WAS LARRY ONCE AN EMBRYO?

Let’s talk about you—newly pregnant now, we will suppose. It has only been fourteen days since conception and you eagerly await the arrival of baby ... Larry, as it might turn out to be. In a couple of weeks, you will actually be able to see the embryo in an ultrasound image. Now fast-forward to the day when you will be putting on Larry’s first diaper, or walking him to school for the first time, or attending his high-school graduation. What’s the connection between the embryo you will soon be seeing in the ultrasound image and five-year-old Larry? Are they one and the same? Do our children come into existence as early as the first weeks in utero?

This kind of question is often raised in the context of the debate about abortion. In thinking about the answer, we may find ourselves doing a lot of "look ahead” (as in a chess game) so we don’t corner ourselves into a pro-life position if we’re pro-choice, or corner ourselves into a pro-choice position if we’re pro-life. In this chapter I will try not to engage in any "look ahead.” Abortion isn’t the issue, and furthermore, whatever we say about the point when our children’s lives begin, there may very well be space to defend our preferred position on abortion. As a number of ethicists have shown, there is no simple, direct route from the status of the fetus to the permissibility, or impermissibility, of ending pregnancy. So for that and all sorts of other reasons, we ought to try and think about when our children’s lives begin as a question in its own right, not as a prelude to debating abortion.

When does the lifespan of a particular child have its inception? At the very beginning of pregnancy, or later, or even much later? Or, putting it another way, when does the story of a person’s life begin? Perhaps the best place to begin is with the "David Copperfield View” about the story of our lives. Here’s the first paragraph of Charles Dickens’s novel:

CHAPTER I. I am born

Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.

To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night. It was remarked that the clock began to strike, and I began to cry, simultaneously.

David Copperfield must know he didn’t come into existence ex nihilo. There was a fetus in his mother’s uterus before he was born, and he is intimately related to that fetus. However, the story of his life starts at his birth, Dickens assumes. What comes before is a mere prequel.

That is a natural view, particularly from a standpoint within our own lives. When my children think about their lives, they do seem to have the David Copperfield view, reacting with utter boredom to anything I might tell them about the time when I was pregnant. When I think about their lives from my own standpoint, it’s quite different. The stories of their lives include chapters that predate their birth. For example, I think of my son as having turned somersaults in his effort to get comfortable, north of his sister. I think of his sister as very quiet and stable, apart from periodic bouts of hiccups. I probably think of these early chapters in so much detail because of the daily fetal monitoring I had during the period of hospital bedrest in the third trimester, but I think of the story as having earlier chapters too. In fact, I think of their life story as beginning at the very beginning—that is, as soon as I became pregnant. The entities that they are seem to have had their moment of entry into existence long before the dramatic morning of their birth. This is certainly not because I think of them as having, on the day of their conception, souls, consciousness, an essence, or fully formed per- sonhood. The thought is merely that the individual entities they are now are entirely continuous with the teeny-tiny clumps of cells that existed way back in July 1996.

So we have two initial possibilities for the beginning of your child’s life story: the day of conception, or the day of birth. Setting aside all thoughts about the ethics of abortion (if we can), both possibilities have some appeal, though the conception story appeals more to parents and the birth story appeals more to children. But, do either of these accounts make sense—or should we shift to some third account of when your child’s life begins?

 
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