You Don’t Get This Sort of Stuff in Scientific Journals

25 Oct

Everyone has that one teacher. You know the one. The teacher that is such an inspiration that you’d thank him or her upon receipt of an Emmy or Nobel. I had several of them. But other than one great chemistry teacher, I can’t say any of them taught science. I’m willing to say that it could have just been me. I had some great math teachers, but they went right past me as well. Had math been taught as a language, my life would have been different, I believe. Math IS a language that explains science. And science is what they do on MythBusters. And I can get down with some MythBusters.

Chuck and I recently watched a PBS program on arctic dinosaurs and learned more about biology and geology in one hour than we learned in 17 years of schooling. Bill Bryson and John Polkinghorne have taught me about astronomy, paleontology, and quantum physics. Mary Roach taught me about cadavers and is now schooling me on the afterlife. Later in the week, she and I will be going to outer space. I get around.

I’m reading Roach’s book Spook, which is about what science thinks about the afterlife. I’ve just finished the section she devotes to ectoplasm. Ectoplasm, as any good GhostBuster knows, is the slime that ghosts leave behind. Or something. Ectoplasm was really big around the turn of the century and on into the 1920s. Your more highfalutin theatrical mediums used everything from cheesecloth to, well, animal entrails to approximate ectoplasm. They would secret away the effluvia to, well, um…here’s an excerpt:

And now I’m going to pass the microphone to William McDougall. For how many chances do we have to hear a Harvard professor hold forth on vaginally extruded extoplasm? “There is good evidence that ‘ectoplasm’ issues, or did issue on some and probably all occasions [from] on particular ‘opening in the anatomy’ (i.e. the vagina),” allowed McDougall in his summary statement for Scientific American. “The more interesting question is–How did it come to be within ‘the anatomy’? There was nothing to show that its position there and its extrusion from that place were achieved by other than normal means.” In other words–please forgive me–she stuck it up there and then she pulled it out.

I’ll just leave it at that, okay? That’s not even the part that struck me as really interesting. It has never occurred to me that conception was “discovered”.  I know, I know. I really SHOULD have paid more attention in science class. I vaguely remember the name Antoni van Leeuwenhoek and, if pressed, could probably have remembered mostly on my own that he had something to do with microscopes. I could not have remembered, however, his sperm work. He and these other science dudes thought sperm contained a tiny, tiny, tiny person. Eggs, well, they were there, certainly. Any farmer knows the importance of eggs, but only as vehicle or incubator. Leeuwenhoek actually tried to peel back the tiny green curtain of  spermatozoa and find the tiny person inside them.

Then a bunch of stuff happens and we learn how babies get here. Please, you don’t read me for my sparkling scientific commentary.

My curiosity was piqued when Roach mentioned a philosopher and Catholic priest, Norman Ford. In 1988, Ford wrote a book called When Did I Begin? I looked the book up and he got my attention in the  first paragraph. Ford writes, “As a lecturer in moral philosophy and in the philosophy of the human person, it has always been important for me to know when a human person begins. In cases of rape it was necessary to know how long after the attack it was morally permissible to attempt to prevent a human embryo originating as a result of violence. This knowledge was crucial in differentiating morally between actions that prevented conception and those whose effect was really abortifacient.”

Wait, what?

Ford goes on to argue that personhood (generally referred to as “ensoulment”) does not begin until the point that identical twinning is no longer possible. That’s about two weeks after conception. For a religious person, the question was what happens to the soul if the soul arrives at conception, but the the zygote goes on to become twins? Ford believes twins need not do with half a soul. Because that zygote could become two distinct people with distinct souls, Ford says, “[T]he cell cluster can best be understood as human biological material but not a unified living human organism.”

Later–and hold on to your garters for this one–he writes, “Any philosophical theory that places the beginning of the human person at fertilization needs to be examined if it appears to conflict with the facts of modern biology.” He says that to uncover the philosophical truth of the beginning of a human person, we cannot be afraid of science.

Look, I know these words can be used against me. In fact Mary Warnock, who wrote a later introduction to Ford’s book, is responsible for the UK’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act. Among other things, this law specifies when abortion is legal and banned research using human embryos more than 14 days old.

So what’s my point?

I do not believe I was a person from the moment of fertilization. Let’s assume for a second there is a God or some force God-like. God has made me more than the sum of my parts. I think, I feel. I have emotions. Oh, do I have emotions. (Sorry, honey!!) I have a conscience and I have consciousness. Calling the product of fertilization a person strips away the very foundation of what makes us human. If you want to say life begins at conception, fine. Cells dividing is life. It’s what happens when you grow tomatoes. A living thing, a pistil, is combined with another living thing, a stamen. Do it right and you get baby tomatoes. But do you slice up the flower of the plant and put it on a bacon sandwich and call it a tomato? No, because it’s not a tomato. Could you? Sure. But that’s be a BLF, not a BLT.

A sperm is a living thing. An egg is a living thing. Together they make a clump of cells. If all goes well, and it’s estimated that it does only 50% of the time, the clump gets implanted. Is it a person? Nope. It’s a zygote. Then it’s a blastocyst. The blastocyst, by the way, has an inner cellular mass that produces the embryo. The outer layer forms the placenta. So if this zygote–this fertilized egg- is a person, why are we getting rid of the placenta? Is it not worthy of exultation too? Some people bury it. Some people eat it. Most of the time it’s incinerated as medical waste. But why? Is that placenta not a person too?

You know why that sounds ridiculous? Because it is. Just as ridiculous as making human life about nothing more than a clump of cells. The question of what makes us human, what makes us people, is not something that can be legislated. If you believe abortion, birth control, IVF is wrong because you define a person as a lump of cellular material, that’s fine. You don’t have to take birth control pills or have an IUD, get IVF should you not be able to conceive by other means, or have an abortion. But don’t tell me that I can’t. It is not your business.

Personhood should be a philosophical question, not a political one. You want to make a fetus a person? Are you going to change the drinking age to 20 and 3 months? Can we now vote at 17 and 3 months? Drive at 15 and 3 months? What if I go past my due date? How do we figure that out then? Will my embryo get counted in the census? Does this mean we get more politicians to represent these zygotes? Because that’s just what we need. We absolutely need politicians who are concerned with nothing but zygotes so we can finally get a few to represent the rest of us. The humans. The living. The tax payers.

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5 Responses to “You Don’t Get This Sort of Stuff in Scientific Journals”

  1. Noel Holston October 26, 2011 at 9:34 am #

    Beautifully argued, both funny and respectful. I couldn’t agree more. I will, however, add that the other thing that bugs greatly about Mississippi’s proposed law is that it seems that the people most likely to endorse this personhood definition are among the least likely to support any kind of government responsibility for a child that is carried to term and delivered into this hard world.

    • Susan October 26, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

      This is why I’m starting a movement to call these people what they are. They aren’t pro-life. They’re pro-fetus.

      • grandefille October 29, 2011 at 6:09 pm #

        Yes. This. Now, plz.

        (pie en route, by the way)

  2. grandefille October 25, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    Magnificent, madam. Common sense, and the ability to articulate it while still offering respect to others’ views, is a trait devoutly to be wished. Thank goodness you’re blessed with even more than the standard allotment.

    Will bookmark for future “read this, please; THIS is what I mean” usage. Will calculate royalties and send quarterly checks.

    Short version: YES, THIS. NOW PLZ.

    • Susan October 26, 2011 at 5:53 pm #

      The hell with royalties. I want pie.

Just spit it out, already!

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