Family Planning Advocates’ Dirty Little Word Game of Life

August 4, 2008

Family Planning Advocates’ Dirty Little Word Game of Life

By Charles D. Dern, Ph.D.

August 4, 2008 - The Bush Administration currently is drafting regulations that could strengthen legal protection for some medical professionals to refuse to participate in an abortion. As reported on July 31 in the Wall Street Journal on-line ( , what has Family Planning advocates alarmed is that the regulations define pregnancy as beginning at the moment sperm and ovum combine, or in other words, the moment of fertilization. This would not be problematic unless one realizes a dirty little word game that such organizations have been playing for quite some time.

Part of the problem is the meaning of the word “conception.” Many persons, even professional bioethicists, tend to use the terms “fertilization” and “conception” as equivalents when referring to the beginning of human life. Indeed, even some dictionaries make little if any distinction between the terms. For example, the Random House Dictionary’s second definition equivocates the two, defining “conception” as “fertilization; inception of pregnancy.” When using the terms “conception” or “fertilization” in such a way, what one actually is trying to convey is the point at which there is “union of the male and female gametic nuclei” wherein a new human being, genetically distinct from mother and father can be identified.

So in short, what most mean by the word “conception” is the point at which a distinct new life has begun.

However, as often is the case in contentious issues, such as abortion and contra-ception, what is clear is made ambiguous. The dirty little word game is that when Family Planning advocates use the word “conception,” they mean the entire process from when the egg and ovum combine (fertilization) through the point at which the fertilized ovum attaches to the wall of the mother’s uterus (implantation). Under this definition, a “contraceptive” cannot only prevent sperm and ovum from meeting (as a condom clearly would) but also prevent a fertilized ovum from attaching to the uterine wall.

The word game here is that as long as the fertilized ovum has not attached to the uterus, the mother technically is not yet pregnant. Thus defined, some, hormonal contraceptives (including Barr Pharmaceutical’s “Plan B”) and Inter Uterine Devices (IUDs) simply “prevent pregnancy.” At least Barr Pharmaceutical’s web site is forthright in stating “Plan B may also work by preventing it [the fertilized ovum] from attaching to the uterus (womb).”

In the interest of history and honesty, one need to note that this definition is not without precedent. In the pre-modern understanding of human reproduction (based in the thought of Aristotle), it was thought that humans reproduced much like plants. The seed (the male component or sperm) was thought to contain the entire being in potential. All it needed was a proper place to “germinate” (the womb, an analogy to mother earth). Thus for a woman to “conceive” was to have the “seed” “planted” within her.

However, under the more common contemporary understanding of conception = fertilization, these devices prevent a living human being from performing a necessary and natural step in its development. In other words, these devices cause a very early abortion. Groups aware of this, such as Pharmacists for Life, often (more accurately) call these devices “abortifacients,” or “contragestives”. I would wager that most women using hormonal contraceptives or IUDs are unaware of the potential abortive effects and “Family Planning” organizations do not seem to be forthcoming in providing this information.

The opening line of the Wall Street Journal article “Treating the Pill as Abortion, Draft Regulation Stirs Debate” asks questions that actually help to crystallize the pro-life argument: “Set aside the fraught question of when life begins. The new debate: When does pregnancy begin?” Let us first be clear that virtually no serious biologist denies that at the moment of fertilization, there is a living being distinguishable from mother and father. Life cannot come from non-life. In other words, the fertilized ovum is not something non-living that suddenly becomes alive at some later point. Life necessarily is passed on from parent to child (in all living things). It is undeniable logic that human life is present from the moment of fertilization. (In fact, the biggest problem remaining for a completely secularist theory of evolution is how did life come from non-life?)

The worry over “when does pregnancy begin” has its root in the abortion debate. Again, Family Planning advocates define abortion as the “termination of a pregnancy.” Under their definition of “conception = implantation,” preventing implantation is not an abortion, an important distinction for many who might believe in contraception but want nothing to do with abortions.

What both the Wall Street Journal and Family Planning organizations are trying to do is the same thing that was done in the Roe v. Wade abortion decision: relate the value of unborn human life to something extrinsic. In Roe, the criterion by which the unborn are ceded some rights is “viability.” Somehow, the day a fetus can survive outside the womb makes it more “alive” than the day before. In the case at hand, the fertilized ovum is somehow more “human” after implantation. Yet again we have a “distinction without a difference.” Whether one prevents implantation or has an abortion at a later point, the natural growth of another human being is stifled.

Charles Dern is an instructor in moral theology and medical ethics at St. Charles Seminary and Immaculata University, both located in suburban Philadelphia.
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