What is the Unborn?

by Oxford Students for Life

This article has been adapted with permission from the Alliance of Pro-Life Students

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Have you ever tried to provide a scientific answer to the question ‘What is the unborn?’ without using the words ‘foetus’, ‘baby’, ‘embryo’, ‘child’, zygote’, ‘blastocyst’, ‘clump of cells’ or ‘a pregnancy’? Perhaps not. It’s easy, in the context of popular debate, to use the same terms over and over again. But it’s of vital importance to know exactly what you’re talking about when you use those terms. So, let’s give it a go.

From the earliest stages of development, the unborn is a distinct, living and whole human being.

And this can be proven by turning to the science of embryology.

Development begins with fertilization, the process by which the male gamete, the sperm, and the female gamete, the oocyte, unite to give rise to a zygote”

(T. W. Sadler, Langman’s Medical Embryology, 10th edition, Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2006, p. 11)

‘…a new cell is formed from the union of a male a female gamete. The cell referred to as a zygote, contains a new combination of genetic material, resulting in an individual different from either parent and from anyone else in the world

(Keithe L. Moore & T.V.N. Persuad, Before We Are Born – Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects [W.B. Saunders Company, 1998. 5th edition) p. 500

Both of these come from standard textbooks in embryology, and if you look, you can find many more. These facts about the development of a human being have been known for a long time. It is not controversial in the medical/scientific community to say that life begins at conception/fertilisation. This is a scientific fact. To deny that a foetus, embryo or zygote is a human being is to show your scientific ignorance.

But let’s flesh this out a little more.

As was said, the unborn (or what exists in a woman’s womb when she is pregnant) is a distinct, living and whole human being. But what is meant by each of these and how do we know they are true?

  1. Distinct: the unborn is a distinct human being. He/she has a unique DNA structure, different from his/her mother’s (and father’s) DNA. When sperm and egg combine at fertilisation, there is a new combination of genetic material.
    Furthermore, the unborn is not an organ of the mother. The unborn is not like a woman’s pancreas. The unborn is a distinct human which lives for 9 months or so in her womb.
  2. Living: in the category of things which are alive (as opposed to things which are not capable of being alive or dead like plastic or water) the unborn are undeniably alive. How do we know this? How do we know that they are not dead? Simple – dead things don’t grow. The unborn is growing extremely rapidly throughout its wombly existence, something it could not be doing if it were not alive.
  3. Whole: the unborn is a whole human being. It is not a part of a human being.
    Sperm and egg are parts of a human being. Left on their own they will never become a human being. Only when they combine at conception/fertilisation, does a whole human being with a complete genetic code come into existence. The 23 chromosomes from the father and the 23 chromosomes from the mother combine to give the complete 46 chromosomes that is typical of the human species.
    The unborn does not become a human being because he/she is already completely and fully human. Nothing more needs to be added to make the unborn a complete human. Yes, there is much development that must take place. Yes, he or she does not have a heart or brain at the very beginning of his or her existence, but at the very beginning of his/her existence, no heart is needed. When a baby is first born there is much development which needs to take place, but we do not deny that they are fully human. They are immature but they are no less human.
    Perhaps we can illustrate this in the following way. If I have a car chassis, I have part of a car. There is much more that needs to be added to make it a whole car. Similarly, the car engine is part of the car, as is the steering wheel, as is the gear box, as is the petrol tank. It is only when all these parts are added together (and many more) that we have a whole or complete car!
    Living things are not like this. They are not parts which are constructed from the outside. Rather, from the first moment of their existence, they are a whole and they are internally directed towards their mature selves. This is the same for all animals and plants. The unborn is a whole human being which needs time, nutrition and the right environment to mature.

Finally, we should note the species. An unborn human being is clearly a member of the species homo sapien. A male and female of the human species, when they procreate, can only produce another member of that species. And what is made in procreation, at the moment of fertilisation, is a distinct, living, and whole human being.

Greg Jackson is a former Student Support Officer for the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, and a former OSFL committee member

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