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Why a Fertilized Egg is Not a “Baby” – A Gardener’s Analogy

June 19, 2011

With blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and the like, I think we all have a tendency to surround ourselves with people like us, who share many of our core beliefs. In the feminist blogosphere, we can feel like we’ve already had a discussion 100 times, already settled a matter, and we’re all kind of operating with the same definitions and understandings (even if that isn’t really the case). I know I can feel like, “I’ve already covered that topic” – like whether “life begins at conception” – but a comment thread at Kat Coble’s* made me want to revisit an issue when a commenter all-caps declared a fertilized egg to be “a BABY.”

Medical people do not consider having a fertilized egg alone to mean that you are pregnant. Pregnancy tests, even if they were much more sensitive than they are now, would not detect just having a fertilized egg, because there is no chemical change to detect. Despite this, many anti-abortion folks consider a fertilized egg to be, not just equivalent to, but actually a baby.

It’s easy, though, to imaine that a fertilized egg is “life,” is a “baby.” After all, all of the information, the stuff from mom and dad, is there. As emotionally invested as we can be in the process, it’s natural to want to think of that moment as the moment when pregnancy began. Sure, the joining of egg and sperm kicks off the process toward creating a baby, but it can never, without implantation, actually become one, and a woman is not considered pregnant until implantation successfully happens.

Because these distinctions matter, especially when politicians and others are arguing over women’s bodies, rights, and access to birth control and abortion, we need a way to understand this distinction. One that makes intuitive sense, because the image of a sperm penetrating an egg and making a baby as if by Disney magic is so firmly entrenched in our minds. We need a way to visualize the difference in a way that allows to separate our human feelings from the reality of what is going on in our bodies at these vastly different stages of having a fertilized egg and having that egg implant for us to become pregnant. How can we find such a way?

Imagine a seed.

Imagine a tomato seed, which you may plant and nurture. That seed has all of the necessary information from its parent tomatoes in order to become a tomato plant. It’s much like a fertilized egg – all that is required is the addition of the proper environment and care. If you provide the right resources, and have a little bit of luck, you will end up with a tomato plant. If a fertiized egg implants, and everything else goes right, you will end up with a baby.

Now imagine a seed in a sealed stainless steel box.

That seed still has all of the information it needs to become a tomato plant – just like a fertilized egg has all of the information from mom and dad – sperm and egg – to become a baby.

But that seed will never become a tomato plant. It needs light and food and air and chemical reactions in order to grow from a seed into a tomato plant, materials it has no access to in our sealed stainless steel box. Alone in its cold box, it is only a seed, only the potential for a tomato plant. If we don’t plant it, it will never progress beyond being a seed, and we will never think of it as a tomato plant.

Likewise, a fertilized egg that does not implant is only the potential for a baby. If it does not implant, it will simply pass from the body, undetectable by any modern tests, and unnoticed by the woman it passes from. In fact, a good-sized percentage of fertilized eggs do pass from the body in this manner, without notice.

No birth control method is 100% effective. If you believe that every fertilized egg is equivalent to, or is, a baby, you’re pre-menopausal and fertile and having penis-in-vagina sex with a fertile partner, then you must acknowledge that you may be creating and expelling many “babies” in your lifetime along with your menstrual period. If simply fertilizing an egg were all it took to become “pregnant,” most of would need to add a few more pregnancies – ones we never even noticed – to our lifetime total.

This doesn’t feel right, does it? To wonder every month (assuming the conditions above are met) whether you are passing a baby every time you get your period? But why not? If a fertilized egg is life, then this is likely to happen on more than one occassion, and you’ll never know for sure.

I understand that many people feel that a fertilized egg is a “life,” or “baby,” and that this is not necessarily coming out of a logical or scientific perspective – it’s a belief. No matter how much I believe that a tomato seed is a tomato plant, though, it never will be. It’s easier to understand with the seed analogy – we don’t really think of seeds as “alive,” and we clearly grasp that more is needed for us to end up with tomato plants.

If you throw away your leftover tomato seeds after you fill up the room you have for planting, you likely won’t feel that you’ve killed or thrown away tomato plants. We plant extra, and we don’t feel like a bunch of tomato plants have died when some seeds don’t sprout. Despite those seeds having everything necessary to grow beautiful and nourishing tomoato plants, there’s a difference you can sense between a tomato seed and a tomato plant.

You may feel that you have an obligation to plant every tomato seed, to not waste the potential at hand. That’s fine – that’s a belief about the proper use of your gardening supplies. Likewise, you may feel – as Kat does – that if you allow the possibility for an egg to get fertilized, you have an obligation not to interfere with its implantation, to the extent that you can control. Therefore, you may believe that any contraceptive method that might even possibly interfere with implantation is inappropriate for you, which is also fine and a personal choice. That too is a belief. As the saying goes, however, you’re entitled to your own beliefs but not your own facts. Belief does change a seed into a tomato plant or a fertilized egg into a baby. The right conditions must still be met, or there is no possibiliity for the one to become the other.

One thing I find interesting in thinking about this is that the argument about implantation – whether people acknowledge it explicitly or not – puts the role of a woman’s body in developing a fetus squarely in the center. Acknowledging that a fertilized egg absolutely has to implant in and draw resources from a woman’s body in order to have even the slightest chance of becoming a baby highlights the fact that pregnancy places a strain on women’s bodies and requires and benefits from their cooperation.

Sure, there’s in vitro fertilization, but even then the fertilized egg must be placed in a uterus, and implant there, in order to ever become a baby. You can sprout some seeds in a damp paper towel, but you have to keep an eye on them so you can get them into the right medium for growing as soon as possible. You can have a surrogate carry your fertilized egg, but there will be no baby unless the surrogate is succesffully implanted with that egg. A woman’s body is required, just as as our tomato seed needs to be placed in the proper soil and get water and light to row.

Acknowleding these requirements means acknowledging the burden put on a woman’s body, just as we understand that nutrients must continuously be supplied to a tomato plant, and the soil must be renewed if we intend to keep planting in the same dirt. If we gloss this over, if we pretend that a seed and a tomato plant or a fertilized egg and a baby are essentially the same, we ignore the tremendous amount of resources and work that grow one into the other, and demands on the environment – in this case, the environment of a woman’s body.

I am explicitly, 100% pro-choice in part because of my belief that as long as a fetus must demand my resources and body to grow, as long as it may potentially harm or kill me through its every existence, my right to my body trumps its need to make use of it. I acknowledge the ethical conflict between an implanted fetilized egg or fetus and myself, and simply declare that I am the one with the right to arbitrate that conflict because its my environment – my body – that incurs the risk and draining required for growth. I get to decide if the sun, water, air, soil and labor is available to turn my packet of seeds into a garden full of tomato plants. Any gardener will tell you that there’s a world of work and difference between the two.

*Kat’s actual post, in response to an ill-informed Twitter comment, is a fine one, even though I had a couple of nitpicky comments to make about it.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. June 19, 2011 1:36 am

    I stand on a knife-edge in this debate. As a feminist and a libertarian I believe so stongly in choice and the right of adults to make their choices based on their beliefs. I also believe (there’s that pesky word again) that it is as wrong to impose one’s beliefs on another as it is to smack a child across the face. You harm the person, rob her of her innate dignity and her humanity. You subjugat through cruelty.

    Since Im also pro-life (although I’d suggest another term “pregnancy completion advocate”) I am in a tricky position. I dont want to tell any other woman she cant make her choice. That, to me, is aborting the personhood of a living adult. Yes, i get that I make very little sense and seem to be talking out of both sides of my mouth. Not trying to sound vague; just trying to explain my worldview for those who dont know it.

    I wouldnt say that terminating a pregnancy is “killing a baby” any more than I would say that killing a baby was “killing a 35 year old.” but from where I sit, taking away someone else’s potential, interrupting her agency, is bad. That is why I am very much troubled by the ethics of certain birth control methods.

    That said, what I wrestle with the most is the question you address in your latter paragraphs. Since our bodies are required, at great cost to them, for the nurturing of life in its earliest stages, shouldnt we have a right to say that we choose to not pay that toll? The mystic in me considers the act of carrying a pregnancy to term a sort of essential blood magic. Real sacrifice is required and i dont believe in forced sacrifice. So what do I do with that?

    My answer has always been to push for the most elegant, intricate birth control possible and to inform as many women as possible on how to use it. It’s why I believe that the Pro-life characterisation of Planned Parenthood as a nationwode chain of slaughterhouses is absurd. If anything, Planned Parenthood prevents an exponentially larger number of conceptions than it terminates.

    Beyond that I do my best to understand that other people are not me and can make the choices they want. No one needs my permission. If they need my help they have only to ask for it.

    Other than that I guess I’ll just continue to do my best out here in this very gray area.

    • Daniel permalink
      February 25, 2012 4:00 pm

      The abortion argument doesn’t have anything to do with women’s rights. It really boils down right to if you think the fertilized egg is or isn’t a human life. If you do, then the whole women’s right argument is void. The life would override whatever right the mother has to her body. But if you don’t thik that it is a life, then the mother has every right to do what she wants. If you think that it is a life then why would you be okay with it being killed.

      • February 25, 2012 5:56 pm

        So you’d be okay then with the state requiring you to donate an organ to your own child then, regardless of your own physical health or the risks to same, since in your view your right to make your own choices about your own body are judged irrelevant in comparison to your child’s life. Regardless of whether you’d wish to, it should a law that you should *have* to? How about if such a law is enacted to appease the religious beliefs of those *whose religion you do not share?*

        Of course it’s “life.” It just doesn’t get to automatically trump my own right to my own body and life to satisfy the ideaologies of people who are not me.

      • anya permalink
        May 1, 2012 3:59 pm

        i found this post because i am pregnant and really torn. a friend said that i was an “intelligent” woman and as such i should know that it’s just a cell and not a baby yet. i have always been pro life and never thought i would end up here. that which you condemn will one day condemn you. i am left to choose between my own well being, my future and…… letting my child live. Rachel, when does a fertilized egg become a baby? this is the single biggest decision i will ever make. thus far*

      • March 13, 2013 4:48 pm

        It’s about both, not just a fertilized not being a person. That’s fact by the way, so “pro-life” has no leg to stand on.

  2. June 19, 2011 1:53 am

    Oops. Got so carried away defining myself I didnt add my Pregnancy Completion Advocate nitpicks. (hey, I think I owe you two… 🙂 )

    1. In your analogy folks like me would consider a fertilised egg to be more akin to the seed you sprouted in a damp paper towel, while the unsprouted seeds in the box (trying not to make a tasteless joke) would be more like eggs in the ovary. But I think I might need to revisit plant reproduction to make sure.

    2. In many segments of the Christian community–including those to which folks like The Duggars and many of my friends and family belong–women DO wonder every month if their period was a ‘baby’. I could write an actual book on how women in this religion, being robbed of their connection with the divine by having God masculinised, transfer their mystical need to participate in the Miracle of Christ by overemphasising pregnancy. Both involve blood, pain, sacrifice and the creation of life, according to the Christian church. So it is not uncommon to find a young married girl fretting over chemical pregnancies, naming each positive EPT and then holding little ad hoc funerals for periods that “start a week late.” I have read several books by Christian authors regarding infertility that speak of these and list the “lost babies” as their “angels in heaven.”

    Yes it may seem odd. But that’s their culture. It may help to know that when interacting with folks of that worldview. Because their emphasis on pregnancy and motherhood is very much a religious transferrence issue and can explain why they are so very…emphatic?

    • June 19, 2011 2:00 am

      Have I mentioned lately how fascinatingly good I find it to be friends with you? 🙂

      Added, now that it’s not the middle of the night: I’d love to read that book. 🙂 And I think there’s an awful lot here that you and I agree on, despite the very different labels we would apply to our own positions.

    • MomTFH permalink
      June 23, 2011 11:11 pm

      Are you pro-pregnancy completion just for yourself, or do you think it should be legally required of women, to the point they would have to seek an illegal abortion or carry an unwanted pregnancy to term? I think there’s a big difference.

      What birth control options do you have an issue with, and why?

  3. June 20, 2011 11:30 am

    Your insights really are fascinating, Coble. It’s a worldview that seems pretty strange and impractical to someone who is not steeped in that particular strain of Christianity. But reading about such beliefs makes me know that I did the right thing by fleeing the Southern Baptist Church at 15 and never looking back…

  4. Rachel Payne permalink
    October 24, 2011 5:43 pm

    I really enjoyed your blog. I find the whole issue of the personhood amendment a potentially terrifying step backward in our legal evolution that will, once again, take away some hard-earned rights of women. As far as the politicians claiming that this amendment will not outlaw birth control pills, I disagree. It may not be spelled out like that today after all, they have to get the law passed first. I wonder how many of the writers of this amendment are of the Catholic faith that does outlaw all birth control in their religion. Should this law actually pass, I feel that we will see a rise in deaths from back-ally or home abortions. Or crime rate will go up because of the women who will be investigated and possibly arrested because of a miscarriage! Furthermore, I must express my concern regarding one part of your blog. Given today’s culture where “the powers that be” feel the need to control everyone and everything, I fear that they may read your blog and decide, based on your tomato analogy, that tomato sauce is an evil product of a murdered tomato and therefore shall be outlawed!

  5. Tricia permalink
    February 15, 2012 3:55 pm

    I do not feel as if a tomato plant and human life are easily compared. I love to garden and hope you do also. In gardening after I plant my seeds and they start to grow I always pull some from the soil to alow the others more nutrition. Also, when it comes time for them to bloom any plant without blooms gets pulled. I cannot have it taking the nutrition of the fruit bearing plants. In your anology we should kill the weak to keep help the strong and woman who can’t have children have not use also. It’s not as simple as a seed even though that is what people what us to think. It is a choice to be made with a lot of thought and we just send young girls into clinics to get the morning after pill or have an abortion without parental consent and hope they have the same feel as throwing away extra seeds. But truly it increases their chance of depression and suicide.

    • February 15, 2012 7:55 pm

      You’re obviously welcome to disagree with the analogy, just as I may disagree with your interpretation of it. However, truly, and despite what the anti-abortion folks would have you believe, the best evidence does not suggest any causal link between abortion and subsequent depression in suicide. Likewise, the evidence does not favor any causal link between abortion and breast cancer.

  6. Fudgie permalink
    February 4, 2013 2:07 pm

    So a tomato seed in a steel box is analogized to an unattached fertilized egg in a uterus? Hey, I’ve got some shocking news for you. Believe it or not, the “planting” of that egg on the uterus wall is biologically autonomous. Do you seriously believe you’re somehow in control at that point… that you’re going to somehow “will” it to attach in the same manner that you will your own physical gestures in the process of gardening? It’s not a question of disagreeing with the analogy. It’s not an analogy at all. Here’s the true analogy: a fertilized, watered, tomato seed exists in enriched soil. This seed requires no intervention from you. It may or may not become a tomato plant. However, if you want to insure it not becoming a tomato plant you must do something. You must intervene.

    • February 4, 2013 2:11 pm

      You may need to reread, as this post addresses fertilized, non-implanted eggs.

      “This seed requires no intervention from you.” – Except for its total dependence for ongoing nourishment, which may happen without conscious thought, but is certainly a requirement.

  7. Abigail age14 permalink
    March 20, 2013 12:48 pm

    Thank you I am writing a essay to tell weman about abortion and that it has long term effects on us and know I can say that it’s still not ok to have an abortion even if it is just a fertalized egg. I THINK THAT ABORTION SHOULD BE AGINST THE lAW!!!! In the law it says that we cant murder and that is murder cause you are killing your own child! For Pete sakes at lest give the baby to a family that can’t have children! Let the baby have life let it experince love and hotdogs and all the wonders of life! Please if you know someone thinking about abortion or you yourself is thinking about it please reconsider.please save a life. Abigail age 14


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