“I’m hiding.” “You can’t see me.” The toddler’s cuteness tickles us when she closes or covers her eyes and suddenly becomes absent or invisible. Eventually she’ll understand what we already know: object permanence and physical continuity. Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s missing. Yet neither our Supreme Court nor most American news media have applied this elementary idea to unborn persons. Even after millennia of history and billions of pregnancies, they remain confused about just what’s in an expectant woman’s womb. Surely they’d like to learn, since law has a duty to identify rights and protect people, and media assumes the duty of informing us of facts. Perhaps preschoolers can teach them about object permanence: if “me” comes out, then “me” was carried in there all along.
The Christian Scriptures supply exactly that answer. “[Y]ou knitted me together in my mother’s womb … when I was being made in secret … Your eyes saw my unformed substance” (Psalm 139:13-16a). “Did you not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese? You clothed me with skin and flesh, and knit me together with bones and sinews” (Job 10:10-11). “And the angel answered [Mary] … ‘the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).
Science, of course, agrees and confirms it.* It takes less than a quarter of a second for a sperm’s membrane to fuse with an egg’s surface. This mingling of materials produces a new cell and another human being—the zygote. She has a unique genetic identity, distinct from sperm and egg and father and mother. The sperm’s 23 chromosomes added to the egg’s 23 comprise her own full complement of 46. Her individual DNA “signature” or “fingerprint” directs her whole development and does not change at any point through birth and growth to death. She belongs entirely and exclusively to the species Homo sapiens. She has never been nor will ever become any other kind of creature.
Already she exhibits all the biological criteria for living. She reacts to external stimuli, metabolizes or manages resources to generate energy for herself, and multiplies her own cells. In fact, from the first moment she operates as a separate and self-integrated organism. She undergoes development, an orderly sequence and organized pattern progressing toward the mature human form. Her cells do not stagnantly manufacture aimless copies or tangled tumors; they fashion tissues, structures, organs, and systems. She will repair damage to restore and preserve her body’s parts and processes. Mere cells will continue to divide and tumors keep multiplying after injury, but even the earliest embryo will replace precisely what it was deprived of and proceed with development. She will adapt to variations in her environment as well. In rare cases, healthy babies have been carried to term and birth even after implanting abnormally in their mother’s abdomen, liver, or ovary. And the embryo will also coordinate all her functions. Immediately on day one, her operations start coordinating and her components get cooperating. Though different cells each have particular ways of working, they all serve the single, united, and overall goal of the whole body surviving and thriving.
So microscopic zygotes and embryos may not resemble adult human beings. They may not yet carry out any recognizably human activities. Nevertheless, scientific observations define them as nothing other than human lives, worthy of the same respect the Scriptures assign us all. They look and act exactly like a human being ought to in these beginning stages of her growth. What dwells and develops in pregnant wombs is no clump of cells, product of conception, parasite, piece of mother’s body, or potential anything. This little one is a full-fledged human being, made in the image of God and saved by the incarnation of Jesus Christ, to whom the Holy Spirit shows grace and in whom He creates faith. She is our neighbor and, God willing, His beloved child—a dear sister to us.
*I am indebted for this information to an unpublished article, “What Is An Embryo, and Why Does It Merit Respect?” by Dr. Maureen Condic of University of Utah School of Medicine, delivered fall 2015 in a panel discussion convened by LCMS Life Ministry, St. Louis, Missouri. Further support comes from At Every Stage: Abortion, Euthanasia, Embryo Research, and the Right to Life, published 2015 by Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, Minneapolis, Minneapolis.