What is the unborn? A look at the scientific evidence

This is from National Right to Life.


Before deciding how we ought to treat the unborn—a moral question—we must first be clear about what the unborn is. This is a scientific question, and it is answered with clarity by the science of human embryology.

The facts of reproduction are straightforward. Upon completion of the fertilization process, sperm and egg have ceased to exist (this is why “fertilized egg” is an inaccurate term); what exists is a single cell with 46 chromosomes (23 from each parent) that is called a zygote. The coming into existence of the zygote is the point of conception—the beginning of the life of a new human organism. The terms zygote, embryo and fetus all refer to developmental stages in the life of a human being.

Four features of the unborn (i.e., the human zygote, embryo or fetus) are relevant to his or her status as a human being. First, the unborn is living. She meets all the biological criteria for life: metabolism, cellular reproduction and reaction to stimuli. Moreover, she is clearly growing, and dead things (of course) don’t grow.

Second, the unborn is human. She possesses a human genetic signature that proves this beyond any doubt. She is also the offspring of human parents, and we know that humans can only beget humans (they cannot beget dogs or cats, for instance). The unborn may not seem to “look” human (at least in her earlier stages), but in fact she looks exactly like a human at that level of human development. Living things do not become something different as they grow and mature; rather, they develop the way that they do precisely because of the kind of being they already are.

Third, the unborn is genetically and functionally distinct from (though dependent on and resting inside of) the pregnant woman. Her growth and maturation is internally directed, and her DNA is unique and different from that of any other cell in the woman’s body. She develops her own arms, legs, brain, central nervous system, etc. To say that a fetus is a part of the pregnant woman’s body is to say that the woman has four arms and four legs, and that about half of pregnant women have penises.

Fourth, the unborn is a whole or complete (though immature) organism. That is, she is not a mere part of another living thing, but is her own organism—an entity whose parts work together in a self-integrated fashion to bring the whole to maturity. Her genetic information is fully present at conception, determining to a large extent her physical characteristics (including sex, eye color, skin color, bone structure, etc.); she needs only a suitable environment and nutrition to develop herself through the different stages of human life.

Thus, the unborn is a distinct, living and whole human organism—a full-fledged member of the species Homo sapiens, like you and me, only at a much earlier stage in her development. She is a human being.

That’s what they assert in the introduction. The rest of the article cites textbooks, scientists and even a Senate Judiciary report to substantiate the claims, then refutes common objections. Not many pro-abortion scholars are going to contest the full humanity of the unborn, but it’s still nice to review the science. In case this is your first time looking at this, might want to save it for later. Also, if you want a good introductory book on the case for the pro-life view, there’s none better than Scott Klusendorf’s “The Case for Life“.

5 thoughts on “What is the unborn? A look at the scientific evidence”

  1. I still get a lot of people who argue these basic scientific facts, believe it or not. In fact, I just recently had a discussion in which a pro-abort was claiming that unborn babies are just a part of their mother and that the mother’s body builds her baby’s body. This person even said that “Her womb is a factory, not just a garage.” I tried to explain that while aliens in science fiction might grow an extra set of limbs and organs and then divide to become two, humans don’t do that. The unborn child is a separate human being from conception onward.


  2. To justify (in someone’s mind) inhumane treatment of another human being they must first remove their humanity. Once that’s done anything becomes moral.

    I don’t think science is the only issue; we not only have to be logically aware that a fetus IS a human being; we also have to be aware of that fact emotionally. Many people are just able to shut down their emotions when something is inconvenient.


  3. But this surely is showing the basics of the unborn are human but still not at what point it ceases to be fetus etc and becomes and unborn child. What point does that come? Nervous system development? Brain development? Still Seems indeterminable.


    1. An unborn child includes the human development stages of zygote, embryo, and fetus. Fertilization is the event that marks the formation of a human individual. Technically speaking, once the child is born, the term neonate is used instead of fetus, even though there is a lot of overlap in actual development between fetuses and neonates. For example, a child in the womb at 38 weeks gestation is called a fetus while a child born at 30 weeks gestation, though younger and less developed, is called a neonate. So the label we place on a stage of development is rather arbitrary and certainly doesn’t reflect any difference in value between humans in different stages.

      All of the stages of a human life, from the single-celled zygote stage to the adult stage, involve a complete human being. Regardless of the stage, a human is a human. If we don’t attach any special significance or rights to entering the toddler or adolescent stages, why would we do so for entering the fetal stage or the neonate stage? Entering a new stage of development is an event that happens to a human being, not something that defines one.


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