Developmental Biology class responds to ‘Pro-life’ article


Dear Mr. Kailey,

Thank you for raising the important issues surrounding the pro-life side of the abortion debate to the Union community. As students of developmental biology, we would like to address a few points about embryonic development discussed in the article “Political Faceoff: Pro-Life” published on April 28, 2016.

Our hope is to elucidate the circumstances of development so that our friends can fully understand the biological elements of life versus personhood, which we feel are not the same. Mr. Kailey wrote, “We know living things instantly when we see them. All the qualities of life are recognizable in the form of an unborn child.

Most women who seek an abortion do not understand the development of a baby, and do not realize that within the first weeks a child will have developed limbs, nerves and even functioning organs.” As a class, we have looked under the microscope at a single-celled embryo (from a sea urchin) and seen life, but did not recognize qualities of life such as love, empathy and conscious thought. Life is not the same as personhood. There is no way to deny that an embryo in the womb is alive.

During the early stages of development, an embryo is composed of cells dividing and differentiating with the potential for personhood. In human development, limbs, nerves, and functioning organs do not develop for several weeks after conception. Once initiated, organs continue to develop for months, in some cases continuing to develop past birth and through puberty, (for example, the lungs do not fully mature until 18 years of age).

During the first three weeks of development, the embryo is rapidly dividing using maternal messages to set up the body plan of the future embryo. No organs are being developed at this point. Neurodevelopment begins three weeks post fertilization when the neural tube forms. While neurons continue to grow and send projections, the embryo has no functioning brain to constitute self-awareness and cannot feel pain.

At 27 weeks post fertilization, the nervous system is developed and begins functioning. Therefore, within the first weeks, an embryo is not self-aware nor can it feel pain, because it does not have a functioning nervous system.

Mr. Kailey also noted, “We by human nature know that what is alive moves, uses energy, grows and develops, responds and adapts to its environment.” By this criteria many things should be awarded rights such as bacteria, skin cells, etc. All respond to stimuli, use energy, grow and develop.

From a biological perspective, a sperm and an egg as single cells are alive. When a sperm interacts and activates the egg in fertilization, the cells and embryo that develop continue to be alive. It takes four weeks before this developing ball of cells in the uterus is even considered an embryo.

There is a great distinction between what is alive and what is a person. One definition of personhood is the state or fact of being an individual or having human characteristics and feelings. When we consider the developing fetus, we can say that yes, it is alive, but its life is being sustained solely by the mother and so it is not an individual. It is not until 27 weeks that a fetus can survive outside of the womb if born premature, and even then a respirator is required.

However, by law, no abortions are performed at this stage unless the mother is facing the risk of death. We acknowledge that a fetus does posses the basic qualities of something that is alive but these characteristics are not sufficient to assign it personhood. Kailey states, “Often, proponents of abortion will argue that unborn babies are not self-aware, and cannot be alive. This flies in the face of the argument that life is determined at birth.”

A significant difference exists between what is considered life and what is considered to have personhood. There is a difference between being self-aware (conscious) and being alive. Again, embryos are alive but do not have self-awareness until much later in development when a functioning nervous system develops.

There are philosophical definitions that distinguish what is considered alive and what is considered to have personhood. While the cells of the embryo are alive, an individual with personhood must have a soul. Aristotle states that there is a difference between the potentiality of life and the actuality of life. Reaching the actuality is defined by the functions of the soul being fulfilled by an individual.

This gives the individual personhood, which is much more than just being “alive”. There are many living things on this planet, however not all of these living things have personhood. A baby in the womb cannot have a soul; it cannot think for itself and cannot function on its own. Therefore, while the developing fetus does have life qualities, it is not defined by personhood.

Rather, it has the potential to have personhood, and will reach its actuality after birth. “The truth is that abortion seems a convenient work around for the hardships of life. Behind the facade however, there is a terrible storm of death that has claimed the lives of millions of humans who never had a voice or the chance to defend themselves, and this is a storm that rivals the catastrophic and tragic genocides of the 20th century.” It is unfortunate that the perspective of the women, who suffer with the hardship of considering abortion is not considered in this statement.

In assuming that abortions are taking the easy way out, the emotional, mental and physical implications of the decision are not considered. What if the woman is struggling to financially support herself? What if the woman was impregnated through rape? What if the woman had health conditions that could be deadly for her or the future baby? What if the woman has no support from the father?

Individual pregnancies are completely situational and cannot be criticized for the woman’s lack of consideration of her decision. We feel the comparisons between abortions and genocides are inappropriate and insensitive. The circumstances under which genocides occur are devastatingly different, and the goals of genocides are rooted in prejudice and evil. Genocides are the deliberate killings of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group. Abortion is done not with the intention of wiping out an entire race or nation, but is done to spare a child and its mother from various hardships.

By comparing abortions and genocides, you are dismissing the atrocities of past genocides and wrongfully using the term to sensationalize abortion and stir up feelings in those who are less informed. We hope that we have clarified for many the events of human development so that everyone can make informed opinions. We respect life and we respect foundationally science. Respectfully, Members of the Developmental Biology class and Professor Theodosiou


  1. You write: “A baby in the womb cannot have a soul; it cannot think for itself and cannot function on its own.” That statement goes way beyond what developmental biology or, indeed, science, can tell us and delves into the realm of metaphysics. The essay would have been better if the vast philosophical literature on the subject had been consulted.

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