I continued to believe that abortion was immoral until a student nurse in one of my college composition classes directed me to scientific information that produced serious doubts about my hardline position and eventually led to my present belief that abortion, although deplorable, cannot logically be considered an act that kills a person. About the same time that I was discussing this subject with the nursing student, someone who called himself "Chimera" posted similar information in a website forum that I was a member of, but the nursing student gave me more specific information. By sharing the scientific facts that I learned during research prompted by my discussion with "Chimera" and the nursing student mentioned above, maybe I can at least mitigate some of the emotionalism with which Christian fundamentalists view the abortion issue. First, I will begin with information that I already knew and will work my way down to what I learned after accepting the young lady's challenge to research the subject rather than just sticking to emotionally based religious baggage that I had carried with me after my deconversion.
Before I introduce scientific information into this controversy, I must first explain a term that I will be using in reference to so-called pro-lifers. Instead of using this term that they apply to themselves, I will refer to their position as pro-birth, because I can see many reasons to believe that their main concern is to prevent abortion so that birth can occur, but otherwise they have little interest in protecting life after birth has taken place. "Pro-lifers," for example, are often opponents of public programs that would assist children born in poverty, which is often the social fate of those whose mothers chose the pro-life option over pro-choice, even though they were not financially equipped to support other additions to their families. "Pro-lifers" are often proponents of the death penalty, and they generally oppose gun control laws like those in Canada, England, Japan, and other countries where death from gunshot wounds is rare compared to the number who are killed in the United States. "Pro-lifers" generally favor the unprovoked war against Iraq, which, as I write this, has resulted in the deaths of some 1500 American soldiers and over 100,000 Iraqis. Such positions as these show a disdain for life after it has been born, so I consider pro-birth to be a more accurate description of these people than pro-life. That, then, is the term that I will use throughout this article.
Life begins at conception: This has almost been a mantra that is chanted by those who oppose abortion, but it is a scientifically incorrect belief. Life really begins before an actual pregnancy occurs. An ovum, for example, is alive in the ovary before it is expelled into a fallopian tube to wait for a possible rendezvous with the sperm cell that will fertilize it. That sperm cells are alive is obvious to anyone who has ever watched them "swimming" under a microscope. This is all true, anti-abortionists will say, but gametes or reproductive cells are only "potential persons" but do not become actual persons until the two come together. I will ask readers to keep this thought in mind, because I will return to it later after we have looked at some rather intriguing scientific information about these "actual persons" that exist in the womb after the two gametes have united.
The problems of identical twins and embryonic amalgamations: The nursing student mentioned pointed out in our first conversation that she had an identical twin sister. I wondered about the relevance of this until she asked me to divide myself into two identical persons. Her point, I soon realized, was that a blastula or zygote, the hollow sphere that forms with the union of the female and male gametes, will sometimes (for reasons not yet known) divide to form two identical zygotes, which will usually pass through the different stages of pregnancy to be born as identical twins. Sometimes one or both of the identical zygotes will divide again to form triplets or quadruplets, and in even rarer instances, a third division of one of the zygotes will occur to form identical quintuplets. A year after I was born, the Dionne quintuplets, the only known case of identical quints who survived childhood, were born in Canada. I remember seeing them in newsreels shown at the movies when I was growing up, but I really didn't know what was meant when they were referred to as identical quints. By the time I met the nursing student who eventually changed my position on abortion, I had completed a required college course in general biology in which a unit in human reproduction was explicitly presented, so I knew about the scientific principles that produced multiple identical births, but I didn't know that sometimes after a zygote divides to form potential twins, they will fuse, for some reason also not known, to form a single zygote again, which will later be born as one person. That came as a surprise to me, but what was even more surprising to me was the phenomenon known as "chimerism." The definition below from TheFreeDictionary.com explains what chimerism is.
In zoology a chimera is an animal which has (at least) two different populations of cells, which are genetically distinct and which originated in different zygotes. In biology, a zygote is the result of fertilization. That is, two haploid cells--usually (but not always) a male sperm cell and a female ovum or ovule--merge into a single diploid cell called the zygote. The zygote then undergoes multiple cell divisions in gametic and sporic meioses (see biological life cycles) to become an embryo.
Chimerism may occur naturally during pregnancy, when two non-identical twins combine in the womb, at a very early stage of development, to form a single organism. Such an organism is called a tetragametic chimera as it is formed from four gametes—two eggs and two sperm. As the organism develops, the resulting chimera can come to possess organs that have different sets of chromosomes. For example, the chimera may have a liver composed of cells with a second set of chromosomes. This has occurred in humans, though it is considered extremely rare, but since it can only be detected through DNA testing, which in itself is rare, it may be more common than currently believed. As of 2003, there were about 30 human cases in the literature, according to New Scientist.
This website has links imbedded that give definitions of scientific terms such as zoology, zygotes, and gametes. Most readers will probably be familiar with these terms, so I will focus on the meaning of chimera, which is partly clarified by its origin. In Greek mythology, Chimera was a fire-breathing monster, who was the offspring of Typhon and Echidna. Descriptions of it varied. Some said that the Chimera had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the hindquarters of a dragon or serpent. Others say that it had two heads, one of a lion, the other of a goat, and the body of a serpent. The fact that this mythological creature was thought to be a composite of different biological creatures is the reason why its name was used to describe the fusion of nonidentical zygotes in pregnancies that would ordinarily result in the birth of fraternal (nonidentical) twins but instead produce single births that are composites of two genotypes. George W. and Laura Bush, for example, have well known nonidentical or fraternal twin daughters, who are therefore as genetically different as if they had been born from separate pregnancies, as most sisters and brothers are. If, however, chimerism had occurred in the early stages of their mother's pregnancy, the separate zygotes would have fused to form a single embryo, and when the pregnancy had run its course, the child born would have been neither Jenna nor Barbara but a genetic composite of the two.
The conclusion that this leads to is not at all compatible with the pro-birth view that a "person" exists at the moment of conception, because if chimerism had occurred in the example just mentioned, neither Jenna nor Barbara Bush would have been born but a single individual who would have been a gentic composite of the two originally separate zygotes; therefore, it follows that neither Jenna nor Barbara Bush existed in the early stages of their mother's pregnancy. What existed was simply the genetic materials that had the potential to develop into two persons. In their case, that potential was realized, and they were eventually born as two separate persons, but when chimerism occurs, that potential is lost through fusion of the two zygotes. An actual documented example of chimerism will illustrate how chimerism in early pregnancy will merge two potential individuals into just one. In the case just linked to, "Jane," the woman discovered at the age of 52 to be a tetragametic chimera, had been born after her mother had conceived nonidentical or fraternal female zygotes that merged to form just one person (the "Jane" who later became the subject of the study reported in The New England Journal of Medicine.) As this article reported, however, hermaphroditic chimerism sometimes results from the fusion of male and female zygotes. A case of this reported in The New England Journal of Medicine [338 (3):166-169] told of a child who had been born with an ovary on one side and a testis on the other. Genetic studies showed that the child had two lines of cells, one 46XX (female) and one 46XY (male). The conclusion of these studies was that the child had resulted from the fusion or amalgamation of two separate zygotes. Had the amalgamation of the zygotes not occurred, two children, one male and the other female, would have been born, but the amalgamation resulted in a single hermaphroditic birth.
This case had resulted from in vitro fertilization, where several zygotes were implanted in the mother, but hermaphroditic chimerism in humans has been known to occur in otherwise normal impregnations. Dr. Mehrdad Rahmaniyan has documented a case of "a true hermaphroditic chimera" that had the same 46XX and 46XY karotypes as in the in vitro case documented above. The XX cell line was in 80% of the body and the XY in the other 20%. Instead of having an ovary on one side and a testis on the other, Rahmaniyan's case had "ambiguous genitalia," a small phallus and a "pseudo-vaginal perineal hypospadias" and "a bifid scrotum containing gonads." The results of an analysis of the chromosomes showed that the child was a chimera, with the cell lines described above, that had resulted from the fusion of two embryos.
If anything can make the pro-birth movement reassess its position that abortion in even the early stages of pregnancy is murder, the scientific information summarized above should certainly give them pause to reconsider. No single human being can divide him-/herself into identical twin persons, and no two human beings can fuse their bodies into a single person. It must follow, then, that what is in the womb at the time of conception and even shortly thereafter is not a person but only a potential person or persons.
This brings us back to a point that was introduced earlier: at the time of conception, only a potential person exists but not an actual person in the sense that I am a person and those of you reading this are persons. If, for example, the mother of "Jane," referenced above, had had an abortion while nonidentical (fraternal) zygotes were in her womb, this would not have killed "Jane," in the sense that the person "Jane" existed at that time. Instead, the abortion would have terminated two zygotes, which at the time had had the potential to become two persons. "Jane" as a person, however, never existed until the two zygotes had amalgamated to form a tetragametic chimera, which was later born as the one person "Jane."
"Twinning" presents a similar problem for the pro-birth movement. At the time of fertilization, one zygote exists, so if it is true that a "person" exists at the "moment of conception," abortion would "kill" only one "person," but if the aborted zygote happened to be one that would divide later to become twin zygotes that would eventually be born as two persons, did the abortion somehow kill two "persons"? If so, what rationale is used to reach that conclusion?
When confronted with scientific information like this, I suspect that many in the pro-birth movement would claim that even though abortion in the early stages of pregnancy doesn't kill an actual person, it is still immoral, because it kills a potential person, but that is a position fraught with so many problems that no reasonable person would try to defend it. As I pointed out earlier, there is "potential life" in the gametes (ovum and sperm) before actual fertilization occurs. All that is necessary for a person to be born is the union of the two gametes, followed by a pregnancy carried to term. If, then, the destruction of "potential life" by abortion is immoral, why wouldn't birth control methods that prevent fertilization from occurring also be immoral? Both prevent the development of "potential life" into an actual person. Catholics, of course, will argue that birth control is immoral because it prevents potential life from developing, but even they are not consistent, because they allow abstinance as a morally acceptable method of birth control. If, however, there is immorality in preventing "potential life" from developing into actual persons, even birth control by abstinance would be immoral, because it too prevents "potential life" from developing into actual persons. To be consistent, then, those who argue that birth-control methods that prevent "potential life" from developing into actual persons is immoral would have to take this position to its logical end and argue that women who realize that they are ovulating have a moral obligation to seek out males to help them make the "potential life" within them into actual persons. If not, why not?
I hope that the scientific information presented in this article will cause those in the pro-birth movement, who tend to see life as either black or white or right or wrong, to reexamine their views and recognize that the abortion issue is far more complex than they have previously thought. In national and state elections, many will vote against their interests in other issues just to elect those who are opposed to abortion. History, however, is not on their side, because the unfortunate reality of abortion has existed for centuries and will continue to exist no matter what the pro-birth movement may be able to accomplish legislatively. Regrettably, the problem of abortion is not going to go away, so those who vote as if it is the only important issue in elections do themselves a disservice if they put the one issue of abortion above all other problems like education, health insurance, employment opportunities, outsourcing, and various other social problems that an obsession with abortion is causing many to deemphasize.