When Life Begins

Many eyes were on Mississippi today as they ventured out to cast their vote in the important “personhood legislation” known as Initiative 26, stating that personhood begins when an egg is fertilized by a sperm. It is a polarizing piece of legislation that has led to harsh rhetoric from a variety of angles. I have not followed this story very closely, but one article that I read today enraged and saddened me.

Arthur Caplan is the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. He wrote an opinion piece posted on msnbc.com regarding the implications of this amendment. He states:

“Fertilized eggs could be granted human rights, depending on how Mississippi voters cast their ballots Tuesday on Initiative 26. The ballot measure, otherwise known as the "personhood" amendment, proposes to amend the state's constitution to redefine "person" to include "every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof." Among other things, it could mean that couples who have turned to fertility clinics for help becoming parents won’t be allowed to ever destroy their unused fertilized eggs.”

And this, he says, is in direct opposition to science—namely what we know about the conception process. Fertilized eggs cannot be considered human beings, in his opinion, because science does not allow for it. Science, he says, only calls a fertilized egg an embryo when it implants successfully in the uterus. And even then it’s not a baby yet.

What’s even more troubling about his conclusions is the fact that he brings miscarriage, stillbirth, and fetal death into his argument. He asserts that because nearly half of all pregnancies do not result in a living, breathing baby, those “fertilized eggs” were never really human after all. Using disappointed parents as his example, he says:

“Sadly, all too many couples know about the high rate of spontaneous abortion and stillbirth that haunts embryonic and fetal development. Roughly, one in six embryos will spontaneously abort or produce fetuses that do not develop properly and die in utero.”

Perhaps the most saddening statement of all, he further adds:

“Medicine and science know very well what many millions of heart-broken would be parents around the world know first-hand: To call all embryos “persons” flies in the face of spontaneous abortion, stillbirth and fetal death.”

What? How does calling a miscarried or stillborn baby “fly in the face” of this death? As a mother who has lost a child through miscarriage, I resent the sentiment that my loss proves to me (and the scientific community) that the baby I was carrying was actually nothing more than an ill-formed, fertilized egg. And I don’t know any woman who has experienced pregnancy loss who has felt what Mr. Caplan seems to think is the norm.

The problem with his views, and the views of many who dismiss pregnancy loss as a product of nature running its course, is that their views are informed by cold scientific theories rather than God’s word.

Psalm 139:3-4 and Jeremiah 1:5 were a great source of comfort to me in the days following our loss. God’s word taught me that our baby, even though he was still in the early stages of development, was known and loved by the God who created him. These verses, and the entire Bible, speak to the reality that so many mothers know to be true—life matters to God.

If we don’t define personhood from the beginning (at fertilization) then when does it begin? When there is a heartbeat? When the baby starts moving? When a woman sees those wonderful blue lines confirming pregnancy, she doesn’t tell her family and friends that she is carrying a fertilized egg (though according to Mr. Caplan that is the scientific name for it). She announces that she is pregnant with a baby, not a blob of tissue waiting to be developed into a person. When she finds out the gender of her baby, even though the baby cannot live outside of the womb, she names him or her. To her, this baby is loved, cared for, and wanted.

What Mr. Caplan fails to realize in his piece is that for the parents who lose children at various stages of pregnancy the loss is felt acutely—and often stays with them for a lifetime. My baby was not a fertilized egg that failed to develop, Mr. Caplan. My baby was a life, known by God and loved by his parents. He was a person at the moment of conception.