Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Condic on the Difference Between Embryonic Humans and Hydatidiform Moles [Jay Watts]

One of the more advanced questions that we encounter on campuses and in discussions with more sophisticated abortion rights advocates goes as follows:

The biological products of sexual reproduction are not always human beings. Hydatidiform moles (HM) are the products of sexual reproduction, but in this case an enucleated egg is fertilized and only the genetic material of the father is present. In the early stages of growth HM will look like a developing human life. It will cleave and grow and if you were looking at it you would see something seemingly indistinguishable from a human being. Therefore – the arguer says – not all embryos are human beings and it is wrong to say that the product of human sexual reproduction is a human being from fertilization.

Maureen Condic addresses this and similar arguments in her contribution to the incredible resource Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments. Her article entitled A Biological Definition of the Human Embryo offers an analogy to help clear up what is wrong with this argument that I will tweak just a little from CD's to ipods. She talks about the similarities between the songs “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”, “The Alphabet Song”, and “BaBa Black Sheep”. All three begin with the exact same first measure. Hum the first few notes of each song and you will see that if someone were playing the music from any of those songs it would be impossible distinguish which song was being played in the first measure simply by hearing it. Does that mean that the song playing on my daughter's ipod shuffle is potentially any one of them? Is it potentially “The Alphabet Song” and only literally becomes “The Alphabet Song” when you get to the fourth measure and you can now be certain that it was neither “BaBa Black Sheep” which diverges in the second measure nor “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” which diverges in the fourth measure? Of course not. The song playing on her shuffle was always one or the other you just couldn't know for certain by listening till it reached a certain point in the development of the song. At any point that I plugged the shuffle into the Macbook it would identify the actual song on the playlist and would not say “Can't Know Just Yet”.

In the same way Condic says:

There are several reasons why it is both misleading and inaccurate to define what is and what is not an embryo based on later developmental events (implantation, formation of the primitive streak, brain function, etc.). First, development results in the maturation of an existing organism; it does not transform an entity from one kind of thing into another kind of thing. Just as a CD playing “The alphabet song” is not transformed from a “pre-alphabet song” state at the fourth measure, but rather plays this song from the beginning, embryos are not transformed into human beings once some developmental event occurs.

Elsewhere she also offers the following:

Despite an initial (superficial) similarity to embryos, hydatidiform moles do not start out as embryos and later transform into tumors, they are intrinsically tumors from their initiation. Moreover, they are not frustrated embryos that are “trying” (yet unable) to develop normally. Just as a CD recording of “Twinkle, twinkle little star” is not somehow thwarted in its attempt to play the “Alphabet song” by a deficiency of notes in the fourth measure ..., hydatidiform moles are not “blocked” from proceeding along an embryonic path of development by a lack of maternally-imprinted DNA. Rather, hydatidiform moles are manifesting their own inherent properties—the properties of a tumor. Even in the optimal environment for embryonic development (the uterus), hydatidiform moles produce disordered growths, indicating they are not limited by environment, but rather by their own intrinsic nature; a nature that does not rise to the level of an organism... If the necessary structures (molecules, genes etc.) required for development (i.e., an organismal level of organization) do not exist in an entity from the beginning, the entity is intrinsically incapable of being an organism and is therefore not a human being. Such entities are undergoing a cellular process that is fundamentally different from human development and are not human embryos. [emphasis hers]

For all of you that are not musically inclined I offer this final analogy. My wife and I used to travel out to the western states every year prior to having children to hike. I apparently possess a natural ability to spot wildlife that was impressive enough that a job was offered on the spot by a group that leads tourists on hiking and wildlife spotting tours through the Jackson Hole area. (Not a day goes by that I don't fantasize about what my life would have been like had I taken that job, but that is a different story)

The key to my success was having a good teacher the first time I went out on a wildlife spotting expedition in the Tetons. He told me that you don't look for a moose, bighorn, or elk with spotting scopes or binoculars. You look for big rocks with your naked eye. Then if you patiently wait and watch the rocks sooner or later one of the rocks will start to move. They all look like rocks at first but eventually the living things distinguish themselves from the non-living things around them. Then you use your spotting scope to figure out specifically what animal you are seeing.

In the same way, embryonic humans and hydatidiform moles look alike in early growth stages. If we watch them for a little while they will distinguish themselves for us. What we learn is not that the embryo failed to develop and turned into an HM, but that what looked like a human embryo was always something else. The human being existed from the beginning of its organized development and the fact that other things mirror the early developmental events of that human life does not effect the identity of that nascent human life. It just means that from certain vantage points we only truly understand the nature of a life as we observe its developmental arc. The HM is destined to break down into an aggressive growth while the human being will progress to the blastocyst stage and continue on through the dynamic self directed organized process of human development.


  1. This is a great post on a complicated topic. I'm going to check out Maureen Condic's book. Thanks.

  2. Hey Jen R,

    Thanks for the kind comment. The book is actually a collection of articles by various authors. It is very academic in its writing style and very expensive. I just wanted to give you a heads up if that is not your cup of tea. I personally love all that stuff.

    I will be blogging on some of the other articles and trying to make the content more digestible over the coming weeks.

  3. Well, except for the expensive part!

  4. Fabulous post. This is something I've debated before, and I'm glad to see someone can articulate my own thoughts so clearly and succinctly.


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