One of my favorite conversations in the Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory didn't make it into either movie. Willy Wonka brings his guests to a room with what he describes as square candies that look round. All of his guests correct him that the candies are actually square candies that look perfectly square from their perspective, but Wonka continues to insist they look round. Finally, determined to prove his point, he opens the door to the room and, as he does so, all the square candies on the table look round to see what is happening. They are square candies that look round.
I love that scene, and it highlights a problem that often arises in important conversations, especially centering on issues in which we invest ourselves emotionally. We mean different things when saying the same words. These definition problems corrupt conversations to such an extent that the only way to move forward is to back up and clear up the confusion.
In the last two years I know of at least three different pro-choice advocates in high profile exchanges that claimed that it is common knowledge that life doesn't begin at fertilization. All people educated in biology, so they say, understand that life is a continuum and there is no point at which we can definitively say “life began there.” The parents were alive, the gametes were alive, the zygote is alive, the embryo is alive, and on and on. How can pro-life advocates claim life began at fertilization when that event is surrounded by life?
Others routinely object to the claim that life begins at fertilization because it is silly to attribute to a single celled organism or undifferentiated cellular mass the same status as a reasoning, feeling human being. Human life can't begin at fertilization unless you think that zygotes and embryos are like you and me.
If all the parties involved are arguing in an honest spirit, which does happen, then we are very much like Willy Wonka and his guests arguing about the square candies that look round. What do we mean by looks round? What do we mean when we say life begins? We need to both ASK clarifying questions and OFFER clear definitions. Instead, we often plow ahead getting more and more frustrated that otherwise reasonable and moral people seem to be so blind to the strength of our positions.
The claim that life begins at fertilization is a scientific claim supported by embryology. It isn't wrong to say that life is a continuum from a macro perspective, but that fact doesn't mean we can't recognize individual organisms. Our claim is that the life of an individual human organism begins at fertilization, and this is nearly universally acknowledged. Dr. Ronan O' Rahilly and Dr. Fabiola Muller address this in Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd ed.(2001):
“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte”
So we can concede that life begets life begets life without getting so confused that we can no longer see individuals. After all, Ryan Gosling and I are both living human beings that are products of life within a continuum of life, but few people would have trouble distinguishing us as individuals. In the same way, doctors like Malcolm Potts may argue that life exists in a continuum with no clear beginning, but he apparently had little trouble differentiating the mother from her unborn child when performing abortions or when affirming the autonomy rights of the former over the right to life of the latter.
The people arguing that life can't begin at fertilization because we can't equate zygotes and adults are making a different kind of error. It is a simple category mistake. That human life exists and begins at fertilization is a matter of scientific observation. Anyone with a passing knowledge of genetics can affirm that adult Jay actually has quite a lot in common with zygote Jay. The organism that I am now began at that moment. The DNA that determined so much about the adult that I am was in place from the beginning and central to the self-coordinated development that moved me through all the subsequent stages of growth. Who I am today is a product of who I was then and the sum total of environmental influences I have encountered.
But that isn't what they usually mean. They are claiming that embryonic life lacks some deeper meaning or value. Since it is obvious to everyone, so they say, that all the aspects that make life valuable are absent in nascent human life then it is clear that valuable human life can't begin at fertilization.
This is a philosophical claim. Our claim is an appeal to science. We need to be equipped to help them see the difference. When the life of an individual human organism begins is a question of science. If they wish to claim that morally meaningful human life is differentiated from biological human life then they need to be prepared to offer philosophical arguments to that point. We also bear the responsibility of defending our philosophical position that human life has value by virtue of what it is, not what it can do or offer society. All of these arguments are philosophical and are of a different category than the question of when life begins.
Sometimes we just mean different things when saying that same thing. It is our job to clear these points up with clear definitions and not be swept up by our passions into an argument corrupted from the outset by misunderstanding. That way, we are not like Willy Wonka trying to convince a group of people that candies that clearly look like squares look round.