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Slate Magazine Claims Human Fetuses Are Part Person, Part Thing

In a remarkable exercise in fuzzy thinking, Slate magazine contends that scientists don’t know when human life begins, because a fetus gradually grows to become a fully living human being through a lengthy process rather than a discrete event.

Arguing in opposition to fetal heartbeat legislation being proposed around the country, Slate writer Elissa Strauss alleges that an embryo or fetus becomes a person “not in a single moment but in a series of moments, none necessarily more important than the next.”

Mixing “life” with “humanity” and “personhood” into a baffling biological-philosophical cocktail, Straus mounts an extended if incoherent case for the non-binary nature of human life, meaning that it exists in infinitely varying degrees.

This idea of a gradual in utero transformation from something into someone suggests that for much of gestation, a human fetus is part thing and part person. One is led to conclude that at the moment of conception the human zygote is simply a thing, which little by little becomes more and more a person as biological development occurs. Ms. Strauss does not explain why she believes this process of becoming a human arbitrarily stops at birth, rather than continuing through adolescence and into the biological prime of the person.

On the experiential plane, Strauss backs up her questionable thesis by claiming that many pregnant women “experience the embryo’s gradual passage to personhood on a visceral level.”

As women interact with the being within their wombs, they gradually come to identify that being as a person distinct from themselves.

Yet women’s experience is far from infallible, Strauss suggests, especially when it comes to heartbeats.

While it’s “hard to be unmoved by the coursing of blood through an embryo or fetus’ heart,” Strauss admits, “the heartbeat deceives.”

In other words, women should be believed when they experience “the embryo’s gradual passage to personhood,” but women should be distrusted when they are moved “by the coursing of blood” through an embryo’s heart.

What is it that makes the heartbeat so deceptive?

“It renders the grayscale beginnings of life in black and white,” Strauss claims, “in refutation of the fact [sic] that this is a mysterious process with many possible ends.”

Strauss chooses not to deal with the biological and philosophical problems that arise from the suggestion that a being can be partially alive or partially human. In common experience as well as scientific understanding, human life is a binary function, meaning that it either is or is not present. While we do sometimes speak of persons as being “barely alive,” they are still alive and not inanimate matter (which is the only other alternative to life).

Astonishingly, Strauss asserts that “the medical community tends to agree” with her theory that we simply don’t know when human life begins, if it has a discrete beginning at all.

Yet, Ms. Strauss is quite mistaken in this declaration, judging from the vast majority of textbooks on embryology and scientific literature on the subject.

“Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote),” we read in Patten’s Foundations of Embryology. “The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.”

“At the moment the sperm cell of the human male meets the ovum of the female and the union results in a fertilized ovum (zygote), a new life has begun,” declares Van Nostrand’s Scientific Encyclopedia.

“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed,” state O’Rahilly and Müller in their Human Embryology & Teratology. After fertilization, the embryo “now exists as a genetic unity.”

In point of fact, at fertilization, the human being emerges as a genetically distinct member of the species homo sapiens, needing only the proper environment in order to grow and develop.

Yet not content with trying to twist science and women’s experience to her cause, Strauss also attempts to enlist religion.

“The majority of Jews do not believe that life begins at conception but instead see the creation of life as something that happens over time,” she reports. “During this process, the fetus is seen as part of the mother, whose well-being, both immediate and future, takes precedence.”

Ms. Strauss seems to suggest that most Jews believe that for an extended period, the human fetus is only partly alive in a process that will eventually result in the fetus being fully alive at some undetermined moment.

It is unclear how many Jews Ms. Strauss consulted to obtain this extravagant assertion, since it runs counter to the biblical testimony regarding the creation of life, which happens instantaneously.

In the end, Strauss’ article may be nothing more than a failed attempt at self-justification, since she candidly admits that last year she had 19 of her own eggs fertilized, most of which did not survive. After all, if she were to acknowledge that human life begins at conception, she would be forced to accept responsibility for those lives.

Still, one is comforted to think that most readers are unwilling to deny biological and philosophical truths just to assuage a troubled conscience.

Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter  

Note: In an earlier version of this article, Breitbart erroneously attributed the original Slate essay to Salon Magazine. Ed.

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