When ‘Pregnant’ Is Not the Same as ‘When Life Begins’

by Wesley J. Smith

Jonah: You are right about the Washington Post’s fallacious attempt to discredit Rubio’s statement about when human life begins. Mollie covers this, but I think it should be made clear here that the Post’s unfactual “fact check” involved the old bias game of ”let’s switch the question.”

Rubio said human life begins at conception, e.g., when fertilization is complete. But the Post writer asked a different question: “When does pregnancy begin?” Those are not necessary synonyms.

The definition of pregnancy was changed for political reasons by many medical/scientific organizations to the time of implantation. But human life begins before implantation. Indeed, an unimplanted embryo already has its own unique genome and its sex has been determined. In other words, it is a new human life regardless of whether his or her mother is defined as “pregnant.”

It is easiest to visualize this with IVF. A new human being is created in a Petri dish in IVF. The woman into whose uterus the embryo(s) will be implanted isn’t yet pregnant. But the embryos are alive and they are human, e.g., human life has begun.

Moreover, we know that the myth of implantation as the point where life begins is not scientific. Princeton biologist Lee Silver copped to this in his book Remaking Eden, in which he discusses the unscientific term “pre-embryo,” often used to justify using human embryos instrumentally. Sayeth Silver:

I’ll let you in on a secret. The term pre-embryo has been embraced wholeheartedly . . . for reasons that are political, not scientific. The new term is used to provide the illusion that there is something profoundly different between what we nonmedical biologists still call a six-day old embryo [the blastocyst] and what we and everyone else call a sixteen-day old embryo [an embryo that has begun to develop differentiated tissues].

The term pre-embryo is useful in the political arena—where decisions are made about whether to allow early embryo (now called pre-embryo) experimentation—as well as in the confines of a doctor’s office, where it can be used to allay moral concerns that might be expressed by IVF patients. “Don’t worry,” a doctor might say, “ it’s only pre-embryos that we’re manipulating and freezing. They won’t turn into real human embryos until after we’ve put them back in your body.

Embryology textbooks clearly state that life begins at the point fertilization is complete and that, scientifically, there is no such thing as a pre-embryo. Thus, the authors of Human Embryology and Teratology, an embryology textbook, in the name of scientific accuracy, place the term “pre-embryo” under the categorization, “Undesirable Term in Human Embryology,” further asserting that “embryo” is the accurate and hence, “preferable term.” They write further (my emphasis):

The term “pre-embryo” is not used here [in their book] for the following reasons: (1) it is ill-defined; (2) it is inaccurate…(3) it is unjustified because the accepted meaning of the world embryo includes all of the first 8 weeks; (4) it is equivocal because it may convey the erroneous idea that a new human organism is formed at only some considerable time after fertilization; and (5) it was introduced in 1986 “largely for public policy reasons.”

Rubio was correct. The Post was wrong and biased. But what else is new?