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