One of the chief cries of abortion-on-demand supporters has been that of bodily autonomy—“my body my choice!” The soundbyte goes something like this, “a woman should be free to decide what to do with her own body.” Setting aside the highly dubious hidden premise that one is free to do whatever they want with their own bodies, here we give ten reasons why the unborn cannot rightly be called a “part” of the mother’s body.
(Bear with me here…some of these require explanation but the truths are worth the investigation.)
1. Genetic Identity
Let’s start with the most basic observation. It is simply biologically false to say that the unborn is not an individual. In living things, the instructions for their physiological makeup are embedded within each of their cells. That is, the mother and unborn child are both genetically unique individuals. They each have their own DNA and genetic makeup that has never and will never be repeated. Even identical twins are not completely identical. Each has a unique code, due to epigenetic factors and the way DNA is transcribed and translated. I actually once heard a medical student (crudely) say, “if you think killing an embryo is killing an individual then you must think masturbation is genocide!” His point was that an embryo is no different than a gamete cell. Granted, this was a first year medical student and he may not have taken cell biology yet, but gametes and zygotes are entirely different kinds of cells. Gametes are not whole individuals. They are more like parts of the adult whence they came (see point #10 for more on parts and wholes). A gamete is a haploid cell, meaning it carries half the genetic code of its source (which is why you look a little like both of your parents). But a zygote, the new, single-celled organism that comes into existence after fertilization, is a diploid cell, meaning it has a full and unique genetic code. which is why you look a little like both your parents. Indeed, it always bugs me when people refer to a zygote or an embryo as a “fertilized egg”. It’s incredibly misleading. A fertilized egg is not an egg cell anymore. A zygote may be a single cell, but it’s an entirely new organism.
Because the genetic identity of the zygote is not that of the mother, the zygote can even be a different sex than the mother. Sexual identity is determined by the chromosome carried by the male gamete (sperm) in fertilization. Because it is haploid, the ovum always carries only one half a chromosomal identity, an X chromosome. If the sperm cell, also being haploid, also carries an X chromosome, the resulting zygote, being diploid, will have an XX chromosomal identity, making it female. If the sperm cell carries a Y chromosome, the resulting zygote will have an XY chromosome, making it male. Sexual identity, genetically speaking, is determined at fertilization.
Imagine for a moment that some other body part of a woman (say an ear) were discovered in a field somewhere. Stay with me here…To what extent would it be possible to trace the ear back to an individual? If the individual’s DNA profile were logged into a DNA database, it would be possible to match the ear to the individual it belonged to. Even if it were not possible to trace the ear back to the individual, because their DNA was not logged into a database, it would still be possible to identify whether the ear had previously belonged to a man or to a woman based on its chromosomal makeup. Now if the ear of the same woman’s male unborn (say at a gestational age of 34 weeks) was found in a field, the chromosomal makeup of the ear would not identify it as belonging to a female, but to a male. The mother of the unborn whose ear it was would actually be excluded from the potential individuals to whom the ear had belonged. This strange hypothetical scenario serves to illustrate that sexual identity extends to one’s body parts, such that even in the absence of a DNA profile match, the severed body part of a male unborn would not be identified as a part of its mother, while all parts of the mother would be. Thus, the unborn is not part of the mother.
3. Blood Type
Contrary to popular thought, the unborn does not share a circulatory system or blood with the mother. Oxygen is diffused through the placenta into the unborn’s bloodstream and circulated through its body and to its tissues and organs by its own heart. In fact, Rhesus disease occurs when a mother’s body actually recognises the presence of the unborn as a pathogen because of the difference in blood type and produces antibodies to attack it. Difference in blood type indicates that the unborn is an individual distinct from the mother and is therefore not a part of her.
4. Transitive Possession of Body Parts
If A is part of B and B is part of C, then necessarily, A must be part of C. This is called a transitive relation. The unborn is itself composed of parts. At eight weeks after conception, all the major organs we normally think of as body parts are present (even if not yet functioning). Now if the unborn has parts and the unborn is itself a part of the mother, then the parts of the unborn would have to be called parts of the mother. If A (unborn parts) is part of B (unborn) and B (unborn) is part of C (mother), then A (unborn parts) must be part of C (mother). But this leads to obvious absurdities. How many feet does a mother have at, say, 12 weeks gestation? Two or four? If we say that the unborn is a part of the mother then we would have to say four. We would also have to say that she has a penis, if she’s pregnant with a boy. But this is absurd. The only possibilities then are to deny the logical principle of the transitive relation or to deny that the unborn in a part of the mother. Logic suggests the latter.
5. Shifting Dependence
As evidence that the unborn is a part of the mother and not an individual, some will point to the fact that the unborn is dependent on the mother for nutrition and for survival. But “dependence” is a nebulous concept and is marked by degree. Every born person is dependent in some way on others, but they’re still individuals. There is no other case where one’s degree of dependence causes us to recognise them as a non-individual, so as a justification for abortion, dependence already seems to be a non sequitor. It’s true that the unborn depends on the mother for nutrition before birth (as it will after birth), but the way in which the unborn depends on the mother shifts depending on the unborn’s stage of development. In fact, very early in development, the embryo is nutritionally self-sufficient. The mother does not provide nutrition to the unborn prior to implantation in the uterine wall, and after implantation, the yolk sac provides nutrition and serves as a rudimentary circulatory system for the developing embryo for a short time.
The manner in which the unborn is fed is not all that different, in fact, than the way an infant—or a very elderly person—is fed. In both cases someone else obtains food, processes it such that the other person can receive it based on their stage of development, and transfers the food directly into them. In the case of an infant, the mother puts mashed food into his mouth. In an elderly person it may be done in a similar way or through a feeding tube. The umbilical cord and placenta (which are organs of the unborn, by the way) are the analogous to a long spoon or feeding tube and serve the same purpose.
If nutritional dependence means the unborn is a part of the mother or is not an individual, then this would mean that the unborn shifts from being an individual (prior to relying on the mother for nutrition) to not being an individual (after it does rely on the mother for nutrition) and then back to being an individual (at some point after birth, presumably…teenager?), which is absurd. Hence, the unborn is not a part of the mother.
6. Meaning of individual as self-contained whole
The unborn may be small (like many of us) and in varying ways dependent on the mother (like many of us), but this doesn’t take away from the fact that even the zygote, that single-celled new little individual, is in fact a whole individual. There is a tendency to think of the unborn as not whole individuals because they are in an early and rapid stage of development. But living things are not constructed the way inanimate objects are. For example, a carpenter builds a chair by assembling its parts—legs, seat, back, etc. It’s not really a chair until it has all the essential parts. But living organisms are not constructed, they develop. A single-celled zygote may not have all the parts it may later come to develop, but it is nonetheless a complete organism. It has all the parts it needs at that particular stage of its development. It is whole from the time it comes into existence, which biologically speaking is at conception. Its life cycle and processes unfold according to its own internal plan and operations. The mother’s body does not construct the unborn, rather, the unborn self-develops with the mother’s assistance. Just as infant, toddler, adolescent, and adult human individuals develop with assistance from one another and from the world around them. The unborn is whole and therefore not a part of the mother.
7. Place does not equal part
It may seem obvious to say that the unborn is a part of the mother, since the child is actually inside the mother and is physically connected to her body. This does not make the unborn “part” of her though. Let’s consider the fact that the unborn is inside the mother first. Does x being inside y make x a part of y? It that’s the case, then you are a “part” of your car when you sit inside of it. Or consider a single brick in a wall. What makes this brick a part of this wall? Is it merely place? Is it not rather, that the brick contributes to the wholeness of the wall and to its function? Furniture in a house is not part of the house (except in a metaphorical sense).
What about physical connectedness? Is x a part of y because they are physically connected? Consider the wall again. Posters and graffiti may be “connected” to the wall, but we wouldn’t say that they constitute the wall’s parts. Human beings are connected to different things all the time for myriad reasons (clothes, jewellery, cell phones, other human beings) and even for reasons of dependence. This doesn’t mean those things become “part” of us. So physical connectedness does not make the unborn part of the mother.
8. Wholeness of a non-pregnant Woman
How do parts come to be present in adult individuals? Organs develop, either prenatally or postnatally. At eight weeks gestational age, all major organs are formed, though they may not all function by this point. Consider what this would mean if the unborn were a “part” of a woman’s body. If the unborn were a part of a woman’s body, there would be two natural ways for the woman to develop this “part”. One possibility would be for her to be born pregnant, as women are born with other prenatally developed body parts, such as limbs, a brain, sex organs, lungs, a stomach, etc. Women are not born pregnant, and no one expects them to be. Women are born with certain organs or bodily parts which developed prenatally. The woman functions in a state of health without the presence of the unborn, so the unborn is not a “part” at any point prenatally.
Another way we come to have organs or parts is to develop them postnatally. They may be structurally present but not active, as in the case of a woman’s ovaries. They are present prenatally but do not begin to function until a postnatal stage of develop. But women do not “develop” the unborn, nor is the unborn present at birth in a nascent way, only to become active later in life. Some women never become pregnant. Generally speaking, if the potential exists for a woman to never develop something we might call a “part” of her, can it be said to be truly a “part” of her? Would this not mean that women were born “deformed”, that is, missing “parts”? Clearly we do not speak of non-pregnant women as lacking something essential to womanhood or to her bodily integrity. A non-pregnant woman is not missing any of her organs or parts. And since we do not speak thus, the unborn cannot be said to be a part of the woman whenever it is present. This might be called the argument from the non-privation of a non-pregnant woman. A non-pregnant woman is not missing anything even if she never becomes pregnant. If the unborn were a part of a woman, non-pregnant women would have to be called “de-formed”, which is absurd.
9. Argument from the Social Relationship Between Mother and Unborn
One of the most exciting aspects of being an expectant parent is developing a social relationship with the unborn while still in utero. Parents talk to and about their unborn child. They (may) name their unborn child. They may even play with their child, for example poking or tapping a little elbow sticking out of the mother’s belly. No one names, plays with, or sings songs to their body parts, at least not seriously. There is also ample evidence to indicate that there is a tremendous amount of social learning that occurs before a child is even born. Interactions between twins are especially interesting (and cute). The parent-child relationship exists before the child is even born precisely because child is an individual and only individuals can be social with one another. This reality is exactly the reason abortion providers want to avoid mothers seeing ultrasounds, naming their babies, or even referring to their unborn as “he” or “she”. So the unborn is an individual and not a part of the mother.
10. Meaning of Part to Whole–Mother as Part of the Unborn
The argument that the unborn is part of the mother suffers from a misunderstanding of what it means to be “part” of something. The essential element in the relationship of part to whole is not place, size, or even connectedness, but that the part exists and functions for the sake of the whole. Parts of things don’t explain themselves. They are not their own thing. They make sense only with reference to the whole they are a part of. For example, the wheel on a car does not explain itself. It is itself (if we can even speak that way) only when it is purposed toward the functioning of the whole car. In an individual being composed of parts, the nature of the parts is that they serve the whole. We can easily see then why the heart or lungs are parts of an individual by reference to what they contribute to the whole individual.
But the unborn does not contribute to the whole functioning of the mother. True, pregnancy does provide some hormonal and physiological benefits to the mother, but these usually last only through pregnancy and seem to actually be for the benefit of the unborn and to the benefit of the mother only secondarily. The unborn contributes nothing substantial to the mother’s whole functioning. In fact (and this is amazing, when you think about it), while neither mother nor unborn are parts of the other, it is more correct to say that the mother is a part of the unborn. The effects of pregnancy on the body of the mother seem more so directed to the functioning and development of the unborn than the mother. The changes a mother’s body undergoes throughout pregnancy—and even after—are the result of the mother’s body having turned itself into an extension…a part, so to speak, of the unborn, for the unborn’s flourishing. Even more amazing is the fact that whole organs of the mother exist for no other purpose than the functioning and development of the unborn, such as the uterus and breasts. The mother’s body behaves more like a whole part of the unborn rather than the reverse. Thus, the unborn cannot be said to be a part of the mother without completely misunderstanding the very nature of the part-to-whole relationship.
An Important Note
All of what has been said here is simply to refute the biologically false slogan that the unborn is part of a woman’s body and that she therefore has the right to dispose of it (the hidden premise, that one is free morally to do whatever they wish with their own body, is also false, by the way). It in no way diminishes or reduces the dignity of the mother-child relationship to observe that both are unique individuals. The most amazing thing I have ever witnessed and been a part of has been seeing my wife become pregnant and give birth to our two boys. Not to mention everything else she does for us three hooligans. Motherhood is freaking amazing. Catholic comedian Jim Gaffigan put it best:
“But truly, women are amazing. Think about it this way: a woman can grow a baby inside her body. Then a woman can deliver the baby through her body. Then, by some miracle, a woman can feed a baby with her body. When you compare that to a male’s contribution to life, it’s kind of embarrassing, really. The father is always like, “Hey, I helped, too. For like five seconds. Doing the one thing I think about twenty-four hours a day. Well, enjoy your morning sickness—I’m going to eat this chili. Mmmm, smell those onions.”