The Washington Post Is Super Confused About Where Babies Come From
Mollie Hemingway
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Last week, Sen. Marco Rubio took some heat for saying that he was skeptical of global warming activism. He was asked about the reaction to some of his comments and he noted some hypocrisy he’s witnessed on scientific consensus:

All these people always wag their finger at me about ‘science’ and ‘settled science.’ Let me give you a bit of settled science that they’ll never admit to. The science is settled, it’s not even a consensus, it is a unanimity, that human life begins at conception. So I hope the next time that someone wags their finger about science, they’ll ask one of these leaders on the left: ‘Do you agree with the consensus of scientists that say that human life begins at conception?’ I’d like to see someone ask that question.

Now, it’s probably worth noting at the outset that everything Rubio said in this paragraph was true. Human life begins at conception and nobody is ever asked about whether they deny that.

But let’s look at what the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza tweeted out in response:

Marco Rubio demanded people look at the science on abortion. So we did.

The blurb for the piece says, “‘Science is settled … that human life beings at conception,’ Sen. Rubio said. We spoke with an expert on the science who didn’t agree.”

The story itself, with the same UpWorthy headline, is written by one Philip Bump and reads, stunningly:

We reached out to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, an association comprised of a large majority of the nation’s ob-gyns. The organization’s executive vice president and CEO, Hal C Lawrence, III, MD, offered his response to Rubio.

“Government agencies and American medical organizations agree that the scientific definition of pregnancy and the legal definition of pregnancy are the same: pregnancy begins upon the implantation of a fertilized egg into the lining of a woman’s uterus. This typically takes place, if at all, between 5 and 9 days after fertilization of the egg – which itself can take place over the course of several days following sexual intercourse.”

In other words: Consensus exists (if not unanimously), and the consensus is that uterine implantation is the moment at which pregnancy begins.

We presented that description to the senator’s office, asking if he wanted to clarify or moderate his statement. Brooke Sammon, the senator’s Deputy Press Secretary, told us that “Senator Rubio absolutely stands by the comment.”

Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear. It is somewhat mortifying that the idiocy of this is not immediately apparent to everyone. Did you catch it? Are you smarter than a Washington Post reporter? Do you know that “when human life begins” and “when an embryo implants in the uterine wall” are actually not synonymous statements? I bet you did. Or I bet you could figure that out pretty easily.

See, you will not learn this — or much of anything else about the reality of abortion or unborn human life — from the media, but in fact there is consensus about when human lives begin. It’s almost a tautology to say what Rubio said. It’s like saying “human life begins when human life begins.”

Scientific Consensus On When Human Life Begins

Here are just the first five examples cited by a Princeton group of scientific statements on when human life begins:

  • “Development of the embryo begins at Stage 1 when a sperm fertilizes an oocyte and together they form a zygote.”
  • “Human development begins after the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization (conception). Fertilization is a sequence of events that begins with the contact of a sperm (spermatozoon) with a secondary oocyte (ovum) and ends with the fusion of their pronuclei (the haploid nuclei of the sperm and ovum) and the mingling of their chromosomes to form a new cell. This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning, or primordium, of a human being.”
  • “Embryo: the developing organism from the time of fertilization until significant differentiation has occurred, when the organism becomes known as a fetus.”
  • “Embryo: An organism in the earliest stage of development; in a man, from the time of conception to the end of the second month in the uterus.”
  • “Embryo: The early developing fertilized egg that is growing into another individual of the species. In man the term ‘embryo’ is usually restricted to the period of development from fertilization until the end of the eighth week of pregnancy.”

Some of those are a bit old so here’s a listing of quite recent statements from “scientific textbooks, papers and medical agencies” that were mentioned in a 2013 legal brief prepared for the Supreme Court. And here’s another list showing the consensus on the topic.

Are you a Washington Post reporter? Are you confused? For you I have an animated video of the process:

The video begins:

Fertilization is the epic story of a single sperm facing incredible odds to unite with an egg and form a new human life.

It is the story of all of us.

Emphasis mine. The animation explains the process of how a single sperm attaches to the egg cell membrane and how their outer membranes fuse. You can watch for the details but note this from late in the video:

At this moment, a unique genetic code arises, instantly determining gender, hair color, eye color and hundreds of other characteristics.

This new single cell, the zygote, is the beginning of a new human being.

Who to believe, bloggers at the Washington Post or embryologists? I’m so confused! And the Post wasn’t just wrong but, like, so embarrassingly wrong as to require a correction, a mea culpa, and a serious amount of soul-searching. (I get a kick out of how the people who make these videos, which are used by medical and media sites, say “Low health literacy costs the US healthcare system between $106 billion to $238 billion each year. Please watch and share a medical animation to raise health literacy!” Indeed!)

OK, so some people tried to gently point out the egregious and embarrassing error to Cillizza and Bump, who have steadfastly refused to correct the piece they promoted. Michael Brendan Dougherty sciencesplained that “Rubio is referring to the presence of a unique human DNA, present just after conception.”

Bump had this to say in response:

“I gave him the opportunity to clarify in response to the quote from the experts.”

Please note: Bump thinks the problem is not with his own flawed reporting and comprehension but with Rubio’s statement! Bump thinks this tweet and his piece do something other than make him look extremely bad!

But it gets worse:

There’s a blurry line between “pregnancy” and “life” in this discussion. When we asked ACOG if the two were interchangeable, we were told that the organization “approach[es] everything from a scientific perspective, and as such, our definition is for when pregnancy begins.” On the question of when life begins, then, the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus.

“Life” is something of a philosophical question, making Rubio’s dependence on a scientific argument — which, it hardly bears mentioning, is an argument about abortion — politically tricky.

Uh, what? Let’s list the problems here:

1) Rubio didn’t mention anything about definitions of pregnancy, so there’s no blurry line in “this discussion” about his statement regarding when life begins and someone else’s statement about when pregnancy begins (much more on said definition in a moment).

2) It’s probably a good time to mention that ACOG is a group known for its strenuous support of abortion. Beyond the question of why Bump used this group instead of embryologists as sources, there’s also the issue that he’s not identifying them as vehemently pro-choice (as in, they even support partial-birth abortions).

3) No one is mentioned in this piece other than ACOG. Yet Bump claims, “the scientific experts we spoke with didn’t offer any consensus.” This is a difficult claim to swallow. Had he spoken to anyone with even a cursory understanding of what happens, scientifically, when a penis enters a vagina, he would have found consensus. Is there any evidence whatsoever that he spoke with anyone other than the pro-choice group?

4) Dude, life can be a totally trippy thing, I agree, but Rubio was not talking philosophy. He was talking science. And the question of when human life begins is not philosophical, it’s scientific. You might debate when you have the right not to be killed by someone else, be it three months’ gestation, five months’ gestation, or birth. Some deny the right to life of various classes of people long after birth, too. Philosopher and abortion advocate Peter Singer has said children don’t achieve full moral status until after two years. And these are, in fact, philosophical questions. But the scientific question of when life begins is actually pretty straight forward, if mysteriously unknown to some at our biggest media institutions. Or as Dougherty mocked, “Guys, guys. Human ‘life’ is an illusion created by social consensus, WaPo is breaking this whole thing open!” To me Bump’s bizarre statements are more reminiscent of a group of college students from a third-rate public university having what they think sounds like a really deep conversation after passing around the bowl. And since Bump is so into “experts,” I’ll just note that I went to the University of Colorado.

Having said all that, I do admire Bump for going full Gob Bluth:

Politics Vs. Science

Bump inadvertently hit on something in his final lines, when he wrote, “After all, if someone were to argue that life begins at implantation, it’s hard to find a moral argument against forms of birth control that prevent that from happening.”

Did you know that the definition of pregnancy was changed not long ago from beginning at “fertilization” to beginning at “implantation”? Did you know that this was a political decision? Did you know that some groups have even tried to say that implantation is when “conception” occurs, too?

Before we get into this story of politics and science, I might note a few statements from early in the birth control battles. Alan Guttmacher, former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America and a leader in the International Planned Parenthood Federation said:

We of today know that man… starts life as an embryo within the body of the female; and that the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm.  This all seems so simple and evident to us that it is difficult to picture a time when it was not part of the common knowledge.

Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, said, “If, however, a contraceptive is not used and the sperm meets the ovule and development begins, any attempt at removing it or stopping its further growth is called abortion.”

Birth control pioneer Marie Stopes said, “A large number of the opponents of birth control deliberately confuse birth control with abortion. I suppose it is all right for me to explain to you that abortion can only take place when an embryo is in existence. An embryo can only be produced after the sperm cell and the egg cell have actually united, after their nuclei have fused and after the first cell divisions have taken place. The moment that that has taken place you have there a minute, invisible, but actual embryo, and anything which destroys that is abortion, and we never in our clinic do anything which can in any way lead to that destruction. But until the sperm cell has united with the egg cell, no embryo exists or can exist, and anything which keeps the sperm away from the egg cell cannot lead to or be abortion because no embryo can then exist.”

All of these statements are from the first few decades of the 20th century. As technology developed that enabled embryos to be destroyed before implantation, what was so “simple” and “evident” and “common knowledge,” in Guttmacher’s words, suddenly became none of those things. In Germain Grisez’s 1970 book “Abortion: The myths, the realities, and the arguments,” the French-American philosopher discusses a 1964 conference on the IUD, or intra-uterine device.

At that time, the research indicated that IUDs not only worked by preventing conception, but also that they sometimes worked by preventing implantation. Given that public opinion was different for contraception and for abortifacients, there was much discussion about how to overcome this problem. Some suggested that doctors start describing pregnancy as when implantation occurs. Dr. Howard C. Taylor, chairman of the conference, said, “It has been suggested that we ought to set our definition that pregnancies start at implantation.” Dr. Christopher Tietze, a longtime regular researcher for the Guttmacher Institute, said, “If a medical consensus develops and is maintained that pregnancy, and therefore life, begins at implantation, eventually our brethren from the other faculties will listen.”

Guttmacher himself brought up a religious tract that made a distinction between something called “biological life” and something called “human life,” with implantation for some reason being the point when the genetically distinct human became, um, “human life.” Despite the incoherency of the statement (all life is by definition biological and also identified with a particular species), Guttmacher liked what the religious tract offered and said, “We agreed that abortion as a means of family limitation is to be condemned. But a woman cannot abort until the fertilized egg cell has nidated and thus becomes attached to her body.”

In 1966, Welsh abortion and euthanasia activist Glanville Williams said that a changed definition “is of practical importance in relation to intra-uterine contraceptive devices (IUCDs). According to some opinions, these work not by preventing the formation of the zygote but by preventing attachment to the womb. If these devices are found to be safe and effective, it is of importance that they should be regarded as contraceptive and not as abortifacient in their operation.” Obviously these are the words of someone concerned with public opinion about the IUD as opposed to the scientific reality of same.

A 1959 conference on conception sponsored by Planned Parenthood and the Population Council urged that “becoming pregnant” and “conception” should not be identified with fertilization. Swedish research Bent Boving argued that the “social advantage of being considered to prevent conception rather than to destroy an established pregnancy could depend on something so simple as a prudent habit of speech.” Hunh! Imagine that!

In 1965, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology was telling people that “conception is the implantation of the fertilized ovum.” Yes, the same ACOG that represents abortionists and was the only group quoted by the Washington Post in a story about when life begins. Fancy that.

OK, that was a lot to work through. And for people who value the sanctity of all human life, from actual conception to natural death, none of these semantic changes matter one bit. But you can see how they would help those activists with different views on when human lives can be ended.

The thing is that activists can redefine pregnancy all they want and it won’t change the central issue at hand — the question of whether it’s ok to end the life of a genetically distinct human. We won’t resolve that debate any time soon, but obscuring the facts on when and how human life begins will not help matters.

Surely the Post will correct its errors as soon as possible and, more importantly, work to tangibly improve its coverage on this and related topics.

Photo "Conception" by Lynn (Gracie's mom)
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