Poll: Pro-choicers support a lot more abortion restrictions than you’d expect.

When polls regarding abortion ask Americans about Roe v. Wade, most people say they want the Supreme Court decision upheld. But when the same polls ask people when they think abortion should be legal, most believe there should be more restrictions than Roe v. Wade actually allows. I’ve summarized these contradictory results before. Today I was reading a 2019 NPR/PBS Marist poll which captured the same phenomenon.

The poll asked: In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutional right for women to legally obtain an abortion. Over time, other laws have expanded or restricted this ruling. Do you think the U.S. Supreme Court today should decide to:

  • Overturn Roe v. Wade
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but add more restrictions
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but reduce some of the restrictions
  • Expand Roe v. Wade establishing the right to abortion under any circumstance
  • Keep Roe v. Wade the way it is
  • Unsure
The poll found that 39% of respondents thought Roe v. Wade should either be overturned or have more restrictions compared to 51% who thought Roe v. Wade should either be kept as is or strengthened. Broken down by self-identified pro-life vs pro-choice labels, the results looked like this:
(Click to enlarge)
So
  • As you’d expect, pro-life people were more likely to say Roe v. Wade should be overturned or further restricted and pro-choice people were more likely to say the opposite.
  • Even so, 18% of self-described pro-lifers said Roe v. Wade should be kept as is or strengthened, and 21% of pro-choicers thought it should be further restricted or overturned.
The poll described Roe v. Wade as establishing a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, but it did not explain the specifics. Roe v. Wadealong with Doe v. Bolton, made it difficult if not impossible to constitutionally limit abortion in the first two trimesters. (Planned Parenthood v. Casey moved the standard from trimesters to fetal viability, but the situation is largely the same: restrictions in the first or second trimester are difficult to pass or uphold.)

I don’t think most people are aware of that level of detail, which may explain why some of the same people who say they support Roe v. Wade also think abortion shouldn’t be allowed in some of the circumstances Roe v. Wade specifically mandates.
The same poll asked: Which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on abortion?
  1. Abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy.
  2. Abortion should be allowed only during the first six months of pregnancy.
  3. Abortion should be allowed only during the first three months of pregnancy.
  4. Abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.
  5. Abortion should be allowed only to save the life of the woman.
  6. Abortion should never be permitted under any circumstance.
47% of respondents chose options 4-6, i.e. abortion should be permitted only in the “hard cases,” or not at all. Only 29% thought abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy. 
Based on my experiences with pro-life and pro-choice activists, I would expect pro-lifers to mostly say abortion should be allowed only in the hard cases, or never at all, and I’d expect pro-choicers to mostly say abortion should be allowed in at least the first 6 months of pregnancy. Here are the actual responses:
Compared to my expectations, 12% of pro-lifers answered differently (9% said abortion should be allowed in the first three months, 3% said it should be allowed even later). And a whopping 54% of pro-choicers answered differently: 33% said abortion should be allowed only in the first three months, and 21% said it should be allowed only for the hard cases. In other words, over half of self-identified pro-choice people believe abortion should be restricted in ways Roe v. Wade absolutely does not allow
I also wonder how many of them realize that the hard cases account for less (probably much less) than 5% of abortions performed in the U.S. If the data above are accurate, about 1 out of 5 pro-choicers think over 95% of abortions (those performed on healthy fetuses carried by healthy women in pregnancies resulting from consensual sex) shouldn’t be allowed.
Also worth noting: contrary to the “old white men” trope, white people tended to be more pro-choice (more likely to support abortion in more circumstances) than everyone else:
A 45% plurality of people under age 45, and 45% of women, say abortion should be limited to the hard cases. Only 32% of people under age 45 and 27% of women believe abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy.
One more interesting tidbit: a full 68% of pro-choicers said they would support a measure requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. You’d think such a law would be easy common ground, middle-of-the-road type stuff, but June Medical Services v. Russo suggests otherwise.
Meanwhile, the poll also asked people to explain when they believe life begins. Specifically: do you believe human life begins…
  • at conception
  • within the first eight weeks of pregnancy
  • within the first three months of pregnancy
  • between three and six months
  • when a fetus is viable and can live outside the womb
  • at birth
  • unsure
A plurality (38%) said life begins at conception; 16% said life begins at birth. Broken down by pro-life and pro-choice labels:
Pro-lifers are relatively monolithic on this (72% said life begins at conception), whereas pro-choice people are much more evenly divided (and twice as likely to say they’re unsure). No doubt some of these answers reflect the respondents’ philosophical views about when a human becomes a person, as opposed to their understanding of biology (e.g. when an organism is a living member of the species homo sapiens). Still, I continue to suspect that a significant proportion of pro-choice people aren’t just conflating philosophy with biology but are actually misunderstanding biology itself. Indeed, a survey of pro-choice people found that if it were common knowledge that a fetus is a biological human, 90% believed abortion rates would decrease and 83% believed support for legal abortion would decrease.
This NPR/PBS poll was filled with information suggesting that the legal status quo for abortion in the U.S. is actually pretty dramatically at odds with what most Americans think makes sense. So how did NPR cover the poll?
Mmmk.

Poll: Pro-choicers support a lot more abortion restrictions than you’d expect.

When polls regarding abortion ask Americans about Roe v. Wade, most people say they want the Supreme Court decision upheld. But when the same polls ask people when they think abortion should be legal, most believe there should be more restrictions than Roe v. Wade actually allows. I’ve summarized these contradictory results before. Today I was reading a 2019 NPR/PBS Marist poll which captured the same phenomenon.

The poll asked: In 1973, the Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court established the constitutional right for women to legally obtain an abortion. Over time, other laws have expanded or restricted this ruling. Do you think the U.S. Supreme Court today should decide to:

  • Overturn Roe v. Wade
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but add more restrictions
  • Keep Roe v. Wade but reduce some of the restrictions
  • Expand Roe v. Wade establishing the right to abortion under any circumstance
  • Keep Roe v. Wade the way it is
  • Unsure
The poll found that 39% of respondents thought Roe v. Wade should either be overturned or have more restrictions compared to 51% who thought Roe v. Wade should either be kept as is or strengthened. Broken down by self-identified pro-life vs pro-choice labels, the results looked like this:
(Click to enlarge)
So
  • As you’d expect, pro-life people were more likely to say Roe v. Wade should be overturned or further restricted and pro-choice people were more likely to say the opposite.
  • Even so, 18% of self-described pro-lifers said Roe v. Wade should be kept as is or strengthened, and 21% of pro-choicers thought it should be further restricted or overturned.
The poll described Roe v. Wade as establishing a woman’s constitutional right to abortion, but it did not explain the specifics. Roe v. Wadealong with Doe v. Bolton, made it difficult if not impossible to constitutionally limit abortion in the first two trimesters. (Planned Parenthood v. Casey moved the standard from trimesters to fetal viability, but the situation is largely the same: restrictions in the first or second trimester are difficult to pass or uphold.)

I don’t think most people are aware of that level of detail, which may explain why some of the same people who say they support Roe v. Wade also think abortion shouldn’t be allowed in some of the circumstances Roe v. Wade specifically mandates.
The same poll asked: Which one of the following statements comes closest to your opinion on abortion?
  1. Abortion should be available to a woman any time she wants one during her entire pregnancy.
  2. Abortion should be allowed only during the first six months of pregnancy.
  3. Abortion should be allowed only during the first three months of pregnancy.
  4. Abortion should be allowed only in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the woman.
  5. Abortion should be allowed only to save the life of the woman.
  6. Abortion should never be permitted under any circumstance.
47% of respondents chose options 4-6, i.e. abortion should be permitted only in the “hard cases,” or not at all. Only 29% thought abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy. 
Based on my experiences with pro-life and pro-choice activists, I would expect pro-lifers to mostly say abortion should be allowed only in the hard cases, or never at all, and I’d expect pro-choicers to mostly say abortion should be allowed in at least the first 6 months of pregnancy. Here are the actual responses:
Compared to my expectations, 12% of pro-lifers answered differently (9% said abortion should be allowed in the first three months, 3% said it should be allowed even later). And a whopping 54% of pro-choicers answered differently: 33% said abortion should be allowed only in the first three months, and 21% said it should be allowed only for the hard cases. In other words, over half of self-identified pro-choice people believe abortion should be restricted in ways Roe v. Wade absolutely does not allow
I also wonder how many of them realize that the hard cases account for less (probably much less) than 5% of abortions performed in the U.S. If the data above are accurate, about 1 out of 5 pro-choicers think over 95% of abortions (those performed on healthy fetuses carried by healthy women in pregnancies resulting from consensual sex) shouldn’t be allowed.
Also worth noting: contrary to the “old white men” trope, white people tended to be more pro-choice (more likely to support abortion in more circumstances) than everyone else:
A 45% plurality of people under age 45, and 45% of women, say abortion should be limited to the hard cases. Only 32% of people under age 45 and 27% of women believe abortion should be allowed after the first three months of pregnancy.
One more interesting tidbit: a full 68% of pro-choicers said they would support a measure requiring abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges. You’d think such a law would be easy common ground, middle-of-the-road type stuff, but June Medical Services v. Russo suggests otherwise.
Meanwhile, the poll also asked people to explain when they believe life begins. Specifically: do you believe human life begins…
  • at conception
  • within the first eight weeks of pregnancy
  • within the first three months of pregnancy
  • between three and six months
  • when a fetus is viable and can live outside the womb
  • at birth
  • unsure
A plurality (38%) said life begins at conception; 16% said life begins at birth. Broken down by pro-life and pro-choice labels:
Pro-lifers are relatively monolithic on this (72% said life begins at conception), whereas pro-choice people are much more evenly divided (and twice as likely to say they’re unsure). No doubt some of these answers reflect the respondents’ philosophical views about when a human becomes a person, as opposed to their understanding of biology (e.g. when an organism is a living member of the species homo sapiens). Still, I continue to suspect that a significant proportion of pro-choice people aren’t just conflating philosophy with biology but are actually misunderstanding biology itself. Indeed, a survey of pro-choice people found that if it were common knowledge that a fetus is a biological human, 90% believed abortion rates would decrease and 83% believed support for legal abortion would decrease.
This NPR/PBS poll was filled with information suggesting that the legal status quo for abortion in the U.S. is actually pretty dramatically at odds with what most Americans think makes sense. So how did NPR cover the poll?
Mmmk.

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:

Sources for “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths”

Today Oregon Right to Life is hosting the “Together We Advocate” Conference, the largest pro-life conference in the Pacific northwest. Monica Snyder, SPL co-leader, will be giving a slightly updated version of her presentation “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths,” including where those myths come from and the research that undermines the myths’ claims. Here are the sources used to create the presentation.

Myth #1:
We don’t know when human life begins.
Articles:
Biology
and embryology textbooks and relevant quotes:
  • Scott Gilbert,
    Developmental Biology, 11
    th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer
    Associates, 2016: “Fertilization accomplishes two separate ends: sex (the
    combining of genes derived from two parents) and reproduction (the
    generation of a new organism).”
  • T.W. Sadler,
    Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott
    Williams & Wilkins, 2006:”Development begins with fertilization,
    the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete,
    the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote.”
  • Erich
    Blechschmidt, Brian Freeman, The Ontogenetic Basis of Human Anatomy: The
    Biodynamic Approach to Development from Conception to Adulthood, North
    Atlantic Books, June 2004: “We talk of human development not because
    a jumble of cells, which is perhaps initially atypical, gradually turns
    more and more into a human, but rather because the human being develops
    from a uniquely human cell. There is no state in human development prior
    to which one could claim that a being exists with not-yet-human
    individuality. On the basis of anatomical studies, we know today that no
    developmental phase exists that constitutes a transition from the
    not-yet-human to the human.” & “In short, a fertilized egg
    (conceptus) is already a human being.”
  • Keith L. Moore,
    The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition.
    Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003: “Human development begins at
    fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm
    (spermatozoon development) 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.” And
    “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an
    embryo).”
  • Scott Gilbert,
    Developmental Biology, 6th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates,
    2001:“When we consider a dog, for instance, we usually picture an adult.
    But the dog is a “dog” from the moment of fertilization of a dog egg by a
    dog sperm. It remains a dog even as a senescent dying hound. Therefore,
    the dog is actually the entire life cycle of the animal, from
    fertilization through death.”
  • Ronan R.
    O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology & Teratology, 3rd
    Edition, New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001: “Although life is a continuous
    process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary
    circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when
    the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the
    oocyte.”
  • Ida G. Dox, B.
    John Melloni, Gilbert Eisner, The HarperCollins Illustrated Medical
    Dictionary, 2001: “An Embryo is an organism in the earliest stages of
    development.”
  • Human
    Embryology, William J Larsen, 3rd Edition, 2001: “In this text, we begin
    our description of the developing human with the formation and
    differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will
    unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new
    individual.”
  • William J.
    Larsen, Essentials of Human Embryology. New York: Churchill Livingstone,
    1998: “Human embryos begin development following the fusion of
    definitive male and female gametes during fertilization… This moment of
    zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic
    development.”
  • Bruce M.
    Carlson, Patten’s Foundations of Embryology. 6th edition. New York:
    McGraw-Hill, 1996: “Almost all higher animals start their lives from
    a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)… The time of fertilization
    represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the
    individual.”
  • Keith L. Moore
    and T.V.N. Persaud. Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth
    Defects. 4th edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1993:
    “Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr.
    zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being. The
    common expression ‘fertilized ovum’ refers to the zygote.”
  • Clark Edward
    Corliss, Patten’s Human Embryology: Elements of Clinical Development. New
    York: McGraw Hill, 1976. “It is the penetration of the ovum by a
    spermatozoan and resultant mingling of the nuclear material each brings to
    the union that constitutes the culmination of the process of fertilization
    and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual.”
  • E.L. Potter and
    J.M. Craig, Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant, 3rd edition. Chicago:
    Year Book Medical Publishers, 1975: “Every time a sperm cell and ovum
    unite a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live
    unless its death is brought about by some specific condition.”
  • J.P. Greenhill
    and E.A. Friedman, Biological Principles and Modern Practice of
    Obstetrics. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1974: “The term conception
    refers to the union of the male and female pronuclear elements of
    procreation from which a new living being develops. It is synonymous with
    the terms fecundation, impregnation, and fertilization.”
  • Leslie Brainerd
    Arey, Developmental Anatomy, 7
    th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders,
    1974: “The formation, maturation and meeting of a male and female sex cell
    are all preliminary to their actual union into a combined cell, or zygote,
    which definitely marks the beginning of a new individual. The penetration
    of the ovum by the spermatozoon, and the coming together and pooling of
    their respective nuclei, constitutes the process of fertilization.”

Biologists’ Consensus on ‘When Life Begins’,” Steven Andrew Jacobs, Social Science Research Network, July 25 2018

Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:
Myth #2:
Most or all late-term abortions are medically necessary.
Articles:
Polls:
Data:
Interviews of late-term
abortion doctors:
Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:
· 
Myth #3:
Abortion restrictions don’t stop abortions.
Articles:
Data
(Worldwide):
Data
(National):
American
studies:
Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:

Sources for “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths”

Today Oregon Right to Life is hosting the “Together We Advocate” Conference, the largest pro-life conference in the Pacific northwest. Monica Snyder, SPL co-leader, will be giving a slightly updated version of her presentation “Deconstructing Three Pro-Choice Myths,” including where those myths come from and the research that undermines the myths’ claims. Here are the sources used to create the presentation.

Myth #1:
We don’t know when human life begins.
Articles:
Biology
and embryology textbooks and relevant quotes:
  • Scott Gilbert,
    Developmental Biology, 11
    th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer
    Associates, 2016: “Fertilization accomplishes two separate ends: sex (the
    combining of genes derived from two parents) and reproduction (the
    generation of a new organism).”
  • T.W. Sadler,
    Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott
    Williams & Wilkins, 2006:”Development begins with fertilization,
    the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete,
    the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote.”
  • Erich
    Blechschmidt, Brian Freeman, The Ontogenetic Basis of Human Anatomy: The
    Biodynamic Approach to Development from Conception to Adulthood, North
    Atlantic Books, June 2004: “We talk of human development not because
    a jumble of cells, which is perhaps initially atypical, gradually turns
    more and more into a human, but rather because the human being develops
    from a uniquely human cell. There is no state in human development prior
    to which one could claim that a being exists with not-yet-human
    individuality. On the basis of anatomical studies, we know today that no
    developmental phase exists that constitutes a transition from the
    not-yet-human to the human.” & “In short, a fertilized egg
    (conceptus) is already a human being.”
  • Keith L. Moore,
    The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition.
    Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003: “Human development begins at
    fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm
    (spermatozoon development) 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.” And
    “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an
    embryo).”
  • Scott Gilbert,
    Developmental Biology, 6th Edition. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates,
    2001:“When we consider a dog, for instance, we usually picture an adult.
    But the dog is a “dog” from the moment of fertilization of a dog egg by a
    dog sperm. It remains a dog even as a senescent dying hound. Therefore,
    the dog is actually the entire life cycle of the animal, from
    fertilization through death.”
  • Ronan R.
    O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology & Teratology, 3rd
    Edition, New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001: “Although life is a continuous
    process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary
    circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when
    the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the
    oocyte.”
  • Ida G. Dox, B.
    John Melloni, Gilbert Eisner, The HarperCollins Illustrated Medical
    Dictionary, 2001: “An Embryo is an organism in the earliest stages of
    development.”
  • Human
    Embryology, William J Larsen, 3rd Edition, 2001: “In this text, we begin
    our description of the developing human with the formation and
    differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will
    unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new
    individual.”
  • William J.
    Larsen, Essentials of Human Embryology. New York: Churchill Livingstone,
    1998: “Human embryos begin development following the fusion of
    definitive male and female gametes during fertilization… This moment of
    zygote formation may be taken as the beginning or zero time point of embryonic
    development.”
  • Bruce M.
    Carlson, Patten’s Foundations of Embryology. 6th edition. New York:
    McGraw-Hill, 1996: “Almost all higher animals start their lives from
    a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)… The time of fertilization
    represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the
    individual.”
  • Keith L. Moore
    and T.V.N. Persaud. Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth
    Defects. 4th edition. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1993:
    “Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr.
    zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being. The
    common expression ‘fertilized ovum’ refers to the zygote.”
  • Clark Edward
    Corliss, Patten’s Human Embryology: Elements of Clinical Development. New
    York: McGraw Hill, 1976. “It is the penetration of the ovum by a
    spermatozoan and resultant mingling of the nuclear material each brings to
    the union that constitutes the culmination of the process of fertilization
    and marks the initiation of the life of a new individual.”
  • E.L. Potter and
    J.M. Craig, Pathology of the Fetus and the Infant, 3rd edition. Chicago:
    Year Book Medical Publishers, 1975: “Every time a sperm cell and ovum
    unite a new being is created which is alive and will continue to live
    unless its death is brought about by some specific condition.”
  • J.P. Greenhill
    and E.A. Friedman, Biological Principles and Modern Practice of
    Obstetrics. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 1974: “The term conception
    refers to the union of the male and female pronuclear elements of
    procreation from which a new living being develops. It is synonymous with
    the terms fecundation, impregnation, and fertilization.”
  • Leslie Brainerd
    Arey, Developmental Anatomy, 7
    th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders,
    1974: “The formation, maturation and meeting of a male and female sex cell
    are all preliminary to their actual union into a combined cell, or zygote,
    which definitely marks the beginning of a new individual. The penetration
    of the ovum by the spermatozoon, and the coming together and pooling of
    their respective nuclei, constitutes the process of fertilization.”

Biologists’ Consensus on ‘When Life Begins’,” Steven Andrew Jacobs, Social Science Research Network, July 25 2018

Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:
Myth #2:
Most or all late-term abortions are medically necessary.
Articles:
Polls:
Data:
Interviews of late-term
abortion doctors:
Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:
· 
Myth #3:
Abortion restrictions don’t stop abortions.
Articles:
Data
(Worldwide):
Data
(National):
American
studies:
Relevant
Secular Pro-Life posts:

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:

Are Human Embryos Human Beings from the Beginning?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Pro-choice advocates will insist that the human embryo doesn’t become a human being until birth or at least sometime late in pregnancy. Pro-life people generally agree with the scientific consensus that human life begins at fertilization; once the ovum cell is fertilized by the sperm cell, a new, genetically distinct human organism comes into existence. But I sometimes come across pro-life advocates who believe human life begins at implantation or around that time, not at fertilization.

As an example, Don Marquis, famous for his essay “Why Abortion is Immoral”, believes the view that human life begins at fertilization to have serious problems (“Abortion and the Beginning and End of Human Life”, Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics 34 (1): 16-25 (2006)). His view of personal identity is animalism (aka the biological view of personal identity), which Eric T. Olson argues convincingly for in his books and articles. But Olson, despite believing we are essentially animals and are identical to the embryo as long as we are biologically continuous with it (in other words, as
long as the embryo develops into me in a continuous fashion), does not believe we are identical to the embryo at the single-cell zygote stage for this reason: he believes human beings become individuals after the potential for twinning is lost. Olson writes:

According to the Biological View, I started out as an embryo. Does that mean that I came into existence at the moment of conception? Not necessarily. The Biological View implies that I came into being whenever this human organism did. But it is unlikely that this human organism came into being at conception — that is, that it started out as a fertilized egg. When a fertilized egg cleaves into two, then four, then eight cells, it does not appear to become a multicellular organism — any more than an amoeba comes to be a multicellular organism when it divides. The resulting cells adhere only loosely, and their growth and other activities are not, at first anyway, coordinated in a way that would make them parts of a multicellular organism. The embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization. (Eric T. Olson, “Was I Ever a Fetus?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 57 (1), 95-110, 1997)

Pro-choice philosopher Peter Singer and embryologist Karen Dawson, in an attempt to argue embryonic stem cell research should be pursued, argue an embryo created in a lab is not a human being because it lacks the potential to grow into an older human being on its own. An embryo in a petri dish can survive for about five days and then it will die if not implanted into a uterus. They write,

But can the familiar claims about the potential of the embryo in the uterus be applied to the embryo in culture in the laboratory? Or does the new technology lead to an embryo with a different potential from that of embryos made in the old way? Asking this question leads us to probe the meaning of the term ‘potential’…While the notion of potential may be relatively clear in the context of a naturally occurring process such as the development of an embryo inside a female body, this notion becomes far more problematic when it is extended to a laboratory situation, in which everything depends on our knowledge and skills, and on what we decide to do. This line of argument will lead us to the conclusion that there is no coherent notion of potential which allows the argument from potential to be applied to embryos in laboratories in the way in which those who invoke the argument are seeking to apply it. (Peter Singer and Karen Dawson, “IVF Technology and the Argument from Potential”in Embryo Experimentation: Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues, ed. Peter Singer, et al (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 76-77, as quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics, (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2000) p. 270)

Still other people, even some pro-life advocates I’ve talked with, believe that we shouldn’t consider an embryo at fertilization a human being because it can grow into things which aren’t humans, such as an empty sack or a tumor.

All three of these arguments are seriously flawed and reflect a faulty understanding of how human development works. I’ll briefly reply to each argument in turn below.

Olson


Olson believes that the embryo at its earliest stages is not an organism, but rather the organism exists as a unified whole at around sixteen days after fertilization. Now despite the fact that all embryology textbooks place the start of the organism at fertilization and not at any point after that, occasionally you’ll still have people arguing that it’s not an organized individual until after that point. Olson is simply wrong when he says that the embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization because the entire field of embryology would disagree with him.

He compares the early embryo to an amoeba; as an amoeba does not become a multicellular organism when it divides, neither does the early embryo. But here, Olson is making the same kind of elementary mistake that a pro-choice advocate makes when they assert that sperm and ovum cells are alive but we don’t grant them a right to life, so the embryo doesn’t have a right to life. Olson is confusing the parts of the embryo (the cells) with the whole embryo, itself. An amoeba, by definition, is a unicellular being. So when it divides it only divides into other unicellular beings. And of course, some early embryos have the potential to split when they become twins, and two individuals will exist instead of just one as was the case before the split. So twinning is more comparable to the amoeba splitting. The cells of the embryo dividing are not comparable to the amoeba splitting because these are the cells of the embryo which are dividing while the embryo remains the same kind of thing it has been since day one — a human embryo, whose cells divide because it is in the nature of human beings to grow and develop.

Olson’s other point is that the cells of the embryo are not coordinated in a way that would make them parts of a multicellular organism but only loosely adhere to each other. This is a fairly common claim you hear but it’s simply wrong. Olson is misrepresenting the facts of embryology here. Developmental biologist Michael Buratovich addresses this argument. He writes,

The embryo…prepares for future events. For example, at the two-cell stage, the blastomeres synthesize a cell adhesion protein called E-cadherin. E-cadherin acts like cellular superglue, and the two-cell stage embryo makes it in anticipation of compaction, which occurs two days later. (Michael Buratovich, The Stem Cell Epistles: Letters to My Students About Bioethics, Embryos, Stem Cells, and Fertility Treatments, (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR, 2013), p. 58.)

He also shows, referencing philosophers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, that this idea of Olson’s ignores the goal-directed behaviors of the embryo. There are at least three goals of the embryo: get to the uterus and implant, form the structures necessary for successful implantation, and preserve its structure against the many hazards it might encounter. (Buratovich, ibid.) So the early embryo is still a coordinated whole organism, even at the very early stages of development. Olson is mistaken about the facts of embryology.

Singer and Dawson


Singer and Dawson (hereafter SD) argue that because the embryo conceived in a laboratory is completely dependent upon what we do to it, on our knowledge and skills, this means that the potential of an embryo created in a lab is wholly different from an embryo conceived naturally. But this dubious conclusion they draw from the unique circumstances of the conception of an embryo created in a lab relies on a faulty understanding of potential.

It should be quite obvious that SD’s argument is simply a more sophisticated version of the viability argument. The argument is essentially because an embryo is not viable in a petri dish in a lab, creating an embryo in a lab means that it does not have the same kinds of potential as one who is conceived naturally and relies on the natural processes of the mother’s body. But this shows no such thing. As happens quite often, embryos created in a lab can be implanted into a woman’s uterus and then will continue to develop normally, as if they had been conceived naturally in the woman’s Fallopian tube. This shows clearly that the embryo created in the lab has the same kinds of potentialities that an embryo conceived naturally does. It just will not continue to develop because it is not in an environment in which it can survive. An astronaut on a spacewalk or a deep sea diver swimming in the depths of the ocean are both completely dependent on our knowledge and skills to survive, on the technology they use to survive in those harsh environments. But this certainly wouldn’t justify a view that because they are now in environments in which they can’t ordinarily survive they suddenly have lost the potentialities that other human beings their age possess. In fact, it would be absurd to make that argument. Embryos created in a lab have the same potentialities because they are the same kind of entities — human beings.

Miscellaneous


The final argument I will address is the argument that human life doesn’t begin at fertilization because the embryo can simply grow into an empty sac, or some other kind of entity like a hydatidiform mole. But this argument doesn’t work, either. Whatever is human is human from the very beginning. It’s not the case that a human embryo will develop into an empty sac or a mole. If the entity in the womb is an empty sac or a mole, then it was always an empty sac or a mole. We just weren’t able to detect what it was yet. Even so, an embryo is an embryo from the very beginning, even if we can’t know for sure that it’s an embryo until later on, when the pregnancy can be detected.

Maureen Condic explains it like this,

…it is important to appreciate that simply because two living entities share some common elements or overlap in a sequence of biochemical events, they are not necessarily the same kind of entity.

Distinct biological entities that share some initial molecular events are similar to two musical works that begin with the same notes…For example, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The alphabet song” are identical until the fourth measure, yet they are distinct (albeit, very similar) songs. While listening to a CD recording, it would be impossible to determine which work is being performed until the first distinguishing note is heard, yet once this point is past, all prior notes provide clear evidence that a particular song was indeed recorded on the CD and was being played out from the first note. The CD does not begin playing random notes that resolve into a specific song, nor does it begin with one song and later “transform” into the other, nor does it begin playing “both” or “neither” song until the first distinguishing note is produced. From the beginning, it plays the single, specific song that is recorded on the CD. Indeed, prior to the CD being played, a sufficiently detailed examination of the recording (for example, analyzing the data encoded on the disc using a scanning probe atomic force microscope) would determine the precise song it contains without any ambiguity. (Maureen L. Condic, “A Biological Definition of the Human Embryo” in Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, ed. Stephen Napier, (Springer Publishing, Philadelphia, PA, 2011), p. 216, emphases in original)

It’s just simply not the case that the embryo will develop into something non-human later on. A human embryo exists from the beginning, even if we don’t have the ability to tell what it is from that point.

These are not the only arguments I’ve seen for why life doesn’t begin at fertilization, at least in some cases, but instead at implantation (or sometime near). But these are, I think, three of the most persuasive arguments for the position. As I have shown here, each of the arguments rely on fundamental misunderstandings of some element of human development, whether it’s the biological aspects or the philosophical aspects. Once those misunderstandings are resolved, it remains clear that human life does indeed begin at fertilization.

Are Human Embryos Human Beings from the Beginning?

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Pro-choice advocates will insist that the human embryo doesn’t become a human being until birth or at least sometime late in pregnancy. Pro-life people generally agree with the scientific consensus that human life begins at fertilization; once the ovum cell is fertilized by the sperm cell, a new, genetically distinct human organism comes into existence. But I sometimes come across pro-life advocates who believe human life begins at implantation or around that time, not at fertilization.

As an example, Don Marquis, famous for his essay “Why Abortion is Immoral”, believes the view that human life begins at fertilization to have serious problems (“Abortion and the Beginning and End of Human Life”, Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics 34 (1): 16-25 (2006)). His view of personal identity is animalism (aka the biological view of personal identity), which Eric T. Olson argues convincingly for in his books and articles. But Olson, despite believing we are essentially animals and are identical to the embryo as long as we are biologically continuous with it (in other words, as
long as the embryo develops into me in a continuous fashion), does not believe we are identical to the embryo at the single-cell zygote stage for this reason: he believes human beings become individuals after the potential for twinning is lost. Olson writes:

According to the Biological View, I started out as an embryo. Does that mean that I came into existence at the moment of conception? Not necessarily. The Biological View implies that I came into being whenever this human organism did. But it is unlikely that this human organism came into being at conception — that is, that it started out as a fertilized egg. When a fertilized egg cleaves into two, then four, then eight cells, it does not appear to become a multicellular organism — any more than an amoeba comes to be a multicellular organism when it divides. The resulting cells adhere only loosely, and their growth and other activities are not, at first anyway, coordinated in a way that would make them parts of a multicellular organism. The embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization. (Eric T. Olson, “Was I Ever a Fetus?”, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 57 (1), 95-110, 1997)

Pro-choice philosopher Peter Singer and embryologist Karen Dawson, in an attempt to argue embryonic stem cell research should be pursued, argue an embryo created in a lab is not a human being because it lacks the potential to grow into an older human being on its own. An embryo in a petri dish can survive for about five days and then it will die if not implanted into a uterus. They write,

But can the familiar claims about the potential of the embryo in the uterus be applied to the embryo in culture in the laboratory? Or does the new technology lead to an embryo with a different potential from that of embryos made in the old way? Asking this question leads us to probe the meaning of the term ‘potential’…While the notion of potential may be relatively clear in the context of a naturally occurring process such as the development of an embryo inside a female body, this notion becomes far more problematic when it is extended to a laboratory situation, in which everything depends on our knowledge and skills, and on what we decide to do. This line of argument will lead us to the conclusion that there is no coherent notion of potential which allows the argument from potential to be applied to embryos in laboratories in the way in which those who invoke the argument are seeking to apply it. (Peter Singer and Karen Dawson, “IVF Technology and the Argument from Potential”in Embryo Experimentation: Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues, ed. Peter Singer, et al (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), pp. 76-77, as quoted in J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics, (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2000) p. 270)

Still other people, even some pro-life advocates I’ve talked with, believe that we shouldn’t consider an embryo at fertilization a human being because it can grow into things which aren’t humans, such as an empty sack or a tumor.

All three of these arguments are seriously flawed and reflect a faulty understanding of how human development works. I’ll briefly reply to each argument in turn below.

Olson


Olson believes that the embryo at its earliest stages is not an organism, but rather the organism exists as a unified whole at around sixteen days after fertilization. Now despite the fact that all embryology textbooks place the start of the organism at fertilization and not at any point after that, occasionally you’ll still have people arguing that it’s not an organized individual until after that point. Olson is simply wrong when he says that the embryological facts suggest that a human organism comes into being around sixteen days after fertilization because the entire field of embryology would disagree with him.

He compares the early embryo to an amoeba; as an amoeba does not become a multicellular organism when it divides, neither does the early embryo. But here, Olson is making the same kind of elementary mistake that a pro-choice advocate makes when they assert that sperm and ovum cells are alive but we don’t grant them a right to life, so the embryo doesn’t have a right to life. Olson is confusing the parts of the embryo (the cells) with the whole embryo, itself. An amoeba, by definition, is a unicellular being. So when it divides it only divides into other unicellular beings. And of course, some early embryos have the potential to split when they become twins, and two individuals will exist instead of just one as was the case before the split. So twinning is more comparable to the amoeba splitting. The cells of the embryo dividing are not comparable to the amoeba splitting because these are the cells of the embryo which are dividing while the embryo remains the same kind of thing it has been since day one — a human embryo, whose cells divide because it is in the nature of human beings to grow and develop.

Olson’s other point is that the cells of the embryo are not coordinated in a way that would make them parts of a multicellular organism but only loosely adhere to each other. This is a fairly common claim you hear but it’s simply wrong. Olson is misrepresenting the facts of embryology here. Developmental biologist Michael Buratovich addresses this argument. He writes,

The embryo…prepares for future events. For example, at the two-cell stage, the blastomeres synthesize a cell adhesion protein called E-cadherin. E-cadherin acts like cellular superglue, and the two-cell stage embryo makes it in anticipation of compaction, which occurs two days later. (Michael Buratovich, The Stem Cell Epistles: Letters to My Students About Bioethics, Embryos, Stem Cells, and Fertility Treatments, (Cascade Books, Eugene, OR, 2013), p. 58.)

He also shows, referencing philosophers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, that this idea of Olson’s ignores the goal-directed behaviors of the embryo. There are at least three goals of the embryo: get to the uterus and implant, form the structures necessary for successful implantation, and preserve its structure against the many hazards it might encounter. (Buratovich, ibid.) So the early embryo is still a coordinated whole organism, even at the very early stages of development. Olson is mistaken about the facts of embryology.

Singer and Dawson


Singer and Dawson (hereafter SD) argue that because the embryo conceived in a laboratory is completely dependent upon what we do to it, on our knowledge and skills, this means that the potential of an embryo created in a lab is wholly different from an embryo conceived naturally. But this dubious conclusion they draw from the unique circumstances of the conception of an embryo created in a lab relies on a faulty understanding of potential.

It should be quite obvious that SD’s argument is simply a more sophisticated version of the viability argument. The argument is essentially because an embryo is not viable in a petri dish in a lab, creating an embryo in a lab means that it does not have the same kinds of potential as one who is conceived naturally and relies on the natural processes of the mother’s body. But this shows no such thing. As happens quite often, embryos created in a lab can be implanted into a woman’s uterus and then will continue to develop normally, as if they had been conceived naturally in the woman’s Fallopian tube. This shows clearly that the embryo created in the lab has the same kinds of potentialities that an embryo conceived naturally does. It just will not continue to develop because it is not in an environment in which it can survive. An astronaut on a spacewalk or a deep sea diver swimming in the depths of the ocean are both completely dependent on our knowledge and skills to survive, on the technology they use to survive in those harsh environments. But this certainly wouldn’t justify a view that because they are now in environments in which they can’t ordinarily survive they suddenly have lost the potentialities that other human beings their age possess. In fact, it would be absurd to make that argument. Embryos created in a lab have the same potentialities because they are the same kind of entities — human beings.

Miscellaneous


The final argument I will address is the argument that human life doesn’t begin at fertilization because the embryo can simply grow into an empty sac, or some other kind of entity like a hydatidiform mole. But this argument doesn’t work, either. Whatever is human is human from the very beginning. It’s not the case that a human embryo will develop into an empty sac or a mole. If the entity in the womb is an empty sac or a mole, then it was always an empty sac or a mole. We just weren’t able to detect what it was yet. Even so, an embryo is an embryo from the very beginning, even if we can’t know for sure that it’s an embryo until later on, when the pregnancy can be detected.

Maureen Condic explains it like this,

…it is important to appreciate that simply because two living entities share some common elements or overlap in a sequence of biochemical events, they are not necessarily the same kind of entity.

Distinct biological entities that share some initial molecular events are similar to two musical works that begin with the same notes…For example, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and “The alphabet song” are identical until the fourth measure, yet they are distinct (albeit, very similar) songs. While listening to a CD recording, it would be impossible to determine which work is being performed until the first distinguishing note is heard, yet once this point is past, all prior notes provide clear evidence that a particular song was indeed recorded on the CD and was being played out from the first note. The CD does not begin playing random notes that resolve into a specific song, nor does it begin with one song and later “transform” into the other, nor does it begin playing “both” or “neither” song until the first distinguishing note is produced. From the beginning, it plays the single, specific song that is recorded on the CD. Indeed, prior to the CD being played, a sufficiently detailed examination of the recording (for example, analyzing the data encoded on the disc using a scanning probe atomic force microscope) would determine the precise song it contains without any ambiguity. (Maureen L. Condic, “A Biological Definition of the Human Embryo” in Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, ed. Stephen Napier, (Springer Publishing, Philadelphia, PA, 2011), p. 216, emphases in original)

It’s just simply not the case that the embryo will develop into something non-human later on. A human embryo exists from the beginning, even if we don’t have the ability to tell what it is from that point.

These are not the only arguments I’ve seen for why life doesn’t begin at fertilization, at least in some cases, but instead at implantation (or sometime near). But these are, I think, three of the most persuasive arguments for the position. As I have shown here, each of the arguments rely on fundamental misunderstandings of some element of human development, whether it’s the biological aspects or the philosophical aspects. Once those misunderstandings are resolved, it remains clear that human life does indeed begin at fertilization.