Texas State engineering professor Karl Stephan argues in a recent commentary that when a sperm and an egg combine, “a unique living entity comes into existence” and that “the right of human beings inside the womb to live” outweighs “the right of women not to carry a pregnancy to term.” One might expect his essay to focus on “pro-life” issues, but in fact his primary concern is to support the recent regulation proposed by the State Department of Health Services, ostensibly to “bring some measure of dignity to the disposal of fetal remains.”
This may sound unproblematic, but serious difficulties, both scientific and moral, lie just below the surface. He seems to think that every fertilization produces a baby nine months later, but in a 2008 online article in Free Inquiry magazine (Google “Silver Bullet Question Part 2”), I cited modern estimates from six embryological journals and textbooks that state 50 percent to — astonishingly — 80 percent of all fertilized eggs die without reaching birth. The technical terms are “spontaneous abortion” and “pregnancy wastage” — and the implications are sobering.
The World Health Organization reports 130 million births worldwide each year — four per second — and a mere 55 million deaths — 1.6 per second. At 50 percent, there would be 130 million wasted conceptions annually; at 80 percent, a staggering 520 million babies whose “right to life” is being flagrantly violated. Current research suggests that about half are genetically flawed and doomed from the start, but that leaves millions of viable babies dying for no presently discernible reason.
One of those six authors, Dr. Harold Kalter laments, “Is it all part of a plan that the great majority of human products of fertilization should perish during the course of pregnancy?” This should serve as counterweight to optimists like the author of a Feb. 27 “Faith” column, obliviously titled, “God’s miracles start in the miracle of creating your DNA.” If that’s true, why do the majority of “God’s miracles” fail? And what about hideous teratological birth defects?
Awkward scientific facts are bad enough, but the philosophical and moral problems are far worse. Professor Karl Stephan asks, “Who do you regard as a human being — as fully human as yourself?” The next paragraph says that when sperm and egg combine, “the life history of that unique living entity, accurately referred to as a human being, begins at that moment.”
Even an ardently “pro-life” person might wonder whether something smaller than a dot on the letter “i” can “accurately” be called “a human being” and “as fully human as yourself.” The linguistic distortion is obvious to any competent speaker. So when does a fertilized egg become “a human being?”
Religious authorities have disagreed about “hominization,” “ensoulment,” and “personhood” over the centuries, suggesting 46 days or end of first trimester. The Rev. Geoffrey Drutchas’s 1998 book “Is Life Sacred?” shows that the “right to life from the moment of conception” approach has little basis in the Bible or Christian teaching until the late 19th century. My article quotes one embryology textbook’s explicit statement that fertilization “is not a ‘moment’,” meaning it’s a continuum with no bright dividing-line.
Moral absolutists want all-or-nothing boundaries, but “vagueness” — the modern term for the ancient sorites paradox — is everywhere in evaluative judgments. Philosophers Lee Kerckhove and Sara Waller showed in “Fetal Personhood and the Sorites Paradox” in the Journal of Value Inquiry that no definition of “personhood” can escape the corrosive power of the argument and that it would be better to focus on “competing interests.”
But the worst part of this issue is theological. For centuries, Christians have firmly asserted that unbaptized babies must be punished eternally for original sin. Google “infant damnation” and you’ll find an 1858 lecture by William Hayden which names two dozen authorities, including Augustine, Luther, and Calvin.
Augustine does say that unbaptized babies have “the mildest punishment” (mitissima poena), a view echoed in Puritan clergyman Michael Wigglesworth’s long poem “The Day of Doom,” where God tells babies protesting their relative innocence that he will grant them “the easiest room in Hell.” The Catholic Church has softened this harshness with Limbo, and the unofficial International Theological Commission declared in 2007 that even unbaptized babies might be rescued by the salvific will of God.
But why take a chance? The eternal destiny of millions of Texan babies is at stake. The legislature should impose mandatory In Utero Baptism, with IUB centers “wherever babies are made.” Those who assert that “life begins at conception” should surely endorse this modest proposal.
Dee is a retired classics professor living in Austin.