As a conservative Christian, this is a topic that used to embarrass me. Five years ago I never would have even considered writing an article on this topic, but ever since becoming a pro-life advocate, it was a topic that I’ve had to become comfortable with. Mostly because this is an argument that just doesn’t seem to go away.
There are good pro-choice arguments. There are also really lame arguments. This one falls under the latter category. It’s probably made as much for the shock value as it is to argue against pro-life people. Like the silly acorn argument, this argument is not a serious objection to the pro-life position. In fact, it’s a strawman against it. Not only does this objection reveal an ignorance of basic science on the part of the pro-choice person who uses it, it also reveals an ignorance of philosophy. As Scott Klusendorf says, this argument makes the elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes.
The sperm/egg cell (spermatozoon/ovum)
I’ve decided to begin this article with a basic embryology lesson. I’m not an embryologist, but this is basic information that anyone should know. So I don’t presume to speak as an expert, but this information will become important when I reach the philosophy section of this article.
The egg and sperm cells are individual cells produced by the mother and father’s bodies, respectively. They are called haploid cells, each cell containing 23 chromosomes. When the two combine and the fertilization process begins, each contributes their 23 chromosomes and form a diploid cell, a zygote, which contains 23 pairs of chromosomes for a total of 46 (a combination of the chromosomes from the sperm and the egg). The sperm cell is a product of the father, containing genetic information that will be contributed to the new zygote, and the egg cell is a product of the mother, containing genetic information that will be contributed to the new zygote. Although the fusion of the sperm and the egg develop into a zygote, the sperm and the egg technically cease to exist at fertilization. They lose their identity as a sperm and egg and become a brand new human individual. If left alone, the sperm and the egg will eventually die.
We all began life as a human zygote. Embryologist Keith L. Moore, in his textbook The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition (Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003. p. 16), states: “Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” A human zygote begins as a single diploid cell, but as with all living things, her cells soon start to divide and she grows, developing along the path of human development into a more mature version of herself. If left alone, she will continue to grow and develop as all human beings do.
Law of Identity
There is a fundamental law of philosophy, a First Principle, called the Law of Identity. Aristotle wrote of the Law of Identity as follows: “Again, if ‘man’ has one meaning, let this be ‘two-footed animal’, by having one meaning I understand this — if ‘man’ means ‘X’, then if A is a man ‘X’ will be what ‘being a man’ means for him” (Metaphysics, Book IV, Part 4). J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae (Body and Soul, InterVaristy Press Acadmic, Downer’s Grove, Il., 2000, p. 56) explain it this way: “Everything is identical to itself and thus shares all properties in common with itself. If we can find one thing true (or possibly true) of x not true (or possibly not true) of y or vice versa, then x is not identical to y.”
A property is just an attribute, characteristic, or quality of a thing (ibid., p. 51). There are different kinds of properties, but that is unimportant for this article. Take a particular property I have, being Caucasian. The Law of Identity states that if I, Clinton Wilcox, am Caucasian, then if Clinton Wilcox is the same person as Suzanne DeMarco’s oldest living son, then Suzanne DeMarco’s oldest living son is Caucasian (I have adapted the previous example from Moreland and Rae’s book, Body and Soul).
Put simply, if there is something true of x (say, a given sperm) and y (say, the zygote that will result from the fertilization), then the sperm and the zygote cannot be the same entity. There is at least one thing true of the zygote that is not true of the sperm, which is the property of having 46 chromosomes. A sperm only has 23, whereas the single-celled zygote has 46, so they cannot be the same entity (and there are other differences, as well).
Pro-choice philosopher David Benatar (Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, Oxford University Press: Oxford, New York, 2006, p.134) also finds the following problem with this argument: “Prior to conception there is only a sperm and an ovum. As these are both necessary for bringing somebody into existence, but because they are distinct entities prior to conception, they cannot be identical with the being that will be brought into existence. Two cannot be identical with one. Thus we cannot speak of a new organism as having come into existence prior to conception. Put another way, each one of us was once a zygote, but none of us was ever a sperm or an (unfertilized) ovum.” Anyone who makes this argument not only defies science, but pro-choice philosophers, as well.
Parts vs. Wholes
As mentioned above, Scott Klusendorf makes the observation that this argument commits a very elementary mistake of confusing parts with wholes. The sperm and egg are parts of the parent organism, the mother and father that conceive the new human being. They are produced by the parent organism for a very specific purpose, procreation.
Conversely, the new human organism that results from fertilization is her own unique individual, with her own functional parts that work toward the good of the whole organism, even from the single-cell stage.
So in no sense of the word are unborn human beings and sperm or eggs comparable. This is just another silly pro-choice argument that is not likely to die but is easy to rebut. If we could do away with the bad arguments and stick to the good ones, there would be many more productive conversations on the issue.