All the facts you ever need to know about

The ultimate guide to why abortion is wrong, and how to argue in favor of life

Part 2: ‘The human embryo is just a clump of cells.’

By Randy Alcorn

Abortion advocates often claim that the human fetus is a 'clump of cells'. But is this really true?

A woman getting an abortion at three months relayed her conversation with an abortion clinic counselor:

“What does a three-month-old fetus look like?”

“Just a clump of cells,” she answered matter-of-factly.(i)

Later this same woman saw some pictures of fetal development. She said, “When I saw that a three-month-old ‘clump of cells’ had fingers and toes and was a tiny perfectly formed baby, I became really hysterical. I’d been lied to and misled, and I’m sure thousands of other women are being just as poorly informed and badly served.”[ii]

The Fetus: A Functioning Organism, Not Just a Clump of Cells

From a scientific standpoint, the assertion that a human embryo is merely “a clump of cells” is wholly inaccurate.

Dr. Maureen L. Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, challenges readers to consider the fundamental difference between a clump of living cells and an organism like an adult or an unborn child.

Dr. Condic explains that even dead bodies, for a time, contain clumps of living cells that continue to function: “Cellular life may continue for some time following the loss of integrated bodily function, but once the ability to act in a coordinated manner has been lost, ‘life’ cannot be restored to a corpse—no matter how ‘alive’ the cells composing the body may yet be.”[iii]

A human embryo, on the other hand, is vastly different than a corpse composed of clumps of cells.  Dr. Condic writes:

Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances.[iv] 

Dr. Condic continues:

Early human embryos are often described as “merely a ball of cells,” and for many, it is difficult to imagine that something that looks more like a bag of marbles than a baby could possibly be a human being. Fundamentally, this argument asserts that human life is worthy of respect depending on appearance. When plainly stated, this conclusion is quite disturbing and also quite problematic. What level of malformation are we willing to accept before we revoke the right to continued existence?[v]

Ultrasound technology has given us a window into the womb, helping people see the obvious humanity of the unborn, especially in the later months of development. In the earliest stages after conception, the unborn child doesn’t appear human to us who are used to judging humanity by everyday appearances. Nevertheless, in the objective scientific sense she is every bit as human as any older child or adult. In fact, she looks just like a human being ought to look at her stage of development, and as we’ll see, she’ll begin to appear like a human child very early on, often before a woman even knows she’s pregnant.

What’s Happening Early in Pregnancy

The newly fertilized egg, a distinct and living organism, contains a staggering amount of genetic information, sufficient to control the individual’s growth and development for his or her entire lifetime. A single thread of DNA from a human cell contains information equivalent to a library of one thousand volumes.[vi] Today we know the human genome has up to three billion base pairs of DNA that influence the expression of traits in an individual cell.[vii]

The cells of the new individual divide and multiply rapidly, resulting in phenomenal growth. There’s growth because there’s life.

Between five and nine days after conception the new person burrows into the womb’s wall for safety and nourishment. Already his or her gender can be determined by scientific means. It will be two more weeks before clearly human features are discernible and three more before they’re obvious.

At just eighteen days after conception the heart is forming and eyes start to develop. By twenty-one days the heart pumps blood throughout the body. By twenty-eight days the unborn baby has budding arms and legs. By thirty days she has a brain and has multiplied in size ten thousand times!

By thirty-five days her mouth, ears, and nose are taking shape. At forty days the preborn child’s brain waves can be recorded, and her heartbeat, which began three weeks earlier, can be detected by an ultrasonic stethoscope. By forty-two days her skeleton is formed and her brain is controlling the movement of muscles and organs.

By eight weeks hands and feet are almost perfectly formed. The nine-week baby has “already perfected a somersault, backflip and scissor kick.”[viii] The unborn child responds to stimulus and may already be capable of feeling pain.[ix]

By ten weeks the child squints, swallows, and frowns. By eleven weeks he urinates, makes a wide variety of facial expressions, and even smiles.[x] By twelve weeks the child is kicking, turning his feet, curling and fanning his toes, making a fist, moving thumbs, bending wrists, and opening his mouth.[xi]

All this happens in the first trimester, the first three months of life. This is no mere clump of cells—this is a living, growing human being.

“I’m Expecting a Clump of Cells?”

Abortion advocates and counselors often use dehumanizing language, especially when referring to very early pregnancies, to convince women that abortion doesn’t kill a living human being. But the language we use when it comes to talking about wanted pregnancies reveals we know better.

When have you ever heard a newly pregnant woman announce, “I’m pregnant with a clump of cells”? It’s always, “I’m expecting a baby!” No one would respond by saying, “Congratulations, you’re pregnant with an embryo, a clump of cells that’s not yet a human!” Instead they ask, “When is your baby due?” 

Whenever we discuss abortion, we are always discussing the death of a preborn person, usually with a discernible heartbeat. In no way is it, nor in many cases does it even appear to be, just “a blob of tissue” or a “clump of cells.”

 

David Reardon, Aborted Women: Silent No More (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987), 250.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Maureen L. Condic, “Life: Defining the Beginning by the End,” First Things, May 2003, http://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/05/life-defining-the-beginning-by-the-end.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] R. Houwink, Data: Mirrors of Science (New York: American Elsevier, 1970), 104–90.

[vii] Chemicals designated A, C, T & G form the basis for all DNA with variations in the order of the chemicals resulting in cell specialization and tissue differentiation. http://web.ornl.gov/sci/techresources/Human_Genome/project/index.shtml.

[viii] “The Facts of Life” (Norcross, GA: Human Development Resource Council), 2.

[ix] Annie Murphy Paul, “The First Ache,” The New York Times Magazine, February 10, 2008, http://nyti.ms/1T0rf7z.

[x] See “The War over Fetal Rights,” Newsweek, June 9, 2003, 40–47.

[xi] These are well-established scientific facts. See, e.g., Landrum Shettles and David Rorvik, Rites of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 41–66.

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