We have a long history in developmental biology of studying the most amazing freaks of nature — damage to developing organisms can produce astonishingly ghastly results as the embryo tries to regulate and recover, yielding results that are almost normal. There’s even a whole subdiscipline of the field, teratology, dedicated to studying aberrations of embryology. The word is perfect, since it is derived from a Greek root that means both “wonders” and “monsters”.
An unfortunate child in Colorado was the recipient of one of these wonders/monsters. Diagnosed with a brain tumor, when surgeons opened up his skull, they found fragments of a fetus inside: two tiny feet, part of a hand, coils of intestine. The surgery was successful and the child is doing fine now, but this was the most well-organized ‘tumor’ I’ve ever heard of. It’s not clear exactly what it was; there are things called teratomas, where a particular kind of cancer recapitulates a developmental program and builds tissues, things like skin with hair or teeth or chunks of muscle and bone and gland, but those aren’t this well organized. They tend not to produce complete organs, but partially differentiated sheets and lumps. Another possibility is fetus in fetu, where a fragment of the very early embryo is isolated and begins its own independent pattern of normal development, and then is engulfed by the larger and faster growing sibling embryo. Sometimes people late in life will be surprised to learn that there is a partially developed twin imbedded deep in their body. There is no question in any of these cases, however, that the tissue is not an autonomous individual. It is a piece of human-derived tissue that has executed part of the program of cell:cell interactions and induction that these kinds of cells are capable of doing.
Something struck me when I saw the photograph of this particular surgery. Here it is, a photo of a fetal foot flopping out of a bloody baby’s brain (don’t click if you’re squeamish). As I’m sure you’ve noticed, anti-choice people love to parade about with gory photos of aborted fetuses, and they love to dwell on little details like a recognizable hand or face. This picture is exactly like those, yet realize this: there was no human being behind those little baby toes. The existence of these fragments of non-sentient tissue endangered the life of a child, and there was no question that they needed to be extracted.
This is also how we should view abortion. It’s ugly and messy, and there’s something disquietingly resonant of humanity in the pieces of the embryo or fetus, but we shouldn’t be fooled. Those are beautifully patterned collections of differentiated cells, but there is no person there.