Conceiving of Conception

20 04 2011

By: Karen Frantz

An eight-cell embryo

An eight-cell embryo

One point of conflict between pro-life and pro-choice communities is the issue of personhood. At what point does (or should) life have the same moral and legal weight as any of the rest of us?

The answer may vary dramatically from person to person because how to see the issue is largely dependent on an individual’s values, religion, personal experience, community’s values, and other factors. Therefore, answers may range from personhood starting at the moment of conception, to the moment of birth, to even a time after that.

A particularly problematic belief in exclusive terms of public policy is that personhood starts at the moment of conception. This belief – usually based on religious values — has prompted many states, including Montana, Georgia, and Mississippi, to introduce legislation that would designate the start of personhood at the moment of conception. If enacted, such a law would not only have implications for abortion, but may have additional far-reaching – and likely unintended — consequences as well.

To understand why requires some understanding of conception and how it is different from pregnancy. Conception is the point at which a sperm fertilizes an egg. However, conception is not the same thing as pregnancy, which begins once the embryo implants in the uterine wall, usually a week later.

It is important to note that it’s common for embryos to never implant, and for a variety of reasons. For example, hormonal birth control and the morning after pill can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. Moreover, natural malformations in the embryo — and even too much caffeine or alcohol — can do the same thing. Some estimates put the number of embryos that never implant and are simply flushed out of the woman’s system at 60 to 80 percent.

Thus, the simple occurrence of conception does not automatically mean a pregnancy will result – nor does it mean it’s even particularly likely a pregnancy will result.

If personhood is legally set at the moment of conception, logically that would mean not only could abortion would be outlawed, but also could anything that could result in the failure for a fertilized egg to implant. I’m certain that there are a number of people would wouldn’t mind seeing birth control outlawed – the Catholic Church has wrestled with this issue for quite some time. However, I imagine the numbers are far less for those that think sexually active women, including those trying to get pregnant, should be legally forbidden coffee.

But how best to convince people who may have deeply held moral or religious beliefs personhood starts at conception against such personhood initiatives?

I first learned of the likelihood of failure of a fertilized egg from implanting from a 2004 article in the libertarian magazine, Reason. The article, written by Ronald Bailey (full disclosure: Bailey is a family friend), is focused on the implications for stem cell research and poses an interesting thought experiment:

A fire breaks out in a fertility clinic and you have a choice: You can save a three-year-old child or a Petri dish containing 10 seven-day old embryos. Which do you choose to rescue?

He then goes on to make a compelling argument against equating an embryo with a fully formed adult – one that is particularly interesting because it takes on the religious argument for personhood on its own terms.

Stepping onto dangerous theological ground, it seems that if human embryos consisting of one hundred cells or less are the moral equivalents of a normal adult, then religious believers must accept that such embryos share all of the attributes of a human being, including the possession of an immortal soul. So even if we generously exclude all of the naturally conceived abnormal embryos—presuming, for the sake of theological argument, that imperfections in their gene expression have somehow blocked the installation of a soul—that would still mean that perhaps 40 percent of all the residents of Heaven were never born, never developed brains, and never had thoughts, emotions, experiences, hopes, dreams, or desires.

As Professor Nisbet has taught us this semester, you are very unlikely to challenge firmly held beliefs by reciting the contradicting science alone. You additionally need to foster trust, understand the morals and values that drive belief, and be able to actually find the proper avenues of communication (i.e. it will be easier to have your message actually be seen by conservative television viewers on Fox News than it will be on MSNBC).

I’m not certain that Bailey is likely to convince those who support personhood initiatives based on religious values that he’s right. On the one hand, Reason magazine may have the trust needed to attract a number of conservative readers due to its outlook on business and free markets. But on the other hand, with a more progressive outlook on social issues, it may not attract the social conservatives that hold the beliefs he’s trying to challenge.

However, his is a far different argument from what most pro-choice or pro-stem cell research organizations have used, which tend to focus exclusively on women’s reproductive rights or the moral imperative to look for cures for debilitating illness. Although those frames may go to some lengths to attract those on the fence, I do think Bailey starts in a better place, which is to engage believers on their turf, using their own frames.

In other words, this is one issue area where preaching to the choir is in your advantage.

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