Commentary

End of ‘Clump of Cells’ Argument: Autonomous Life in Womb Proves Personhood Starts at Conception

By John Stonestreet | February 9, 2017 | 11:40am EST
Unborn baby human (AP Photo)

Can we finally give the myth that an unborn baby is “just a clump of cells” a decent burial?

Yesterday Eric Metaxas told you about a manipulative article from The Atlantic that heaps scorn on the pro-life movement’s use of ultrasound technology to show pregnant women and others the humanity of the unborn child.

Just as a refresher, in the piece, author Moira Weigel shares such gems as this: “The technology has been used to create an ‘imaginary’ heartbeat and sped-up videos that falsely depict a response to stimulus.” Katie Couric thinks kids can feel gender in the womb, but an actual heartbeat is just a “stimulus?”

And here’s another utterly baseless claim from the article: “Ultrasound made it possible for the male doctor to evaluate the fetus without female interference.” Huh? What if the OB/GYN is a female?!

We shouldn’t be surprised by irrational attempts to undermine the cause for life. The case for life is stronger than ever. The abortion rate is down, and those who profit from abortion aren’t happy.

So they’re probably not going to be popping the corks off their champagne bottles when they read a fascinating new article in Public Discourse by Ana Maria Dumitru. It’s called “Science, Embryonic Autonomy, and the Question of When Life Begins.”

What is “embryonic autonomy,” you ask? According to a recent study, titled “Self-organization of the human embryo in the absence of maternal tissues,” human embryos from the earliest stages of life can direct their own development—in or out of the womb.  Why is this important? Here’s how Dumitru, who is a fifth-year M.D./Ph.D. candidate at Dartmouth, explains it:

“As scientists, my colleagues must concede that embryos are made up of living cells, but they don’t accept the embryo as a living organism. If the early embryo is ‘just a clump of cells,’ then you can justify abortion. By this logic, it’s not an autonomous being, and it’s definitely not a human person yet. It’s just a few cells growing in the mother’s body, and so the mother can choose to get rid of those cells if she wants to.”

The problem for this view, Dumitru writes, is that so-called “clumps” whether in a uterus or in a lab, don’t behave like clumps of cells. Instead, they appear to act independently, or autonomously, of any signals from the mother’s body, whether in or out of the womb. And “clumps” don’t do that.

As Ana Maria explains, “This one little cell, with its complete genetic content, can and does begin to divide and to grow, even in an experimental dish in an incubator in the closet space of some unmarked lab. … That means, as we suspected, embryos know what they’re supposed to do to live, and they try to live, whether they’re in their mother or not.”

And it means not only that the embryo is a living being, but that it’s a person. This demolishes another argument for legal abortion, that the unborn may be living, but not yet persons—in other words, deserving of legal protection.

But the research Dumitru cites undercuts this contention by showing that embryo autonomy and personhood are “interchangeable terms,” because although the embryo’s capacities—which pro-choicers say are necessary for personhood—are not yet fully developed, they are clearly in fact already present. They require no signals from the mother to develop, only nourishment—which of course we all need.

Ultimately, all this comes down, again, to worldview. As Dumitru says, “It’s time to own up to the truth. Science has already affirmed what we have long since suspected: we can call them fertilized eggs, zygotes, blastocysts, products of conception, or fetuses, but that doesn’t change reality. And the reality is this: they are autonomous humans from the very beginning.”

John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.

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