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Hullabaloo


Monday, November 07, 2011

 
The Irrelevant Science of Eggs and Embyros
by David Atkins

It's almost painful to engage the Right on the science of prenatal development, because that's not really where the passion of so-called "conservatives" actually lies. Anti-choice conservatives come in four sometimes overlapping camps:

1) The seriously hardcore misogynists who want women to be little more than vessels to carry babies. This is actually a fairly small minority of the movement, but these are the folks who are against not only abortion, but birth control and abortion even in cases of rape or incest. These people would still be branding women with scarlet letters if they had the chance. The abortion issue isn't about babies for them. It's about controlling women and sexuality.

2) The pro-punishment crowd that sees sex as inherently evil and carries around a softer version of the first group's misogyny. These folks tend to support birth control as a way for married people to plan families, and allow for abortion in cases of rape and incest because it "wasn't the woman's fault." This is actually the vast majority of the conservative base, who take the same punishment-and-reward attitude toward sex and pregnancy that they take to economics, unemployment, the death penalty and healthcare. Women who get pregnant should have crossed their legs, otherwise they "deserve" to be pregnant. If they were raped, well, then they tried to cross their legs, so they get a free pass on that one. For these people, the fetus is really irrelevant: it's not about "life," but about control. But unlike the first group, the control in question is less women's bodies per se (though it does come down to that in the end), than about ensuring the function of a cosmic punishment-and-reward mechanism in the sky, where everyone gets their "just reward" for their behavior. Women who wait until marriage for sex should be "rewarded" for their "virtue" by having planned pregnancies; women who have looser sexual behavior should be "punished" for their "sin" by having unplanned pregnancies and contracting venereal diseases. That's the way the world works for them. Easy access to HPV vaccines and abortion upsets their grand merit-based cosmic order.

3) The actual Bible-thumper crowd. A lot of these people obviously overlap with groups 1 and 2, but there is a segment of people who are legitimately convinced that all these little eggs and fetuses are imbued with a soul by the magic Creator, and that there is an unsung massacre ongoing everyday on a par with the Nazi Holocaust. These folks seem a little crazy to the first two groups, because they actually believe the religious rhetoric that simply serves as cover for the misogynistic social control that most conservatives use the abortion debate to enforce. But the people motivated less by misogyny than by genuine religious fervor are out there, and shouldn't be easily discounted as members of the first two groups.

4) The idiots who just follow along with whatever their "pro-life" pastor, youth group leader or similar charlatan says is the right thing to believe. They don't have strong convictions about these things, but everyone else in their social group seems to have anti-choice beliefs, so they might as well, too.

So it's almost useless to debate the actual scientific merits of conception, fetal development and abortion, because almost no one on the other side of the issue actually seems to care about it at all. The only people who really care are conflicted liberals who are mostly pro-choice, but a little uncomfortable with an absolutist statement that a woman can do with a fetus whatever she wants right up until birth. But in the vain hope that maybe a handful of people out there might actually care, here's what the actual science says:

It is true that for centuries science has shown that all human beings begin as fertilized eggs. But it is not true that all fertilized eggs can or do produce human beings. In fact, it is so utterly wrong to say that every fertilized egg is a person, that to even suggest that science provides support for enacting the initiative is utterly absurd.

What are the odds of a fertilized egg becoming a person?

This is what we know: During the period of embryonic development that begins with fertilization and ends with successful implantation, about 50 percent of human conceptions fail to survive. The main reason for this high failure rate is the inability of huge numbers of fertilized eggs to implant.

What science has found is that around half of all conceptions don't make it to implantation. Calling a fertilized egg a person flies in the face of this cruel biological reality. Half of all fertilized eggs cannot even become an embryo, much less a person.

Indeed, given the grim odds that face fertilized eggs, no one in science or medicine refers to a fertilized egg as an embryo unless it manages to implant. By talking about embryos and fertilized eggs as equivalent, supporters of Initiative 26 are not even using the correct scientific definition of an embryo.

If the rest of the story of human reproduction -- as medicine and science know the facts to be -- is brought to bear, things only get worse for Initiative 26.

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.

There are a huge number of embryos that are not properly genetically programmed for life. Nearly all of these completely lack the biological ability to develop into anything resembling a viable baby. Legislation -- like that about to be voted on in Mississippi -- that declares fertilized eggs to be persons from the moment of conception simply ignores that the failure rate of human embryos is very high. A considerable number of embryos and fetuses never have any chance of producing a baby.

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.

In the push to declare fertilized eggs “persons” advocates claim science is on their side. But it is only by ignoring what science has learned about the long odds that face fertilized eggs that anyone could even suggest that a fertilized egg is a person.

If the people of Mississippi choose to pass a law stating that fertilized eggs are people, it will simply be more proof that they don't really care about the science of fetal development or personhood. One can even be anti-abortion, and realize the idiocy and potentially horrible legal consequences of personifying a fertilized egg.

It will simply be more proof that the "pro-life" crowd doesn't really care about "life"--not even the "life" of a fetus. Because that's never what any of this was really about in the first place.


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