It was about -10° during a recent “Choice” Chain, and I didn’t expect anyone to want to talk with me in such weather. Yet, within 5 minutes, Morgan stopped by my sign, and this pro-choice student was eager to have a long conversation about abortion.
As we discussed human rights and the science of human development, Morgan told me that he didn’t think we could know when human life begins. He thought that instead, human life must exist on a kind of gradient. He asked me how a single-celled zygote was any different from a sperm cell or an egg cell. I asked him, “Could a sperm left alone in a man’s body, or an egg left alone in my body, ever develop into a toddler or teenager?” “No,” he replied. “So couldn’t we agree then,” I continued, “that human life can’t begin before fertilization? And if we look at any time in a human being’s life after fertilization, can’t we still trace her life back to beginning at that point?”
He thought about this, but then objected again: “But if you take it back just a bit further, you have a sperm and an egg — they just haven’t met each other yet. So why aren’t those just half a human?”
While his tone was somewhat joking, I decided to take his question seriously: “I actually think that there is a radical difference between sperm/egg and an embryo, because a change in structure isn’t the only change that happens at fertilization. It’s not just a process of ‘1 + 1 = 2’. If you’ll bear with me for a moment, I can explain why I think that.” He nodded in agreement and I could tell he was listening.
“When scientists classify cells and organisms,” I said, “they need to look at two things: cell composition and cell behaviour. Sperm and egg have, typically, 23 chromosomes. That’s only half the genetic material needed for a human being. At fertilization, though, there’s a change in composition: the human zygote now has 46 chromosomes, a complete genetic code. And I’m sure you know about all the recombination that takes place at that time as well.” He nodded in agreement.
“There’s also a radical change in cell behaviour at fertilization,” I continued. “The behaviour of a sperm is to penetrate, and the behaviour of an egg is to be penetrated. But when sperm and egg fuse at fertilization, the new zygote doesn’t do those things. Instead, she grows and develops so that she can go through all the stages that a human being is supposed to go through. Those radical changes in cell composition and cell behaviour mark the change from gamete to organism.” (If I had remembered my apologetics better, I might have added in that the zygote has coordinated function, and self-directs her own growth.)
To prevent my explanation from sounding too much like jargon, I added in: “And you and I know this intuitively! A woman has eggs in her body, but she can’t get pregnant unless an egg is fertilized by sperm.” He again nodded in agreement.
Morgan had no response to my reasoning, and after that, he no longer presented any arguments that a human embryo was scientifically equivalent to a sperm or egg. He instead shifted his arguments back to philosophy, and argued that the embryo wasn’t deserving of human rights because she differed from us in so many ways. Nevertheless, our conversation was now grounded in the biological reality that human life begins at fertilization.
I don’t always delve that deeply into embryology with the person I’m talking to–especially if I think that I may lose their attention and interest. I brought up cell composition and behaviour with Morgan because I could tell that he had the patience for a long conversation. He had brought up many flowery philosophical terms in our conversation, so I decided that sharing more advanced information with him would show him the credibility of the pro-life perspective.
Over the course of 45 minutes, I found that Morgan’s pro-choice beliefs were deeply embedded in his utilitarian worldview and in his experiences of people close to him having abortions. Nevertheless, at the end of our conversation, he said that we had “scientific reasons” and “good arguments” to back up the pro-life position. He told me that he was going to keep thinking about the issue because it was so important, and he thanked me for having a respectful discussion with him.
I know that Morgan will need to reconsider many more aspects of his worldview before being able to accept the truth about abortion. I also know that the truth he heard and saw will leave “pebbles in his shoe.” Sharing the truth with people is always worth it—even if I sometimes can’t feel my fingers at the end of those winter “Choice” Chains.