I was just thinking there was something especially weird about that Wilkow rant against abortion. He’s asked whether life begins at conception, and he replies with an irksomely stupid question of his own: “…scientifically speaking, when a sperm and egg comes together, what happens? Is death created?” The caller who asked the question is stumped and avoids it, unfortunately, but it’s an interestingly bad reply.
I was a bit baffled by it at first myself, until I realized what Wilkow is hoping for: that the person would answer “no”, and then he could triumphantly declare that therefore he was right, life is created at fertilization. It’s a beautiful example of the bifurcation, or false dichotomy, fallacy—and it’s given an extra special dash of pretentiousness with that clause, “scientifically speaking”. I thought of a few ways it could be answered.
- Yes, death is created. Before fertilization, there is a living egg and a living sperm, two live cells. After fertilization, there is one live cell, the zygote. Mathematically speaking, one cell must have been destroyed. Therefore, fertilization kills. End the slaughter! Contraception for all!
- I would add that what also happens is that before fertilization, there is a huge spherical egg that has been leeching off the products of hardworking follicle cells in the ovary, and an active, independent, motile sperm. After fertilization, the sperm is gone, and what’s sitting there is a fat, bloated, spherical cell that is going to wander off and parasitize the uterus. Patriarchally speaking, we should realize that the ovum must have destroyed the sperm. We can probably work the words “welfare queen” in here and really spark some outrage.
- Cytologically speaking, two cells merge membranes and metabolisms to produce a functioning unit which is still carrying out mostly the same chemical processes. It’s not magical, and people fuse cells in the lab all the time. If by living you mean metabolically active, there is no change, only continuity. The question makes no sense, sir; do you claim to have the power to create life? Are you also going to admit that a hybridoma technician therefore has created life?
- Forensically speaking, what has happened is that the egg has been imprinted with daddy’s unique, identifiable DNA signature—think of it as your penis mischievously and indelibly scrawling your name on a baby. If you’re going to oppose abortion, you might want to think about criminalizing paternity testing and child support payments first. Doing it afterwards is just too obvious.
- Genetically speaking, at fertilization two living haploid cells fuse to form one living diploid cell. Nothing is killed, and there is no new life created. There is a change in state that begins a long, slow process of replication and differentiation that might culminate in about a decade and a half with the maturation of a functional gonad that can produce new haploid germ cells, most of which will be thrown away.
- Developmentally speaking, fertilization is one transition state among many. It’s a major bottleneck and an incredibly wasteful process—the overwhelming majority of gametes fail to fuse—but even when fertilization occurs, Nature is quite cavalier about throwing the whole thing out and requiring us to start again. Other major events in which an error can negate all prior processes are implantation, gastrulation, neurulation, birth, and learning to drive. It’s awfully silly to privilege one event among many as the sole source of humanity, I would think; if it’s mere priority that focuses interest on fertilization, the two meiotic divisions that produce the gametes came first, and that’s also a delicate and critical process. Perhaps you should worship the gonad rather than fertilization…?
The rest of Wilkow’s incoherent rant is just simple fury at being asked to answer this “dilemma”: if a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic, who do you save — a Petri dish with five blastula or a two year-old child?. The interesting thing about the question is that it isn’t a matter of coming up with the correct answer, but that the notion that it is any kind of dilemma at all is the distinguishing factor. There is no question in most sensible people’s minds that you save the child; the dish simply isn’t a factor. It’s the crazies who think that in principle there is a difficult decision to make, although I suspect that in practice they wouldn’t hesitate to save the kid, anyway.
As an equal opportunity rationalist, though, I have to give those crazies a perfectly reasonable answer that they can use to defuse the conflict. Pulling a dish full of embryos out of their nice warm 37°C incubator and running down a hallway, sloshing them about and contaminating the medium with who knows what, is going to kill the embryos anyway. You can’t just keep these things alive for long in a dish on your kitchen table, you know. So, please, anti-abortion nutcases, if you’re ever in that unlikely situation, the little toddler is the only one you can save, so get her out, OK? You can have a nice memorial service for the petri dish later.