MCDB 150: Global Problems of Population Growth

Lecture 23

 - Biology and History of Abortion


The idea that “life begins at conception” is not a scientific one. Since the disproof of ‘spontaneous generation’ (1668-1859), we have known that life only derives from life. Life arose billions of years ago and has continued since as a cycle. Assigning a beginning to a cycle (like the year) is arbitrary. The Bible describes the cycle as “Dust to Dust.” Exodus describes a forced abortion as a property crime, but taking the life of the mother as a capital crime. The New Testament does not refer to abortion.

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Global Problems of Population Growth

MCDB 150 - Lecture 23 - Biology and History of Abortion

Chapter 1. When Does Life Start? [00:00:00]

Professor Robert Wyman: We’ll start a little slow because I’m sure some people are coming. This–we’ll continue with abortion, we had two lectures ago we talked about abortion. The center of the abortion debate is ‘when does life begin,’ and luckily that’s a question that biology can say something about. What statement is the most common statement made on this? Not your own personal opinion and not an educated opinion, but what do people on the street say mostly about when life begins? What do you hear?

Student: [inaudible]

Professor Robert Wyman: What?

Student: At conception.

Professor Robert Wyman: At conception and–all right, yes indeed, that’s the most common sort of thing that people say, life begins at conception. This is in the newspapers, this is common and this is in all the media. So George Will–how many of you heard of George Will, a famous Washington correspondent. He’s syndicated like everywhere: “It is a biological fact, not a theological postulate, that such life is a continuum from conception to death.”

Then just before I was writing this lecture the first time, I was scanning The New York Times, as I always do, and there was a letter from the editor–letter to the editor from a pro-life writer. “It is a scientific fact, as any basic biology text will confirm that life does begin at conception. The fetus is a live human being, distinct from, while dependent on, its mother. It deserves the full protection of its rights.” That’s what’s common out there.

Not only is it what people, most people personally believe, but it’s generally considered to be a scientific fact. I’ve heard this from pro-life people and pro-choice people, almost indistinguishably. The question is–you’ve all had high school biology at least, how many of you had college biology? A few of you, guess what? That isn’t what–that isn’t at all what a beginning biology textbook says.

What does it say? This is from–they send professors free copies of textbooks, so I just opened up one that they happened to send me, and it shows something quite different. It shows life as a cycle. There’s no start point here. Fertilization is one of the events going around the cycle. This is the essence of sexual reproduction. We also know that there’s asexual reproduction, which doesn’t have this stuff [fertilization] at all. The cycle is the switch between a haploid genome, which means one copy of each chromosome, and diploid, when each cell has two copies of each chromosome. With sexual reproduction–there’s always some version of this one copy/two copies cycle.

When we look in detail, this again from the same freshman, very popular, very big selling freshman college biology text. It talks about three different sexual lifecycles. In–the one that you’re most familiar with, which is animals. What happens is you start with a–a multi-cellular organism, that’s you. Then meiosis–the splitting of the chromosomes so that the gametes get–this is 2N, N being the number of chromosomes, start from 2N, there’s a process called meiosis in which pairs split and you get cells with only one copy of each chromosome, those are called gametes or germ cells, and then from another individual you get a second N and you go back to the diploid phase.

It’s again, this cycling around between one copy and two copies of the chromosomes, meiosis and fertilization. Now in most animals it happens that the big stage, like us, is diploid, but that is not a universal rule at all. Here is a stage which is–are fungi and some algae that have it the other way around. They go through the same cycle but now the big organism is the haploid stage, where there’s only one copy of each chromosome and that’s growing in your garden, there will be a lot of stuff like this.

In most plants, and some algae, you have a third possibility, whereas, both are multi-cellular organisms. There’s the diploid stage [which is] multi-cellular and the haploid stage is [also] multi-cellular, and the cycle goes around. The basic idea is not that there’s a beginning but that life is a cycle. This is what–I don’t know what your high school textbook says–I was afraid to go look at high school textbooks. My colleagues who read high school textbooks are always horrified, so I didn’t go lower than a college–a standard college textbook.

Again, this is not the only mechanism of reproduction, there’s of course a whole variety of asexual means of reproduction. What kinds of things reproduce asexually with none of this? Bacteria, yeast, yeast that makes your bread rise, yeast that makes your beer, yeast that ferments your wine, and yeast is fungi between your toes. They reproduce by? What’s the mechanism of their reproduction? Budding, they bud off, mitosis. What else, what grows in your garden that you eat many mornings? Strawberries, how do strawberries reproduce?

Oh my, you are disconnected from nature. Strawberries–none of you have strawberries in your garden or in your backyard? Do you know–who has a garden?

Student: I don’t know how they grow.

Professor Wyman: What?

Student: I have but I don’t know how they grow.

Professor Robert Wyman: She strawberries don’t know–they have runners, they have what’s called rhizomes, they’re called runners and you have one plant and when it gets big enough and has enough energy it sends out a runner that grows a root, and it grows up a strawberry, and then it doesn’t matter whether the runner is eventually cut. Lots and lots of things grow by runners, which is again, another asexual form of reproduction.

Again, since you don’t have yards–so pricker bushes, the bane in the northeast, how do pricker bushes grow? Runners, that’s why your garden gets just overtaken, if you don’t get your clippers out and be very brutal, your garden just is overtaken by pricker bush; bracken is the more technical term for that. There’s a lot of stuff that reproduces–grass, a lot of the grasses grow this way.

Parthenogenesis, anybody know who reproduces parthenogenetically? Fish do, etc., there’s fish, worms; all kinds of things reproduce parthenogenetically. The idea that life begins at conception, that life has any start point is really not what textbooks are saying. It’s saying life is a cycle, it’s repeated, organisms use different versions of the cycle, and many organisms reproduce asexually with no version of that.

This gets a little more interesting when you go from a freshman textbook to an upper level textbook. A few years ago I got an old copy of the upper level, this is Biology 241–Reproductive Biology, and I presume none of you have taken that. Now it gets really interesting. This is the beginning of an embryo in your grandmother, or in your grandfather, it doesn’t matter. Can you see tiny little dots here? Maybe if we turn out the light you can see them, but it doesn’t matter, believe me there’s tiny little dots that this line is pointing to.

This is inside your grandmother’s womb, this is your mother or your father, just remember that’s your mother or father sitting in there, and outside your mother and father, in the yolk sac, which you think of as just for eating, there’s an epithelial wall–an epithelium is just a set of flat cells like a skin that bound–organs are mostly covered around in an epithelium. Some of the cells in the epithelium start differentiating differently than a skin cell and they pop out into the center here.

Then as development goes on, of your mother inside your grandmother, or your father inside your grandmother, not inside your grandfather, these cells crawl up into the embryo, through a tube, and they sit in–they come to sit up here in the cells that are going to become the rest of your gonad. Your germ cells start–When a developmental biologist or reproductive biologist discusses this; this is in a sense the start of life. In your grand–in your mother or father’s embryo inside your grandmother and then more events happen and the whole book is about those events.

What are those events? Many–and so this is on Page 7, the beginning, this is what happens in the beginning, and when do we get to fertilization? Well here’s the next one. Coitus and fertilization, and this is on Page 201, so there’s 200 pages of events that take place in between. Fertilization is not the first or the second, but it’s the third kind of event, even in this one chapter and its purpose is the establishment of diploid, again referring to the cycle of haploid diploid. Just to let you know that fertilization is not an essential event, it includes parthenogenetic activation as an equivalent step that can do in the cycle as well as fertilization.

The difference between asexual reproduction and parthenogenesis is: asexual reproduction doesn’t go through a halving and a doubling of the chromosomes. In pathogenesis, you, in fact, start with haploid cells, haploid organism, and then there is a mechanism for just doubling it [the chromosomes] without bringing in genes from somewhere else. What the cell does is mitosis; it’s the normal state where cells double but then they split. This is a doubling of the chromosome but no split, so you go from a haploid stage to a diploid stage.

While we’re on parthenogenesis–I actually didn’t know this until I read this. It introduces–The spermatozoon induces many remarkable changes in the oocyte at fertilization, but it’s not essential for many of them. An oocyte may be activated parthenogenetically by a variety of bizarre stimuli such as electric shock, exposure to various enzymes, or to alcohol. You guys that think you’re having a big role, well just bring your electric shockers and it’ll do almost as well.

They mimic whatever it is that the sperm does and what’s interesting is that the embryo, the partheo–this is a human; this is a textbook of human reproductive biology. It can undergo cleavage, implantation, and development to the stage of a beating heart, somites and forelimbs. The stage at which a lot of the right to lifers show you, well this is a human already, actually can happen without any intervention of a sperm whatsoever.

Eventually, in a human, there are parthenogenetic animals and other organisms, but in a human, the embryo, the fetus eventually dies, but apparently it’s a deficiency in the placenta not in the fetus itself. It’s quite amazing. Again, loosens up your whole mind about what is biology is actually saying about life and it’s not saying that it has a beginning and it’s certainly not saying the beginning is at fertilization.

Having started this train of thought for myself, we’ve done a freshman text, we’ve done an upper level text, now let’s get into the research literature. I’ve just underlined these. Here’s a research literature. This is Science magazine which–is one all scientists read, it has the latest, greatest stuff. You wish you could publish in it, and so forth. It’s from 2007 and it’s about the germline which is eggs and sperms. In the early embryo cells decide between becoming soma or germline. When I showed you the yolk sac in your grandmother, the soma, the body, are the cells that stay in the yolk sac and form the lining of the yolk sac, and produce the enzymes I think which digest the yolk.

Those that migrate out become the germline. Evolution doesn’t want the germline to go through a lot of divisions because every division introduces the possibility of a mutation. Every time you have to copy your chromosomes you can get into trouble. Very early on, in fact in your grandmother, the germline separates out and is held in abeyance for decades often. Now again, the important thing is this constancy of the germline, it’s necessary for species continuity, that’s all that kind of stuff and here again, all kinds of events take place. The only mention of fertilization in this whole introduction to this special section, this is a special section just in this issue, is in one of the later paragraphs.

Now, I was being very pleased with myself getting exactly the right things that I wanted to show you and make this point, that, at all levels of scientific discourse, life does NOT begin at conception. Then I stepped back from it a little bit and what do I notice? What’s the logo up there? The logo is the fertile–an egg being fertilized. I said, oh my gosh, that contradicts everything I’m trying to say; because it’s sort of makes out that the most important thing about this whole process is fertilization.

After my initial shock, I get over it; I look at it and say, that’s a fake. Fertilization does not look like that, and anybody who’s taken a biology course and seen these pictures, there’s first of all a whole lot of sperms, there isn’t just one sperm sitting like that, it’s a whole lot of them. That would be a very nice trick to get a green oocyte and a red sperm together, and I said that’s a fake picture.

You’re not supposed to do that kind of fakery in science, but it turns out, the scientists didn’t do that but these journals–this is a mass produced thing–Science sells millions of copies all around the world, so they have an art department. I don’t know if you can see this but that picture is made by Getty Images. Getty is one of the big–Getty Images Visuals, Unlimited; they’re not limited, they’re unlimited. This was put in not by the scientific authors, it’s not mentioned in the article, so you’re not supposed to take it seriously.

And in fact, when you go after this kind of stuff–I just looked about two pages later–well here it is blown up so you can see that better. There’s the exact picture from which it’s come, and you can see the flatness here, and this little thing here, and if you go back they show you the flatness here and the little thing here. They’ve shown you exact–inadvertently, they don’t mention this at all; they show you exactly where they faked it from. What they did is they took this image, and then took a red sperm image from somewhere else, laid it on top, and put them on there. Yes, I was going to say something about laying it on but I won’t, you can guess.

What’s the moral of the story of this last little bit? Even prestigious scientific journals, when they’re not thinking scientifically, will lapse into the common parlance; this is the society in which they live. The important thing about reproduction is fertilization, that’s the common thing; it’s not a scientific thing but even scientists and scientific journals can mess that up.

Chapter 2. Historical Belief in Spontaneous Generation [00:17:41]

The whole phrasing of this debate in terms of when does life begin is a cultural holdover from the many centuries when there was no scientific understanding of reproduction. You have to think, well, when does life begin? What is the alternative to it being a cycle from life coming from life that we now know is the case? Well it’s got to come from something that’s not alive. Then the question comes up very naturally, if you think life comes from something not alive, then you say, well when does life begin? What is that called when you believe that life comes from not life? Come on you had this in high school. This is a dead–

Student: Spontaneous generation.

Professor Robert Wyman: Spontaneous generation, right. When did they–do you remember when this was shown to be not the case?

Student: Pasteur.

Professor Robert Wyman: Pasteur was the final step in it. It actually comes earlier, the first guy was Francesco Redi–well first let me tell you–what are the observations that make–that made people think that there was spontaneous generation? Take a caterpillar and a moth. You have a caterpillar and its one kind of organism, it crawls around, it puts itself up into a cocoon, and if at any time, not the very beginning and not the very end but in the middle, you open up a cocoon what you see is goo.

The caterpillar has just sort of decayed, just fallen apart into a goo. Then you look sometime later and out pops this beautifully formed butterfly and it doesn’t look anything like the caterpillar. The only reasonable way of interpreting this is that, indeed, the caterpillar died, it put itself into a little coffin, and it rotted, it fell apart, but that’s very nutritious and out of this nutrition somehow came the butterfly, spontaneous generation and that was what was believed about that.

You take rotting meat, where do you find fly’s coming out of–maggots, where do you find maggots? Rotting meat, rotting food, so you do an experiment, you go around and you find some road kill or something. They didn’t really have cars back then but–this is all late 1600s, 1700s it changes at that time. They take a dead animal and maggots come out of it. Well what it is, you can take the dead meat that you find around, and put it in a jar and close it up, and, if you haven’t actually killed it very fresh, out come the maggots, and you haven’t let any maggots crawl into it.

Where do fish come from? Well, shallow, most people who fish a lot know they come from shallow water mostly and they grow up in the reeds so the fish come from the reeds. Then you get a little imaginative about it, and if you read the literature from this era, which I haven’t, but there’s a lot of books that do and tell you the juicy tidbits. It is believed that it was possible to create mice by putting a dirty shirt and a few grains of wheat into a sealed jar and letting it sit for 21 days. That scientifically tells you the gestation period of a mouse is 21 days when it’s made from a dirty shirt. I think some of you undergraduates probably know that from experience.

As we’ll see in a little bit, human life was presumed to come from menstrual blood, which is also dead and as a sort of coagulation kind of process. I’ll show you what that was about. In everything from an insect to a human, spontaneous generation was the most obvious interpretation of what you could observe for many hundreds of years, until the experimental techniques really took over and people started showing that was not true.

The first real break in this was Francesco Redi in about 1668, who studied butterflies and he did it very carefully. They hadn’t really used scalpels before, and so if you pull apart a cocoon without a really nice sharp knife, you get more mush–you get mush at all stages. He used a scalpel, cut it apart, and you could see that early on, that actually inside the caterpillar you could see the rudiments of the adult moth happening, and then he could watch the development inside the caterpillar. That was stunning to the world when he started talking about this to scientific societies: that a moth did not come from the rotting caterpillar but came from the cells–they didn’t have the idea of cells back then but came from the body of the caterpillar itself.

Then Spallanzani, when I went to high school, Spalanzani was the hero–I don’t know why instead of Redi, and he did the next step of it, and that was the next century. He worked around the 1750s, and finally Louis Pasteur showed that it was true also for microorganisms. That was what Pasteur put the final nail in the coffin, not only animals, plants, insects which are animals, but finally microorganisms.

By the later 1800s is when this idea of spontaneous generation for everything alive disappeared. The phrase, which was–originated much earlier but not proven, was omnia ex ova, everything comes from an egg. That there’s always some sort of a cycle of generation. We’ve known for about 250 years that there is no spontaneous generation that life is a cycle, and in the cycle you can’t point to a beginning, so it’s very hard–it’s a sign of–there’s just the persistence of cultural ideas that the culture somehow hasn’t caught onto that.

Chapter 3. Fertilization as a Marker of Life’s Beginning [00:23:44]

Now more educated people, when discussing this in more detail, understand that it’s a cycle but they decide that fertilization is the final genetic–sets the final genetic constitution of the fetus and therefore we can legitimately say–point to that as the origin point. Of course that’s not true. Now that we know in great detail. I don’t want to–this is not a course in reproductive biology but somewhere I’ve got–[fumbling with slide projection] actually at the time of–I’ll talk about this later. I don’t know why this is going slowly.

At the time of fertilization the nucleus of the egg is still diploid. It’s only after fertilization and sometime later, that the female nucleus goes through its final division and that’s random which chromosomes are going to be included in the embryo and which chromosomes are not. The final–part of the step–one of the steps of the final genetic constitution happens after fertilization, if you again define fertilization as the entry of the sperm.

And then even later, the female has two Xs, but in every cell only one X is going to be active. Again, at a later stage, in fact way after this multi-cellular division has already taken place, in each cell one of the Xs gets inactivated and basically crumples up and gets thrown away. The final genetic constitution is not set until a good bit of time after fertilization.

We can see this in Calico cats. Calico cats have these sorts of biggish black patches and biggish orange patches. We don’t have that with our hair, our hair is usually all one color until it turns gray, but in Calico cats what you’re seeing is at a certain point in development, and you can count the number of patches so you know how many cells this comes from, in one cell there will be two sets of genes.

One which will have the melanin gene to make melanin and make it black, and one will miss that and make an orange patch, and in this cell the gene for orange turns off and so you get a black–the chromosome that has the orange–the whole chromosome is turned off and you get a black patch, and in this one, the one for melanin gets turned off and you get an orange patch. The number of patches tells you at what cell stage this process happened because each of those patches are the descendants of a single cell in a somewhat advanced embryo.

The number of genetic things that happen after fertilization is quite significant. Even moderately sophisticated things that educated people believe about development and when it begins are just plain wrong. The only scientific response to the question of when life begins is, when does one say? Well four billion years ago, when the first cell in some slime of some sea somewhere or something, life began and since then cells have replicated cells. In a sense, since every cell in your body is the result of a split of some prior cell, in a sense every cell in your body has been alive for four billion years. There’s never been anything dead in the past of that.

Chapter 4. Genetic Development [00:27:55]

There’s really very more interesting things about development if I can get this to work. Development is a very, very chancy operation there, so this is the germ cells. This is in a female but everything I’m saying about a female happens in a male. What happens is from conception this is the number of germ cells that they can count and they get up to seven million germ cells.

Then, again, before birth, they start dying. For instance, in a woman, most of the class is female, you’re born with this number of potential eggs–I’m sorry you’ve developed this many eggs, than most of them die right away, and then as gestation continues more of them die at birth, then they keep dying and by the time you’re sexually mature there’s only a very few left.

We used to believe, and maybe still believe, that that’s all the eggs you’re ever going to have and a similar sort of thing happens with sperms, not quite the same. There’s now recent research that seems to show that there are some stem cells, the kind of cells that originally produced all these oocytes, that there are some stem cells that hang around. Then, in fact, after this period you can make, females can make more eggs. For the artificial fertilization, artificial reproduction clinics, this is now a really hot area of research. Can we find those stem cells? For infertile women can we get them to now make egg cells later? That’s one set of a real decrease in the potential. You start with seven million potential eggs but you’ll ovulate like 400 eggs during a woman’s life.

This is what ovulation looks like. This is an ovary, a proper thing, and this is the egg [a follicle] that’s coming out and this guy is–this doctor I guess is trying to extract the egg for someone, either experimental or in vitro fertilization kind of procedure where they can take the egg and inject it, fertilize it externally, inject it back into the female, and all kinds of wonderful things can happen.

Now, after fertilization, this winnowing of–continues very largely. There’s a lot of genetic death. Now you have your fertilization, the early events of really setting the genetic constitution have taken place, and often they don’t work. It turns out that from fertilization, in the next few weeks something like 80% of conceptuses die. It’s a quite striking phenomenon. It’s called pregnancy wastage and humans have it more than other animals and we don’t understand why.

All mammals have this same process but it’s really extreme in humans and there’s nothing but theories about why this happens. It’s mostly genetic death, so I told you that you start with a diploid cell, the germ cell that’s crawling out of the [yolk] sac, and it has two copies of each chromosome. The chromosome unfolded is a huge thing, and it has to fold itself up, it has to pair, they have to all the–26 pairs have to pair and then they have to split nicely. Well that is a very complicated process that frequently does not work.

What you end up with is, instead of one copy going each way; you get two copies in this say egg, or this sperm and no copy in the other one. Then as events go on, if you have two copies here, and it gets fertilized by a sperm then you have three copies and that’s lethal for almost every chromosome, and if you have no copies and it gets fertilized by a sperm you get one copy and that’s lethal for almost every chromosome.

The only chromosome for which there isn’t lethality is the Down syndrome chromosome where you can–I think it’s 23 [correction: 21]. You can survive with three copies of that and that’s Down syndrome. You know the frequency of Down syndrome, one in however many thousand it is [1 in 800]. For every Triplo, that’s called Triplo because you have three copies of that chromosome, there’s a null, you get no copy. You get just the one from the sperm. Where if it’s the sperm that has this problem, you get [only] the one from the egg. That dies and [abnormalities with] every other chromosome dies. There’s one other chromosome where there’s some viability.

You take the frequency of Down syndrome, you double it for that chromosome for the null. Then you multiply it by the 46 chromosomes–23 pairs of chromosomes that there are and you get a number that just from this process, which is called non-disjunction, what the death rate of the oocyte–of the fertilized eggs is. Then there’s all kinds of other genetic problems which I won’t go into. The experimentally observed, the empirically observed thing is that the actual number is 78%. I say 80% but if you read the paper its 78% of fertilized conceptus’ than die very rapidly of genetic death. The mother doesn’t even know that she is pregnant because there’s–she doesn’t know anything in the first couple of weeks. Her period may be a little bit delayed, maybe not delayed at all.

You get really interesting legal and religious complications. Well, there’s some theology here which you can ask me about later if you want to know, but standard Christians are supposed to believe that resurrection is in the flesh. You come back in pretty much the same state that you died in. if 80%–If you believe that then–if you add to that that life begins at conception, that means at the fertilized egg, then that means that 80% of the embryos–of the resurrected bodies in heaven are going to be in a test tube, they’re just a few cells big. So, it gets into very serious kinds of religious complications.

It also gets into legal complications; I can’t remember what state it is. A woman got pulled over, so this state–she was on a highway and in an HOV lane, a high occupancy vehicle lane, where you’re supposed to have at least two people in the car. She was pulled over by the cop because it was just her, and the cop started writing her a ticket. She says, ‘No, no I’m pregnant and so there’s two of us in this car,’ and it became a serious kind of court case. If, legally, one decides that an embryo or a fetus is a person from the moment of conception, then every time a woman doesn’t have a baby, or she drives, the police are going to have to carry around pregnancy tests and examine this.

It’s–the conclusion, not the conclusion but–Another point about this–Anybody knows roughly how long it takes to get pregnant if you’re trying? Five months. Does that tie up with anything I just said? If 80% of conceptuses die, that’s 4 out of 5. If it takes five months to get pregnant, what happens in the other four months? Well those are the four months that you on average did not get pregnant.

Though this is not proven, but the numbers work out that there’s really no other reasonable interpretation. When a woman is having regular sex without protection, trying or not trying to get pregnant, she gets pregnant every month, but four out of the five months the fetus–the conceptus, dies early–the fetus dies early and she doesn’t even really necessarily know about it. Then in the fifth month, on average, out comes a fetus.

Again, legally and religiously, that if one–decides for themselves that life begins at conception and a woman is having sex, that means every month a human being has died. There has to be a death certificate. There may have to be an inquest, why did this fetus die, did the mother drink alcohol or do something that might have caused that [fetus] to die? Is she causing the death of this full human being? Religiously you would have to have a burial, a memorial mass; you would have to do all the religious things that attend to death. The fact, that’s not widely appreciated, that 80% of conceptus’ die genetically sits uneasily with an idea that life begins at conception.

We’re talking about the chanciness of the reproduction. We saw, that out of all these eggs that are started, so many die before you’re born, and then even those that get fertilized, not many of them get fertilized because most people aren’t having sex all the time. You don’t have 400–So, there are 400 eggs that you ovulate and only a small fraction of those will get fertilized no matter what your sex life is like, so there’s a big death there.

Of those that do get fertilized, 80% of them die, and then of course as you’re well aware from this course, once a child is born up until very modern times of medicine, something like a third of the kids died as infants or children, so it’s a very, very chancy procedure and there’s elimination at all kinds of stages.

Chapter 5. Life’s Beginning as a Cultural Decision [00:38:39]

Okay so I sort of hit you over the head with idea of life as a cycle, and that is of course the only scientific way to look at it. When does a cycle begin? Can you even say something like that? Well sometimes it’s necessary to arbitrarily put a beginning to the cycle. One of the most common cycles is the seasons, is the year. The year is a cycle, it gets warm and then it gets cold, and different cultures choose different times to start the year.

In our culture, it’s January 1, and why is it January 1? It’s close to the winter solstice, the lowest point of the sun, then the sun starts coming up after that, which is December 22. Well the calendars weren’t very good and they didn’t it quite right, Christmas and New Years, and December 22–or 21st are supposed to all be the same day, but the calendars were not good enough to do that.

The Romans put it at the Ides of March, you remember Julius Caesar getting killed then, and I just read the history of that. They changed their calendar many times but during most of their period it was the Ides of March, which is March 15. Chinese put their New Year in February; they have lunar calendars so it rolls around a little bit. Jewish New Year is in September and then that’s a lunar calendar so that rolls around a little bit. Every culture decides how it wants to set the beginning of the year.

It’s conventional, it’s not a scientific statement, and it’s whatever any of the culture decides. Similarly, with when does life begin? Different cultures have decided different start points for this cycle of life. One of the common ones is that life only begins after the worst period of infant mortality. There are many emotional economic legal reasons that you really don’t want to consider someone a human until they’ve–you’re somewhat sure that the infant is going to stay alive.

Among the Fulani of West Africa, Nigeria, an infant becomes a person and it’s given a name seven days after birth because that’s the most extreme period. The Navajo, in America, don’t consider the child is alive, again for this period of infant death, and after delivery it’s kept in a cradle board as a kind of an extension of pregnancy. It comes out, it’s put in a cradleboard and that’s considered the mother is still pregnant with the baby, and this is very nice. When the child laughs for the first time then it’s considered to be a human being and to be alive, and then they have a big ceremony to mark this child’s birth.

In some cases, that you’ve read about, birth happens at puberty. In some of the New Guinea tribes, the infant stays with the women until puberty, and even boys are considered to be women, they’re just female boys and girls are not differentiated. At puberty, the males steal the boy away and they have a birth ceremony. You remember reading about this in New Guinea.

Upon becoming a mother even because it’s so–in traditional China, which means up until the Communist revolution, if not later, a woman has sort of two lives. As you may remember from one of your readings, that often a woman, a girl child is not even given a name; number one girl, number two girl, number three girl, they don’t even get a name and they have sort of a quasi-existence.

In this–these parts of Chinese culture, a mother is considered to start her life all over again at the birth of her first son, not her daughter but the birth of her first son. The mother takes a new name at this time and she has a–she’ll, by that time have a family name, but her son is never allowed to learn what the name of her prior–previous life was. For all intents and purposes her life begins at the birth of her first son.

You read the article about the Egyptian woman; do you remember what her name was? Om Gad, and that means? Mother of Gad, so again, she takes the name which–she has a whole life that’s starting anew, in a sense, when she has the first son, mother of Gad. The idea is that different cultures have very different takes on when life begins. Since it’s a cycle and it’s arbitrary, cultures have a perfect right to choose whatever point they want for the beginning of this cycle.

Even within a culture, and I’m talking about the culture of my friends, who are largely medical people, they all have very strong ideas about when life begins. The obstetricians and gynecologists, because the vast majority of fertilizations do not result in a fetus, and the mother doesn’t show any signs of it, the mother doesn’t know, there’s no change in her body, you can’t test anything about the body, they consider implantation, where the early embryo sits into the uterine wall and at that point there’s hormonal signals going–bouncing back and forth between the fetus and the maternal one. At that point the mother’s body starts changing and so they consider that the begin point.

When they say ‘you’re pregnant’ they’re not talking about fertilization they’re talking about implantation. This has caused lots of debate. Depending on where you define this some–like birth control pills and various devices are supposed to work after fertilization but before implantation. If you ask someone who’s talking about beginning of life at fertilization, they say that’s abortion. If you’re talking with something about the beginning of life is at implantation, that’s not abortion. This is almost never put out when people are arguing fiercely about these things, that they’re just using different definitions of when things begin.

Another very standard one, very important in Western history, is the ability to move. Back then, starting back from Aristotle, the difference between dead and alive was whether something had the power of motion and that was called animation. When you move you’re animated, like a cartoon, a cartoon is a fixed image in a comic book or something, then you have animated cartoons, and that’s where they move around. You’ve probably heard ‘The Quick and the Dead’? Quick referring to movable as a famous book, The Quick and the Dead, and it’s a very common expression. That you’re either dead or you have the power to move.

St. Thomas Aquinas tied together, it actually comes from Aristotle and we’ll go back to that in a minute, tied, in Catholic theology, the ability to move with animation being alive and that happens at–we now call it quickening, when the mother can feel the fetus start to kick. That’s another way so you can have–when the embryo plants, when the embryo starts to move.

The neonatologists are very interested in fetal viability. Can the fetus stay alive outside the mother? They argue that this is a sign that it’s an independent being, because it can live outside the mother. That turns out to be, the most delicate thing is, when the lungs can function. A fetus or a baby can live outside the mother as long as there is enough lung function, so for the neonatologists, life begins when there’s enough lung function so that it can live outside the uterus.

Now neurologists, I’m a neurobiologist, so neurologists are closest to my–I don’t know to my heart, but they’re close to me, they always define the beginning of life as when is someone human, as referring to some mental capacity that they can do. It might be motor response, it might align with the ability to move, that they’re looking for motor responses, it might be brainwaves, it might be ability to sense something.

One variant of the neurologist’s point of view has gotten, to some extent embedded in the public debate. This is when the fetus can feel pain and that’s the point at which life begins for legal purposes, as they perceive it. There’s some research on this question, not an awful lot, it’s very hard to tell. What you can determine experimentally is, we know there’s pain receptors on the surface like if you electric shock something or burn it or something, there’s pain receptors, we can identify those, we can stimulate those, and we know the pathways by which it goes up to the cortex.

By the seventh month, at the beginning of the seventh month, those neural pathways are mature enough so that at least the information that there’s some pain has gone into the cortex. We still have no information on what, if anything, the cortex does with that information at this stage. It may not be ready to have any kind of response to it.

Chapter 6. Abortion in Law, Religion and History [00:48:03]

I go on about all these different ways of defining the beginning of a cycle, beginning of the cycle of life, and it’s up to your cultural or scientific, or academic predilections. You can do set whenever you want. All of those designations are equally legitimate and equally illegitimate. None of them are a scientific question. Science will describe to you all the stages of the cycle, but it won’t say anything about where you should say the beginning of the cycle is. It’s a chicken and the egg problem, just very simply.

Now you have this thing that is not a scientific question. There’s tremendous cultural diversity about it. There’s tremendous diversity within the public of one culture like ours about it. But, the law has to define murder because you can’t go and murder a TA because they gave me a bad grade. So the law has to define some–has to accept one of these points.

There’s law has had a variety of things. What the law likes is what they call a bright white line. That it’s clear to everybody when you’ve crossed this line. Since the development of the fetus in the uterus is continuous, there’s no particular point in time that you can say; this stage is different than the day before. No point during gestation would be a bright white line that everyone agrees that it either happened or didn’t happen. What they–the bright white line today is birth; everybody knows when someone has given birth. I’ll tell you in a moment that in Jewish Rabbinic law it’s even more specific. It’s when half the head sticks out–that’s when birth happens, that’s when the fetus becomes a baby.

Pretty much the courts have stuck, so far in America, with this conclusion that birth is the bright white line, everybody can agree on that. There’s also a fair amount of religious opinion that quickening, that’s another–at least to the mother–identifiable event. Now an outside person can’t necessarily tell this, but the mother does not know whether she’s pregnant until quickening, until she feels the baby kick. She can miss a period but there’s a quite few reasons for missing a period other than pregnancy.

Some of the earlier laws and continuing into some of the abortion laws refer to quickening as bright a line as you can get. But there, the mother knows it before everyone else. Eventually you can put your ear or your hand to a pregnant woman’s stomach and feel the kicks but the mother knows early. Since that happens over–in different pregnancies over quite a wide range of time, over actually a month to month and a half before the kicks become sensible, it’s not a very good kind of a line.

Okay, so we so far have the idea of the beginning of life is not a scientific idea, it’s very variable in cultures, and so we still haven’t really answered the question of why this idea that life begins conception is such a prevalent idea in the West. Again, other cultures have different kinds of ideas. One thing of course that pops up to mind is, is it biblical, because so much of our culture comes from biblical ideas. Well you know what–what is life–what does the Bible say about when life begins? Anybody know? Nobody–there’s all this fundamentalism in America and nobody here.

Well what is the cycle of life described in the Bible? This is common in literature; any literature major should know this. Dust to dust. You’ve–how many of you have heard dust to dust? Yeah, or sometimes translated as earth to earth, it’s Genesis 2:7: “God formed man of dust from the ground until he returned to the ground, for out of it you are taken, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s the cycle of life. If there’s a beginning to the cycle, at what age did God create Adam? There’s something moderately explicit about that. Created Adam in his own image, well the image of God is not–it’s not a fertilized egg, right? Whatever you perceive the image of God, it’s more or less an adult person.

Of course, right away Adam was able to receive commandments to not eat the fruit and so forth, and suddenly Eve was born out of his rib, certainly not a two cell cycle. Again, in the Old Testament there’s just no support whatsoever for the idea that, as a biblical idea, that life begins at conception. There is no–in the New Testament the issue just doesn’t come up at all. There’s no statement about when life begins. We’ll come to some statements which are very loosely interpreted in that way in a minute.

Very interesting. There’s two great Catholic and then Christian because Christians have inherited most of the theologians–St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, you’ve heard of them. St. Augustine came first in 300 and something, and, in his Confessions, he’s interested in this question and he says, “Tell me God, tell me whether there was some period of my life which preceded my infancy. Is this period that I spent in my mother’s womb, was I anywhere or any sort of a person? I have no one able to tell me that, neither my father nor my mother, nor the experience of others, nor my own memory.”

Here’s one of the greatest Catholic saints and theologians, who’s of course read the Bible, knows it backwards and forwards, and he is very well aware that there isn’t information in that to tell him that answer. The conclusion is, that this isn’t a really biblical, the idea that life begins at conception, is not something that comes from the Bible.

I’m going to switch a little bit and come back to this–these kinds of thoughts. A little bit of the history of abortion. Abortion has been known in history as far as back as we can trace. The oldest reference is from Egyptian hieroglyphs in tomb paintings, so we’re talking about the very early civilization. As soon as people can write, they’re writing about abortion. By the time of the Roman Empire there were lots of references to abortion in the literature and there are no laws against it. The Romans didn’t consider it. As I’ve just mentioned, in the New Testament, it’s not mentioned at all and there’s of course nothing forbidding it.

The New Testament and the Roman Empire are contemporaneous of course, and so the conclusion is that, even though abortion was very, very common at that time and used by all classes of people, there was not an issue for the New Testament writers.

At the end of the Roman–this classical period, this Judeo-Christian way of thinking about things comes into the mainstream of Western civilization. There is an explicit passage about abortion in the Old Testament. Don’t call it out but anybody knows–at least one person ought to know what this passage is. One, two, so it’s a very, very minor number of people. The Ten Commandments, which you all know, and you all know this passage also, but I’ll get to it. The Ten Commandments are in Exodus 20 and the sixth of the commandments, as you know, “you shalt not kill”.

What does this mean? What do all these laws mean? In the following chapters, there’s an explanation of how to interpret these laws. There’s various violent acts that men do and which ones are accepted. May you beat your slave? May you kill your slave? May you do this, may you do that? And there’s a lot of jurisprudence in there. What do these one sentence Ten Commandments [mean], what do they–how do you interpret them in particular cases?

In Exodus 21, for instance, what to do in cases of murder? What if one man hits another with a stone or his fist? What if a man kills his servant? What if a man kills a thief? All of this exegesis; in this passage where it’s explaining the Ten Commandments, including thou shalt not kill; it describes a crime that is much worse than a modern abortion.

In a modern abortion, a woman, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to be pregnant. She goes to a doctor and says, ‘please doc I want an abortion, I don’t want to be pregnant and here’s $150 or $200 or whatever it costs, and please do this for me,’ so it’s voluntary on the part of the woman. This passage in the Bible describes a worse situation where a man violently, against the woman’s will, causes her to miscarry or abort.

This is the quote, “When men have a fight and hurt a pregnant woman so that she suffers a miscarriage,” the man is fighting with the woman there, so he goes after the wife rather than the husband, “When men fight and hurt a pregnant woman so that she suffers a miscarriage, but no further injury, the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman’s husband demands of him and he shall pay in the presence of the judges.”

Now that is a standard Hebraic, Old Testament, law for a property crime. You do a crime, everyone knows–they decide that you actually have stolen this from the person. The victim gets to say how much is proper recompense for this. But, the victim can’t ask for anything outrageous, so a judge has to basically approve the settlement. If the judge approves–you steal something, well I want that same thing back or ten times as much, or whatever it is, goes before a judge, the judge approves it, if the judge approves it, it’s paid, and that settles it.

That’s what happens if the fetus comes out, if there’s this miscarriage but no further injury, that’s the result. But it continues, the passage, “But if injury ensues you shall give life for life, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.” How many of you heard that sentence? Oh my gosh, that’s everywhere in Western civilization, everybody should have heard that, that’s called the lex talionis, the law of the claw sort of thing and it’s very standard, that retribution for retribution.

It’s very, very interesting because it says an eye for eye, life for life, well is he talking about the baby or the mother? Life for life could be either even though it says the baby is born already you can still–people fiddle a little bit. Life for life, eye for eye, and then what is the third thing, tooth for tooth; that lets you know right away, babies don’t have teeth, that’s sort of the one thing that they’re missing and the fact that this passage selects that as the third thing to describe is a very clear indication that it’s not the fetus they’re talking about, but it’s the mother.

This is very; very clear both from that–so that if she suffers a miscarriage, but no further injury then it’s a property crime. You’ve taken away something that the father, in particular, wanted and the father is the one that gets to decide on it. But, if you do damage to the mother, then you have to really, really pay for it. That’s the most explicit passage in the Bible about abortion and it’s totally clear that it’s the life of the mother, the life and physical health of the mother that’s the important thing.

The Jewish Talmudic Law, which is not the Bible but writing about it says, “If a woman is in hard travail, and her life cannot otherwise be saved, one cuts up the child within her womb and extracts it member by member because her life comes before that of the child. But, if the greater part of the head was delivered, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for the sake of another.”

Again, a very explicit statement that before birth, defined as half the head out, it’s the life of the mother is the only critical thing, but once that birth has actually proceeded then they are equal and you can’t even save the mother’s life in this case. What kind of procedure is this describing that’s become politically very important now?

Student: Partial birth abortion.

Professor Robert Wyman: Partial birth abortion. It’s the-procedure that the right-to-life people are very much opposed to. But, here it is, from biblical scholars talking about it as when a woman is in hard travail and there’s nothing to do but that, then you go ahead and do that. Of course this emphasis on the mother is exactly what is reflected in the Supreme Court decision. I’ve given you to read the Roe v. Wade Decision, and again, it’s the mother that is the central interest.

You may remember that the Roe v. Wade divides up pregnancy into three trimesters. The first three months, the second three months, and the third three months. The first three months are completely at the mother’s discretion. The second three months the state can put some controls on it and the third three months, after the sixth month, then the state has a lot of say in this. The Supreme Court Decision is kind of a balance, and why did they decide to break it up by not halves? Why into three months? That probably again comes–is a biblical thing.

One of the quotes that right to lifers use a lot, and again you probably don’t know this, but go talk to a right to lifer; if you’re pro-choice–whoever–whatever side of this thing–talk seriously to someone on the other side. It’s very–it’s always very informative.

There’s this passage where Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist, and then Mary gets pregnant and she goes to see Elizabeth. John the Baptist, inside Elizabeth’s womb, jumps for joy. Have any of you heard this passage used in these debates? Again, just a few of you, it’s a very, very standard sort of thing. It goes–it’s in Luke, “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb, for behold when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy.”

This is taken by right-to-life people that the baby in the womb is already a sentient, a person, a full person. Interestingly, the story gives extra information. Zachariah, that’s Elizabeth husband, they’re very religious and they’re old and they have no children, but then God rewards their goodness by making Elizabeth pregnant. It’s a recast of the Jacob story where his wife wasn’t–couldn’t get pregnant.

“After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she hid herself” … “in the sixth month Gabriel was sent …” to announce to Mary that she would bear Jesus, and the angel Gabriel explicitly explains to Mary that Elizabeth is now six months pregnant, “And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth, in her old age, has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.”

It’s amazing because the Bible is not–in no other passage is it explicit about the stages of pregnancy. This repetition, that at six months something special happens is very diagnostic. It is almost undoubtedly–they don’t explicitly say it–the reason why the Supreme Court said to [divide], instead of in halves, in thirds. The sixth month, because that, in a sense, is in accordance with one interpretation of these Bible passages.

It also is scientifically reasonable because it accords with the time when the fetus does respond to external stimuli. By six months, if the mother gets excited or something, you can detect it in the fetal heartbeat and so forth. If there’s a physical bang or something you can detect it in the fetus. So, at six months there’s some sort of responsiveness, neuro-responsiveness going on in the fetus.

Chapter 7. Further Historical Origins on Life’s Beginning [01:05:40]

There’s other passages and I put them all in your reading packet. I put the Exodus passage which pro-choice people refer to if they know it, and the pro-life passages. I put them all in your reading packet and you can read them all.

Given the–basically the silence, except for this explicit–really except for the explicit passage in Exodus about the criminal causing an abortion of this woman, the Bible is really quite silent on this issue. Yet it’s of theologically great importance. So, what has happened is the Christian theologians had to rely on the opinions of–especially the ancient philosophers because when they–this all started in the Roman Empire those were the philosophers that were of importance.

As I mentioned to you, Aristotle argued that the matter of the fetus came from menstrual blood and–but it got interesting. After the discharge is over, so he thought pregnancy started after menstrual flow had stopped. So, in a cycle where there was a menstrual flow, he says, “After the discharge is over and most of it has passed out, then what remains begins to take shape as a fetus.” The female menstrual blood, however, is incapable of doing this by itself. It must have the stimulus of the male semen.”

They didn’t know anything about sperms at that time but they of course did know about semen, and they knew that intercourse was required. What it did they had no clue. Male semen does not contribute to the material of the fetus. He wondered what guided the development of the blood in the fetus, and the thought there must be some agent that is introduced by the sperm which causes this coagulating blood to take form.

He, according to Greek word for this which later gets translated as ‘soul,’ and the Western idea of soul really comes from this Greek, this Aristotelian image of whatever it is that comes in the semen that–does not contribute physically to it, but organizes this whole thing. Much later in the 1500s and 1600s, when these issues became hot again, this is one of the pictures of Aristotle’s coagulum. So, this is the womb, and inside this stuff is mother’s menstrual blood as it is presumed, and it’s gradually getting organized so you really can’t see much of the organization in there, but what you can see is the blood vessels starting to form.

If, in fact you do dissections of a fetus, the first thing that forms is the placenta and this is the most obvious thing is the blood vessels of the placenta. The mother has half the placenta and the fetus has half the placenta, as I hope you know, and that’s where nutrients get exchanged and waste gets taken out. Then I guess in the original, somehow you could see that there was a gradual formation of the fetus but finally the fetus forms as some sort of coagulation of this blood under the influence of semen.

These–you all know this story, so we now interpret conception. Conception is actually a very vague word, and I have it in here but there isn’t time to read you what the Catholic encyclopedia says it is, and it’s very, very complicated and it’s not anything that you think it is. We interpret now as more educated–how do we interpret conception? We use it as the same idea as fertilization.

Do any of you make a distinction between conception and fertilization? No, I’m not going to ask the opposite question. Fertilization is the specific current scientific concept. Conception is an old thing, something undefined, that an act of intercourse is needed, and ejaculation of sperm is needed, and something goes on. Unknown, but something goes on and that leads to conception. Our current interpretation of this as fertilization is often now taken to be the traditional Western view, the traditionally Christian view.

When was fertilization discovered? When were sperms discovered? I think you know this. What’s the name, the person who discovered–invented microscopes? Anthony van Leeuwenhoek, you’ve heard of Leeuwenhoek? I’m sure in high school you went through this. He was the one that first found little animalcules, he took drops of water and–from ponds and looked at it and saw all these little things swimming around and he defined them as animalcules, little animals. Then he looked in sperm and there were these little things swimming around.

Apparently, I’m not sure that this is proper history, the spice trade was real important back then and they wanted to know what it was that gave spice its tangy flavor. So he invented the microscope to look at spice so to see–because it was very expensive to get spice all the way from the Middle East, going through mostly Muslim countries, who charged a lot to passage it, and so it was very expensive and they wanted to know the secret of spice and they thought there was something in it. So, he invented the microscope to look at that, but what he found was little animalcules and he eventually looks at sperm and he sees the animalcules in it.

What does he do? He interprets it as the same animalcules as in the water. Well the sperm is made of something–I’m sorry the semen is made of something and these sperm are little contaminants which are eating it up. They’re just like the little guys you saw on anything that was rotting. That was a sperm, but they didn’t have any idea of what it meant.

Then, it was much later–they didn’t see human eggs in mammals, even mammal eggs that–You can see eggs of chickens, you can see eggs of insects, they’re pretty obvious. You can see eggs of fish, they’re pretty obvious, but the egg of a mammal is so tiny that it can’t be seen. It was actually William–there were a number of guys who, sort of gradually saw it and gradually realized what it was, but William Harvey, the same guy that saw the circulation–that figured out the circulation of blood was one of the first ones to see an egg.

They just knew about an egg and they said, well that sort of got rid of this blood coagulum stuff and they still had no idea what was in semen. Even though they saw sperms, they didn’t know that there was an egg, so it wasn’t until 1840s that finally fertilization was discovered in mammals and that it was actually the physical matter of the sperm and the physical matter of the egg that come together.

The conclusion of all this is that the culture, our culture, and especially the religious parts of it, believe that life begins at conception and believe that this is a traditional idea. That it goes way back to the beginning of Christianity and even into the Bible. But, in fact, the whole idea of fertilization only dates from 1840 and so it’s a very modern idea, and the whole–And then going further, the whole idea of life having a beginning just doesn’t make any scientific sense because we know and have known for hundreds of years that life is a cycle.

There is much more, you have some very interesting reading on this topic, and there’s infinite amount of reading that you can do on it. That’s all I’ll say on it for today.

[end of transcript]

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