Years ago, I got into a brief argument with a pro-choice blogger (henceforth designated PCB) that went roughly like this:
PCB: If anti-abortion activists are so damned concerned about microscopic embryos, they should also be concerned about the millions of sperm that are discarded on a regular basis.
Me: Your comment is biologically incorrect. An embryo is completely distinct from a spermatozoon.
PCB: I disagree.
Me: So basically, you disagree with the entire science of embryology?
Here are the facts:
A spermatozoon contains half the human complement of chromosomes, as does the ovum. Neither the sperm nor the ovum can develop into a human being without the input of another gamete cell; thus, neither the sperm nor the ovum can be considered “human” in the strictest sense.
However, according to many widely-used medical texts, when a sperm and ovum meet at the moment of fertilization, their chromosomes combine to form a genetically distinct member of the human species. This zygote will not change course one day and develop into a fish — and he is not identical to his mother. Though his mother may have brown eyes, the zygote may possess the genes for blue eyes. Though his mother may be Type O+, the zygote may be Type A+. Though his mother is (obviously) female, the zygote may be genetically male. To say that this zygote can be equated to the haploid sperm is 100% scientifically false. To say that this zygote is simply another part of the mother’s body is just as wrong.
If you want to draw a bright line in the sand, nothing fits the bill better than conception. Before conception, no unique life exists; after conception, there is such a life. Granted, it is true that many such zygotes die natural deaths before the moment of birth – natural miscarriages are a fact of life – but this reality does not justify the deliberate destruction of extremely young unborn human individuals. In the course of human history, countless millions have died in natural catastrophes – fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, plagues, etc. Does this mean we have a right to deliberately precipitate a disaster in order to cull the herd? No – nature is not prescriptive.
But what about birth? Is birth another bright line? No. In reality, a late-term fetus and a neonate have much in common. Fetal psychology is a young science, but researchers have already determined that, at the very least, a fetus of “viable” age can learn and remember. Did you know, for example, that newborn babies cry with an accent? In utero, a fetus is already learning the rhythms and melodies of his native tongue. He is also learning to recognize his mother’s voice. These are the very first steps in the process of human language acquisition, and they happen before birth, which indicates that the fetal brain is something more than a mere vegetative organ. It seems perverse to suggest, then, that an accident of mere location should determine whether a baby is “worthy” of protection.
(Next up: the problem with drawing the line at “sapience” or “independence”.)