The nature of a fetus

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5 February 2010

Today, I had a startling realization about the nature of a fetus. It’s an interesting topic, but also a very delicate one, and it seems somewhat risky to post this so close to our delivery. But this realization is a consequence of all the events during this pregnancy, so I think it is natural that I had the realization now, and appropriate that I share it now, also.

But before I get to that, I have to explain another startling realization I had a few months ago, when I started learning more about pregnancy: that the placenta actually belongs to the baby, not to the mother. Specifically, the placenta has the baby’s genes (i.e. from both the father and the mother), and is formed from one half of the blastocyst (the other half becomes the embryo itself). I had never really thought about the issue before, but my basic assumption was that the placenta was a part of the mother, and that the umbilical cord was actually the place where the mother merged into the baby. But that’s not what happens – the mother has the uterus, and the baby has the placenta. The placenta attaches to the uterus, secretes hormones that make the uterus (and the rest of the mother’s body!) do what the placenta needs in order to allow the embryo/fetus to grow, and exchanges oxygen, nutrients, and waste products to support the embryo/fetus. The placenta is actually an agent of the embryo/fetus!

Now that I think about it, my confusion probably stems from the idea of cutting the cord, which I had always thought of as “separating the baby from its mother” but in fact is actually separating the baby from its own placenta!

So somehow I’d missed figuring that out before now, and it was a bit of a shock. In some sense, the mother is just a container for the developing fetus, and the placenta actually ‘tricks’ the mother into letting it stay in the uterus, and providing a good environment for it. So from the very moment of conception, there are three parties – the father, the mother, and the embryo/fetus. In no way is the baby a “part of” the mother. The baby is “inside” the mother, is “attached to” the mother, and is “dependent on” the mother, but biologically, the baby is not just an extension of the mother.

And that’s the source of today’s realization: I no longer give any weight to the argument that the woman’s reproductive rights are the only issue that matters. Yes, the woman’s body and the woman’s life will be affected, but per the realization above, the woman is not the only party involved in the decision. Any argument for abortion, in my newly-formed opinion, must take into consideration the impact on the embryo/fetus (i.e death), and weigh that against the benefit to the mother.

And here’s where it gets tricky – removing that argument from my list of “arguments to which I will give consideration” isn’t really a huge deal for me, because it isn’t a part of the basis for my own opinion about abortion. That argument always seemed a bit dumb (because it seems very petty). But this new logic still represents a fairly hefty shift in my thinking, so I wanted to share it.

And to the obvious question: I am not going to share my stance on abortion in this post, because I don’t have time to carry out the whole argument with the whole internet right now. I have a well-formed opinion, and if you know me personally, you may already know it. I’m also very willing to discuss that opinion, in person, with just about anyone. But I’m not quite ready to subject myself to the commentary of the internet (any more than I just did, anyway), so internet, you’ll just have to wait for another day :)

  1. Nate says:

    Some legal philosophy about abortion considers the fetus a tenant of the mother. (I took a “philosophy of law” class a long time ago . . .)

  2. Nathan Arthur says:

    Yes, I started to work down that path, and backed off before I got too deep. It leads to something like abortion as “negligent homicide” and/or questions about the sovereignty of a fetus, and those seemed too complicated for this post :)

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