One Cell Is All It Takes

Life begins with one cell.

That sentence shouldn’t be controversial, or otherwise troublesome. After all, no serious person would gaze at a single bacterium on a microscope slide moving by way of a polar flagellum–a masterwork of biological engineering–and conclude they weren’t witnessing the actions of a living organism. And yet, a depressingly high number of people develop a severe case of the bends when a different single cell happens to go by the name of “zygote”.

A zygote is nothing more or less than a human being at the earliest possible stage of development. One cell old. Yet despite the fact that even at such a primordial age, this tiny human now possesses more genetic information and organization than even the most complex bacterium could fathom–and is already preparing itself for, frankly, the most intricately synchronized biological process I’ve ever encountered–people of the pro-choice persuasion still largely consider it on dismissive or metaphysical terms. A fairly common rejoinder goes thus: “It’s not a life, it’s a blob of cells”.

At face value, this is, at very least, irksome. Certainly the plaque between one’s teeth constitutes a “blob” of cells. A scab on my arm fulfills that definition. But, a scab is only ever a scab. A zygote doesn’t long remain a zygote. It has a higher calling.

I’ve written before of the necessity of pro-choicers to adopt such language. If the practice you advocate women having a choice in involves willful destruction of life, it’s easier to justify that decision by obstinately holding that life doesn’t exist for the unborn rather than to give it equal footing with the rest of us. This is a particularly frustrating habit to witness for most anyone on the other side of the ideological divide, but especially for those like myself who, having studied such things formally, have stood “rapt in awe”–to borrow from Einstein–of the biochemical and cellular pageantry of it all.

For there can be no question: a developing embryo or fetus, at all stages, is 1) human, its genetic material being derived from two parental human organisms, 2) demonstrably genetically unique from both parents, by virtue of genetic cross-over at the zygotic stage, and 3) living, as its cells are actively dividing, growing, and—most importantly—metabolizing energy. That’s really all there is. Those who shirk these rather simple biological conditions denoting the presence of human life, in favor of imprecise and patently absurd notions of “personhood,” are little more than modern-day mystics. There is no magical property attending squeezing an infant through a woman’s genitalia, or of the oxygen that greets it for its first breath, that confers personhood. Seeming beliefs to the contrary are illiterate, and kinda creepy.

Human gestation really is singularly beautiful, and in earlier stages, perilous. Only 40 percent of conceptions make it through implantation and through the first trimester. Life finds a way, and largely has the interplay of finely coordinated cellular events during those first twelve weeks to thank for it.

After conception, it takes a scant four days or so for a dividing pre-embryo to have developed some rudimentary structure: the blastocyst. At this point, a human is already far more complicated in form and function than bacteria are, yet were one to ask a pro-choice picketer which constitutes “life,” it’s the plucky hominid that gets short shrift.

Implantation follows shortly thereafter, at which point the nutrients the-now embryo receives from mother acts as jet fuel to rapidly advance development. In the first two weeks, a neural tube that will eventually become the brain and spinal cord is forming. It takes only 18-21 days for immature cardiac myocytes to begin their first rhythmic contractions that delineate a heartbeat. By week four, the eyes and ears have begun developing; arm and leg buds can be identified.

At the end of week eight, the liver is aiding in blood formation, the head looks familiar, and there are ten fingers, and ten toes. The embryo is recognizably human.

At the end of week twelve and the first trimester, all major organ systems are well in progress. Developmentally, we all start out female, but by this time, a present Y chromosome will fire, and male genitalia would form. The baby is now three inches long, and weighs just half an ounce. Not bad for three months work that started with one cell and a single six foot length of inanimate genetic biostuff.

All this occurs under optimal circumstances to produce a healthy baby by birth. Not all are so fortunate.

Often times discovered as a consequence of prenatal screening, Down Syndrome–an anomaly of chromosome 21–is associated with mental deficiencies, and often times physical and developmental delays. For this reason among others, 90% of babies diagnosed in utero are aborted.

Which is a travesty. Such a diagnosis never stopped the likes of Megan McCormick, who in 2013 graduated with honors from Bluegrass Technical and Community College with an associate’s degree in education, with plans to teach at the elementary level:

“I want to be independent, I want a full-time job, and I want to drive my own car,” McCormick said. “And I want to work with children, serving as a role model for them.”

And why shouldn’t she? She and many others like her have proven that, far from being a burden to be dispensed with in an act of destruction, they aren’t diminished by disorders that may hamper their bodies’ function but not their ability to affect their small corner of the world. Those like McCormick simply bear down and carry on like the rest of us. Who are we to deny them that chance?

Much is made nowadays, with regard to abortion, about where to draw the line. Currently, the United States is one of the few developed countries worldwide that allows abortion after twenty weeks. Given advances in medical technology, especially proliferation of imaging techniques that allow for high resolution pictures of the unborn in real time—which have revealed their humanity—societal pressures to amend this are mounting.

Natural birth is often times given by pro-choice advocates as time zero for the beginning of life. Increasingly, this view can no longer be justified–at least not honestly–not just in light of our knowledge of biology, but particularly in the practice of neonatal medicine.

So much of modern medicine is perceived–rightfully so–as having a very methodical, scientific aspect. But when it comes to treating premature infants so close to an ever-receding “age of viability”–an age where beforehand, babies are to the firmest abortion advocates little more than metaphysical constructs–the practice is equally an artistic endeavor, if not more so. A cross between Louis Pasteur and Leonardo da Vinci, and we become more da Vincian by the year. Doctors and nurses have become quite good at this stuff.

The age of (consistent) viability now is roughly 22-24 weeks. In 2011, a 21 week old baby was born in Germany and survived.

Walls of survivability are crumbling by the year. We can peer through flesh to reveal a being who looks like us at a very early age. Responds to voices. It can suckle its thumb. Blood courses through its veins. Will learn to walk and talk, learn and love. How long can the stubborn voices among us hold out against such progress?


About Michael Haugen

Michael Haugen is a full-spectrum conservative and recent graduate from Eastern Washington University (BS Biology). His main interests in politics and public policy center around health care, education and tax reform. He'll be returning to EWU in 2014 to complete a Master's degree in Public Administration. Follow him on Twitter: @HaugenTRA

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