The Magically Disappearing Person

It is the contention of pro-lifers that the fertilized egg, the zygote, is a human being in miniature. Such an entity is an individual, a person, a soul. By all accounts, it would be normal for a pro-lifer to exclaim, “My life began when I was a zygote.” Seems reasonable, right? The problem is that a single fertilized egg “person” can become two or more people and two embryonic “people” can merge and form one person.

Imagine this scenario.

Let’s say a scientist creates two human embryos in a laboratory. He then merges them. Two embryos become one. According to the pro-lifers, before the embryos merged they existed as two separate people, two “souls.” When the two “souls” merge, what happens to them? Is one killed? If so, where is the corpse? Should the doctor be tried for the murder of the one “person” who apparently no longer exists?

For the sake of the argument, let’s say that the doctor videotaped the event so there is definite proof that he merged the two embryos. He also filmed himself implanting the merged embryo into the body of a woman. Nine months later, the woman gave birth to one distinct individual baby.

Perhaps a pro-lifer would argue that no death occurred when the two embryos merged, that the one human baby is in reality two people, one physical organism that exists as two separate, distinct souls, as it were. I think everyone can agree that this is absurd.

More than likely, the pro-lifer will attempt an intellectual sleight-of-hand and evade the issue by claiming that it’s obvious that the two embryos merged to form one person. What they are hoping for is that you forget their claim that an embryo is a real, honest-to-God person and that therefore two embryos are two people. If the two embryos are two people and they merge into one person, someone has died, correct? If so, then by logic the dead person needs to be accounted for. If no death occurred, then at least one of the embryos was not even an organism, much less a person.

The only logical answer is that neither are people. They are recipes for one or more human organisms. When two embryos merge, the recipes blend together and form one recipe for one organism. When twins are created by embryos dividing, the one recipe, the zygote or early embryo, creates two organisms that will become two people.

So how does one determine when life begins? It’s actually simpler than one might think. One starts by being very precise and very thorough about what one means by the term “life.”

One can talk about any cell in the human body as being alive, meaning capable of movement and replication. When the pro-lifers refer to life my impression is they mean something that is both alive and capable of developing into an organism. Of course, by this definition all our cells are very close to being people since science will no doubt soon be able to clone someone from any somatic cell.

A better way to think of life is to define it according to its nature or type in the following manner:

The genetic life, the recipe, for a human organism begins when the egg cell gains its full complement of 46 chromosomes, give or take, through fertilization, distinguishing itself from an ordinary “dead” somatic cell. A natural recipe for a human organism is called a zygote in its earliest stage and a pre-implantation embryo at its later stage. A cloned cell that starts to form an embryo could also be considered a recipe, although not a unique one.

The biological life of a human organism, that is the life of an individual, begins at implantation, at the point of embryonic development where the individual embryo cannot merge with another embryo and cannot sub-divide to become more than one embryo. If it can merge and sub-divide then obviously it is not an organism yet but merely a recipe.

The legal life of an individual human organism begins at birth (or at the very least at a time where birth is possible). Birth is a climatic and definitive experience, one that separates the body of the fetus from the body of the mother, liberating both from the exclusive relationship of parasite and host, and the mother from the threat of death and maiming that pregnancy and childbirth always entail. The mother, if she does not want the infant, is free to abandon it without killing it. The infant can now be adopted by those who are willing to accept the costs of its dependency.

Birth is a proper dividing line for a society that claims to value freedom.

I suggest that the right-to-lifer intuitively believes something close to what I have outlined above because that inference is reflected in their actions. If I’m wrong, then perhaps one might ask this question: Why does the unborn “person” “magically disappear” from the radar of right-to-lifers once it is outside of a woman’s body, either spontaneously aborted or removed and kept frozen in a tank? My essays The Forgotten Unborn and The End of Pro-Life explore this question.

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© 2005 Laura J. Rift. All rights reserved.