to pseudoscience–and capitulation to the efforts of Republicans and anti-abortion activists who have forced their language into the mainstream.

Doctors’ organization: calling abortion bans ‘fetal heartbeat bills’ is misleading, The Guardian, 6/5/19

  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.”
  • Dr. Ted Anderson, president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), states “What is interpreted as a heartbeat in these bills is actually electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue that will become the heart as the embryo develops.”
  • Author Jessica Glenza states “Instead of using ‘fetal heartbeat bills’, as the laws are often called by anti-abortion campaigners, the Guardian will make ‘six-week abortion ban’ the preferred term for the laws, unless quoting someone, in order to better reflect the practical effect of the laws.”
    • Glenza is either unaware of or neglects to mention the fact that so far nearly all of the legislation outlaws abortion not at a specific gestational age but when a heartbeat is detectable. (See the text of the bills for Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Ohio.) 
    • Currently, only Missouri’s heartbeat legislation outlaws abortion based on gestational age: the bill states no abortion shall be performed at 8 weeks or later.
    • It’s unclear, then, why “six week abortion ban” would better reflect the laws than “fetal heartbeat bills.”

Dear News Media: It’s not a heartbeat when there is no heart, Medium, 5/28/19

  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.”
  • Author Kathy Gill: “At four weeks after conception, an embryo has no heart.”
  • Gill references the LiveScience and Wired articles listed below.
  • Gill implies there’s no heartbeat until the 20th week: “It takes muscle to generate a heartbeat. British researchers reported in February that the fetal heart ‘does not have fully organized muscle tissue until the 20th week.'”

Embryos Don’t Have Hearts, The Cut, 5/24/19

  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.” although OBGYN Sarah Horvath (also of ACOG) implies a colloquial understanding – the “lub dub”:
    • Horvath: “The characteristic ‘lub-dub’ of the heart is created by the valves in a four-chambered heart opening and closing.” 
    • This definition wouldn’t exclude the embryonic heart. As early as the 4th and 5th week (postfertilization) valves control the blood flow into and through the heart (Moore et al, Figures 13-10 & 13-11).
    • The article neglects to mention that ACOG is committed to increasing access to abortion
  • Author Katie Heaney: “Though pulsing cells can be detected in embryos as early as six weeks, this rhythm–detected by a doctor, via ultrasound–cannot be called a ‘heartbeat,’ because embryos don’t have hearts.”
  • OBGYN Robyn Schickler: What is detectable at or around 6 weeks can more accurately be called “cardiac activity.” Essentially communication between a group of what will eventually become cardiac cells. 
    • This article at least states up front that Schickler is a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health, although it doesn’t mention the group’s stance on abortion. On their website they talk about “anti-choice politicians” and explain that they “advocate for the right to access safe and affordable abortion care in our communities.”
  • OBGYN Jennifer Kerns: “These are cells that are programmed with electrical activity, which will eventually control the heart rate–they send a signal telling the heart to contract, once there is a heart.”
  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat,” although author Rachael Rettner potentially implies a colloquial understanding:
    • Rettner:”The ‘beat’ isn’t audible; if doctors put a stethoscope up to a woman’s belly this early on in her pregnancy, they would not hear a heartbeat.” So possibly she believes a heartbeat must be audible via stethoscope to count as a heartbeat?
    • But audio detection of heartbeat is imprecise. Even fetal Doppler (significantly more sensitive than a stethoscope) can’t reliably detect heartbeat until 10 to 12 weeks according to WebMD.
    • Whether we can yet hear the heartbeat doesn’t change whether the process that causes the sound–the heart’s contractions as it pumps blood–is already happening.
  • Dr. Saima Aftab: At 6 weeks the ultrasound detects “a little flutter in the area that will become the future heart of the baby.” She says this happens when a group of cells gain the capacity to fire electrical signals.
  • Nowhere does the article define “heartbeat.”
  • Author Adam Rogers: “What the bills call a heartbeat–it’s not that.” “It’s a cluster of pulsing cells.”
  • OBGYN Sarah Horvath of ACOG: “Our ultrasound technology has gotten good enough to be able to detect electrical activity in a rudimentary group of cells.” “Heartbeat” conjures an organ which expands and contracts, but a six-week embryo has yet to develop that structure.
  • OBGYN Jennifer Kerns: “[The rhythm specified in the bans] is a group of cells with electrical activity. … We are in no way talking about any kind of cardiovascular system.”
Euphemism list:
  • cardiac flutter – Jezebel
  • electrically induced flickering of a portion of the fetal tissue – Guardian
  • pulsing cells – The Cut
  • cardiac activity – The Cut
  • what will eventually become cardiac cells – The Cut
  • cells programmed with electrical activity – The Cut
  • little flicker – The Cut
  • a little flutter – LiveScience
  • detection of cardiac rhythm – Wired
  • cluster of pulsing cells – Wired
  • fetal pole cardiac activity – Wired
  • electrical activity in a rudimentary group of cells – Wired
  • group of cells with electrical activity – Wired
Further Reading:

When we say “heartbeat” we don’t mean “fetal pole cardiac activity.” We mean “heartbeat.”

Recently a FB follower shared this post to our page:

(Click to enlarge)
The text reads, in part:

This is what an embryo at 6 weeks looks like. There is no real heart beat because it’s heart isn’t nearly complete – they’re heart “vibrations” (vibrations are caused my cellular activity where the heart WILL be. Meaning, yes, the title of the “heartbeat bill” is misleading, purposely). There is no brain, meaning no pain receptors. It does not feel pain. This is what you’re stripping women’s right away for. I, your sisters, your mothers, aunts, friends – we all have beating hearts and brains. Our lives are more important than this. 

**Stop listening to pro life talking heads that use purposely emotional language to manipulate your view. They are not doctors or scientists.**

•This is not a “baby”. They use pictures of 6 month old babies to pull on your heart strings. This is an embryo. This is not “10 fingers, 10 toes” babbling cooing baby they’re trying to get you to imagine.

The post is certainly right that this image is not of a “baby.” The image is actually from Etsy, described as “Baby Memorial/Honor Sculpture.” The tiny figures pictured are clay sculptures which the seller says are “for those who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy during the first trimester and are searching for a tangible keepsake to honor their precious Angel.” The Etsy page includes reviews from mothers describing how much it means to them to have a way to mark their grief and loss. How ironic that the OP uses art specifically meant to help people value and mourn prenatal life to instead deride those very viewpoints–and all while claiming to be representing science. It’s kind of amazing.

Here’s an image of an embryo around 6 weeks post-fertilization (or 8 weeks LMP – after the beginning of the last menstrual period) courtesy of The Bump:

As the prenatal website explains, “You may have your first prenatal appointment right around now. At this visit an ultrasound may be performed to determine how far along you are. You may even hear—and see—baby’s heartbeat.”

The Bump’s use of the word “heartbeat” is representative of not only many prenatal websites but also descriptions medical professionals give pregnant women during routine prenatal care. Using “heartbeat” to describe embryonic activity at this stage is neither new nor unique to anti-abortion advocates.

Some pro-choice people argue that when medical professionals say “heartbeat” in these contexts, they’re just using layman’s language with their patients, just as an OBGYN might say “baby” when talking to a woman with a wanted pregnancy. That doesn’t make “baby” a medical or technical term.

But “heartbeat” is appropriate both for the layman and as a medical description. As The Developing Human by Moore et al (10th Edition, 2013) explains in “Chapter 13: Cardiovascular System”:

The cardiovascular system is the first major system to function in the embryo. The primordial heart and vascular system appear in the middle of the third week (Fig. 13-1). This precocious cardiac development occurs because the rapidly growing embryo can no longer satisfy its nutritional and oxygen requirements by diffusion alone. Consequently, there is a need for an efficient method of acquiring oxygen and nutrients from the maternal blood and disposing of carbon dioxide and waste products.

In other words the embryonic heart exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide even before it fully develops into the more complex heart we’re familiar with. Those insisting we say “fetal pole cardiac activity” instead of “heartbeat” or describing the embryonic heart as just “electrically induced flickering” or–more ridiculously–“vibrations” try to imply that the four chambered heart doesn’t happen until months later; that’s completely incorrect. Here’s a diagram from Moore et al of the heart at 35 days (approximately 5 weeks post-fertilization):

(Click to enlarge)

At this point the embryonic heart already has four chambers. It’s reductive to describe this development as no more than “pulsing cells.”

Additionally, by 4 weeks the embryo has three paired veins draining into the heart: vitelline veins return poorly oxygenated blood from the umbilical vessel, umbilical veins carry well-oxygenated blood from the chorionic sac, and cardinal veins return poorly oxygenated blood from the embryo’s body to the heart. Here is an illustration from figure 13-5 of Moore of the heart at 24 days postfertilization:

Here are the veins illustrated at 6 weeks:

This image is from Figure 13-4, the caption for which states, “Initially, three systems of veins are present: the umbilical veins from the chorion, vitelline veins from the umbilical vesicle, and cardinal veins from the body of the embryos.”


More from Moore:

  • “The heart begins to beat at 22 to 23 days (Fig. 13-2).”
  • “Blood flow begins during the fourth week, and heartbeats can be visualized by Doppler ultrasonography (Fig. 13-3).”
  • “The initial contractions of the heart are of myogenic origin (in or starting from muscle). … At first, circulation through the primordial heart is an ebb-and-flow type; however, by the end of the fourth week, coordinated contractions of the heart result in unidirectional flow.”
  • Partitioning of the AV canal, primordial atrium, ventricle, and outflow tract begins during the middle of the fourth week.”
By 6 weeks the heart is chambered and moving blood unidirectionally through coordinated contractions–that is, the heart is rhythmically pumping blood. Of course the heart has more development to do, but the pro-choice side is hand wavy at best to insist we can’t say “heartbeat”–and they are flatly wrong to say embryos don’t have hearts! Which side is anti-science, again? 
The embryonic heart is “a bunch of pulsing cells” in the exact same way the embryo herself is “a clump of cells”–in a way meant to downplay that abortion kills prenatal humans. It’s continually remarkable to me that the pro-choice side seems to badly need to obfuscate the humans abortion destroys. I suspect if arguments regarding bodily rights and fetal personhood were stronger, fewer pro-choice people would recoil so hard at what are otherwise basic and generally uncontroversial facts.
Of course, and as always, the fact that a human organism has a heartbeat doesn’t in itself establish moral worth. But it’s one thing to argue that the embryonic heart is irrelevant; it’s another to suggest it doesn’t exist. I’ll take my scientific education from an embryology book, not Etsy, thanks.

Post-publication update: I’ve seen so many stories now purporting to scientifically explain away the embryonic heart, I’m just going to start collecting them here:

Read more details about why these articles are misleading here.

When we say “heartbeat” we don’t mean “fetal pole cardiac activity.” We mean “heartbeat.”

Recently a FB follower shared this post to our page:

(Click to enlarge)
The text reads, in part:

This is what an embryo at 6 weeks looks like. There is no real heart beat because it’s heart isn’t nearly complete – they’re heart “vibrations” (vibrations are caused my cellular activity where the heart WILL be. Meaning, yes, the title of the “heartbeat bill” is misleading, purposely). There is no brain, meaning no pain receptors. It does not feel pain. This is what you’re stripping women’s right away for. I, your sisters, your mothers, aunts, friends – we all have beating hearts and brains. Our lives are more important than this. 

**Stop listening to pro life talking heads that use purposely emotional language to manipulate your view. They are not doctors or scientists.**

•This is not a “baby”. They use pictures of 6 month old babies to pull on your heart strings. This is an embryo. This is not “10 fingers, 10 toes” babbling cooing baby they’re trying to get you to imagine.

The post is certainly right that this image is not of a “baby.” The image is actually from Etsy, described as “Baby Memorial/Honor Sculpture.” The tiny figures pictured are clay sculptures which the seller says are “for those who have experienced the loss of a pregnancy during the first trimester and are searching for a tangible keepsake to honor their precious Angel.” The Etsy page includes reviews from mothers describing how much it means to them to have a way to mark their grief and loss. How ironic that the OP uses art specifically meant to help people value and mourn prenatal life to instead deride those very viewpoints–and all while claiming to be representing science. It’s kind of amazing.

Here’s an image of an embryo around 6 weeks post-fertilization (or 8 weeks LMP – after the beginning of the last menstrual period) courtesy of The Bump:

As the prenatal website explains, “You may have your first prenatal appointment right around now. At this visit an ultrasound may be performed to determine how far along you are. You may even hear—and see—baby’s heartbeat.”

The Bump’s use of the word “heartbeat” is representative of not only many prenatal websites but also descriptions medical professionals give pregnant women during routine prenatal care. Using “heartbeat” to describe embryonic activity at this stage is neither new nor unique to anti-abortion advocates.

Some pro-choice people argue that when medical professionals say “heartbeat” in these contexts, they’re just using layman’s language with their patients, just as an OBGYN might say “baby” when talking to a woman with a wanted pregnancy. That doesn’t make “baby” a medical or technical term.

But “heartbeat” is appropriate both for the layman and as a medical description. As The Developing Human by Moore et al (10th Edition, 2013) explains in “Chapter 13: Cardiovascular System”:

The cardiovascular system is the first major system to function in the embryo. The primordial heart and vascular system appear in the middle of the third week (Fig. 13-1). This precocious cardiac development occurs because the rapidly growing embryo can no longer satisfy its nutritional and oxygen requirements by diffusion alone. Consequently, there is a need for an efficient method of acquiring oxygen and nutrients from the maternal blood and disposing of carbon dioxide and waste products.

In other words the embryonic heart exchanges oxygen and carbon dioxide even before it fully develops into the more complex heart we’re familiar with. Those insisting we say “fetal pole cardiac activity” instead of “heartbeat” or describing the embryonic heart as just “electrically induced flickering” or–more ridiculously–“vibrations” try to imply that the four chambered heart doesn’t happen until months later; that’s completely incorrect. Here’s a diagram from Moore et al of the heart at 35 days (approximately 5 weeks post-fertilization):

(Click to enlarge)

At this point the embryonic heart already has four chambers. It’s reductive to describe this development as no more than “pulsing cells.”

Additionally, by 4 weeks the embryo has three paired veins draining into the heart: vitelline veins return poorly oxygenated blood from the umbilical vessel, umbilical veins carry well-oxygenated blood from the chorionic sac, and cardinal veins return poorly oxygenated blood from the embryo’s body to the heart. Here is an illustration from figure 13-5 of Moore of the heart at 24 days postfertilization:

Here are the veins illustrated at 6 weeks:

This image is from Figure 13-4, the caption for which states, “Initially, three systems of veins are present: the umbilical veins from the chorion, vitelline veins from the umbilical vesicle, and cardinal veins from the body of the embryos.”


More from Moore:

  • “The heart begins to beat at 22 to 23 days (Fig. 13-2).”
  • “Blood flow begins during the fourth week, and heartbeats can be visualized by Doppler ultrasonography (Fig. 13-3).”
  • “The initial contractions of the heart are of myogenic origin (in or starting from muscle). … At first, circulation through the primordial heart is an ebb-and-flow type; however, by the end of the fourth week, coordinated contractions of the heart result in unidirectional flow.”
  • Partitioning of the AV canal, primordial atrium, ventricle, and outflow tract begins during the middle of the fourth week.”
By 6 weeks the heart is chambered and moving blood unidirectionally through coordinated contractions–that is, the heart is rhythmically pumping blood. Of course the heart has more development to do, but the pro-choice side is hand wavy at best to insist we can’t say “heartbeat”–and they are flatly wrong to say embryos don’t have hearts! Which side is anti-science, again? 
The embryonic heart is “a bunch of pulsing cells” in the exact same way the embryo herself is “a clump of cells”–in a way meant to downplay that abortion kills prenatal humans. It’s continually remarkable to me that the pro-choice side seems to badly need to obfuscate the humans abortion destroys. I suspect if arguments regarding bodily rights and fetal personhood were stronger, fewer pro-choice people would recoil so hard at what are otherwise basic and generally uncontroversial facts.
Of course, and as always, the fact that a human organism has a heartbeat doesn’t in itself establish moral worth. But it’s one thing to argue that the embryonic heart is irrelevant; it’s another to suggest it doesn’t exist. I’ll take my scientific education from an embryology book, not Etsy, thanks.

Post-publication update: I’ve seen so many stories now purporting to scientifically explain away the embryonic heart, I’m just going to start collecting them here:

Read more details about why these articles are misleading here.