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  • Paul Stark

Washington Post columnist tries to mock pro-lifers—by conflating human beings and human sperm

A recent article by Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri ridicules pro-life advocates' contention that unborn humans should not be treated like medical waste.

Referring to legislation that requires dignified treatment of the remains of human embryos and fetuses (whom Petri inaccurately calls "fertilized ova"), Petri writes: "Why such concern for these fertilizing spermatozoa, more than others? Those spermatozoa have passed into the beyond after making connections that elude millions of their brethren. Why honor them?"

She goes on to sarcastically suggest that if we have funerals for embryos and fetuses, then we should have funerals for sperm too:

State legislators, if you have such concern for the select few, remember the unfortunate millions! We must, of course, give honor above all to those who went to the halls of glory without glimpsing even a hint of an ovum. This is the least we owe those who lived in hope—and died—in states of single blessedness.

Satire can be powerful, but not when it's founded on scientific illiteracy. Petri's mistake is that she confuses human beings with human gametes. They are two very different things.

Pro-life people have no concern for "these fertilizing spermatozoa." We do not wish to "honor them." Pro-lifers have concern, rather, for the individuals who come to be upon fertilization. These individuals, as middle- and high-school biology students (hopefully) learn, are neither spermatozoa nor ova (both of which cease to exist when fertilization is successful). They are human organisms—members of the species Homo sapiens. They are called zygotes at the one-cell stage, and then embryos (through eight weeks), fetuses (eight weeks until birth), infants, children, adolescents, and adults as they develop themselves throughout life.

"Human development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte to form a single cell, a zygote," explain Keith L. Moore, T.V.N. Persaud, and Mark G. Torchia in their embryology textbook The Developing Human. "This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual."

Human zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are human organisms. And since pro-life people think all human beings are important—they oppose discrimination on the basis of age, appearance, or ability—they care about the treatment of these unborn children.

Spermatozoa, by contrast, are not human organisms. They are gametes (reproductive cells with only 23 chromosomes), which are parts of the parent. They don't develop as human beings—because that's not what they are. Their purpose is to unite with an egg and thereby cease to be. That's why we would never think to have funerals for them. A sperm isn't one of us. It's just a sperm.

Petri is far from alone in confusing living individuals with mere parts of living individuals (either gametes or somatic cells). But sound ethics requires sound science. Before we can know how to treat unborn children, we must know what they really are.

What are human embryos and fetuses? They are human beings. Science tells us so.

This article appears in the December 2019 issue of NRL News.


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