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Musings of a Former Zygote

fetal-developmentI am a former zygote. If you are not familiar with biology terminology, a zygote is the first cell that results when gametes (sperm and egg) fuse in sexual reproduction. I teach biology to homeschool students and we discover that many organisms begin as zygotes. Any organism that reproduces sexually starts as a zygote. Humans are just one of many.

While we are quite willing to acknowledge that a canine zygote is a brand new dog, or a bovine zygote is a brand new cow, or an equine zygote is a brand new horse, all genetically distinct from any that came before, somehow we humans are different. Many of us are perfectly happy asserting that human zygotes are not new humans even though embryology textbooks tell us otherwise:

“Although human life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.”
(O’Rahilly, Ronan and Müller, Fabiola. Human Embryology and Teratology, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996, p. 8)

The denial of basic human biology is ubiquitous. Like most things when discussed in the abstract, it is easy to deny the humanity of just any human zygote.

But when speaking personally, we cannot help but acknowledge that we all are former zygotes. A secular children’s book on the biology of human reproduction from my local library reads:

“But nine months before, when you first began, you were just one little cell, even smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. Half of this cell came from your mother’s body, and the other half came from your father’s body.”

No parent ever explains to their child that his or her life began at some amorphous moment that happened after about 20 weeks of hanging out as a non-human mass in mommy’s tummy.

A child knows when human life begins; when their life began. Even child knows they are a former zygote.

Imagine my surprise when Matt Archbold linked to an article in Slate that was supposed to paint the human fetus as a parasite (ironically written as a tribute on Mother’s Day) and the author clearly identifies her origin as a zygote. Rebecca R. Helm wrote:

It all started when I was a zygote.

Congratulations Rebecca Helm! You are a former zygote. You are a continuous organism that began with conception. Thank-you for acknowledging your humanity even at the very earliest moments of your life.

former zygoteI once stumped a genetics colleague in a discussion about abortion when I asked him when he began. Once full of abstraction, he stammered with nothing to say. When I pointed out that he, as a genetically distinct organism, came into existence at the moment fertilization was complete, he could not disagree.

Personal. Not abstract.

I have a thing for geeky t-shirts. I use them as an education tool for my students. I think I might make one of these and wear it around. Maybe, just maybe, it will remind all of us of our very humble, yet very human, beginnings.

Reprinted with permission from Creative Minority Report.


Rebecca Taylor is a clinical laboratory specialist in molecular biology, and a practicing pro-life Catholic who writes at the bioethics blog Mary Meets Dolly. She has been writing and speaking about Catholicism and biotechnology for six years and is a regular on Catholic radio.
  • bill b

    The problem of cell totipotentiality evidenced in identical twinning might well return the Church to the delayed ensoulment that stretched from Jerome to Ligouri…5th to the 18th centuries… with your view above beginning in the 17th.
    If you are correct, then Catholic women would logically be mandated to try for slimness because obesity hampers implantation in the majority view of the literature on the matter. Google it…obesity implantation. The zygote at all instants is human matter but a human person cannot begin until the cell mass can no longer divide into multiples or be teased into doing so. Any exaggerations militate against credibility on any related topics. Here’s two authors in the Jesuit journal opposing each other on this very matter:

    http://www.ts.mu.edu/readers/content/pdf/51/51.4/51.4.2.pdf

    http://www.ts.mu.edu/readers/content/pdf/58/58.4/58.4.6.pdf

  • Rebecca

    bill b you miss the point: ALL humans start as a zygote, identical twins included. It matters not the circumstances that surround that fact, IVF, cloning, natural fertilization. Some zygotes continue on to become embryos, fetuses, babies, toddlers, children, adolescents, adults and elderly. For various reasons many humans do not make all of these stages, but that does not change the fact that all of us began as a single cell. We have become disconnected from this fact of nature. Ensoulment, which I did not mention by the way, is not something we can determine empirically, but the start of a new human organism (or two) is something we can.