A Fertilized Egg is Not a Human Being

Humans are worth protecting because we are feeling creatures with a desire to live, not because we contain human DNA.

Darcy Reeder
Jun 17 · 5 min read
Smiley face egg photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I have a uterus, and my body autonomy is under attack.

As more and more states pass abortion bans and restrictions, Conservatives continue to claim “life begins at conception.” They seem to suggest, if only we can agree the cells of a fertilized egg are alive, we’ll also agree it’s okay to legally force a woman (or trans or nonbinary person with a uterus) to give birth.

But this simplification ignores that a live cell is not the same as a thinking, feeling, socially attached creature with a desire to live. The cut roses on my kitchen table are alive. The bacteria in and on my body are alive. Even if, for some reason, we’re talking only about human DNA, the still-sticky sperm in the tube sock on your bedroom floor is alive.

My body autonomy — my choice not to birth any more children — is more important than those flowers or your sticky socks. Yes, this seems obvious, and yet Conservatives keep framing it like a debate, like we didn’t settle all this long ago with Roe v. Wade. And their framing is leading to very real consequences.

I wrote a piece recently, about the euphemisms the political Right uses, including the most misleading of all: pro-life.

I received a comment on my piece, reading in part, “It is, in my view, unethical and inhumane to kill innocents for any reason whether it is with a gun or forceps. Whether at the will of a stranger or the mother. Whether outside the womb or inside.”

There’s more to the comment, and I appreciate a lot about it: the respectful tone, the clear agreement that no one should refer to pregnant people as host bodies, and the author’s stated commitment to being pro-life in ways that have nothing to do with pregnancy.

But, we disagree about abortion.

With some disagreements — What do you want for dinner tonight? Should we set the thermostat at 70 or 75? — I’m willing to say, “Whatever you want is fine.” But abortion rights are too important. Women are fighting with everything we have, because we refuse to live in a world where anyone can force us to give birth.

The comment says “science defines” embryos as human beings — “it is alive: has being; is comprised (sic) of human DNA; hence a human being.”

Let’s take a look at that “definition.” I’m not sure what it means to have being — just to exist? Sure, embryos exist. So, really the question is whether human DNA is enough to make something a human being. (By the way, even if we answer yes, another human is not required to use their own body to save a life, just as I am not required to donate one of my kidneys, even if this donation would be lifesaving.)

Sperm contains human DNA. Sperm, when it leaves a body, is alive. So each sperm (an average of 280 million per male ejaculation) is a human being? Each ejaculation is the murder of 280 million (give or take) precious souls?

Yeah… no.

A live human cell does not a human make. We are defined by our feelings and thoughts and social attachments. Even just biologically, we’re so much more complicated than just human cells. The NIH’s Human Microbiome Project taught us the human body contains trillions of non-human microorganisms — outnumbering human cells by 10 to 1. Most of the life in and on our body is not even human. In this world, in life, everything is connected.

Chimps and bonobos have DNA 99% the same as ours. It’s not as if humans all have the exact same DNA; any given human is about 99.9% genetically similar to another.

Life is pretty freaking amazing, human or not. So I do not see a reason to deify human cells, and to me, it makes a lot more sense to prioritize sentient creatures (human or not) over embryos (human or not).

A human embryo is not a human being, in any practical way. Let’s put aside abortion and think about how many fertilized eggs fail to develop into human beings. An estimated 50% or more of fertilized eggs are naturally lost even before a missed period. Plus, many natural miscarriages happen after that point. Abortions or not, most fertilized eggs do not become human beings.

Holding on to a belief that a fertilized egg is the same as a human — and understanding that most fertilized eggs naturally don’t develop into babies — means believing that for every human born, more than one human dies. No, not because of Planned Parenthood; just through the course of nature. Sperm and egg come together, sometimes growing, sometimes not.

Miscarriage can be a highly emotional experience. Those who knowingly experience pregnancy loss may go through a slew of different feelings about it, all valid. Those emotions are there because a sentient person with joyful (or more complicated) feelings about pregnancy ended up not being able to control their body or their family’s future. That powerlessness and lack of choice may lead to feelings that a baby has died, and/or to a frustrated understanding that a potential future was closed off. And I don’t mean to minimize any of these emotions.

But for those who believe a fertilized egg is the same as a human being — who believe all miscarriages are deaths — wouldn’t it be the highest priority to do something about it? And wouldn’t birth control access be a higher priority as well, to prevent embryos from having a chance of miscarriage?

I think the truth is, as Jessica Valenti wrote in Anti-Abortion Hypocrisy Has Never Been Clearer:

“Conservative legislators roll back abortion rights while ignoring the millions of embryos at U.S. clinics that are frozen or destroyed because their agenda is not about ‘life,’ but forced motherhood and a return to traditional gender roles.”

Valenti quotes Alabama Republican State Senator Clyde Chambliss, who, when asked if Alabama’s abortion ban would punish those at IVF clinics who discard embryos or fertilized eggs, replied, “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant.”

Yes, I know, not all people who want to force women to give birth feel the same as State Sen. Chambliss. Some anti-abortion folks might add IVF embryos to their list of innocent victims.

But the answer isn’t to get upset about even more embryos: those donated from IVF clinics, those that naturally miscarry, those people choose to abort.

Our work is already cut out for us supporting actual living creatures. Let’s start by supporting real live children and families, and ensuring no one ever needs to birth another child, unless they choose to.

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.

Thanks to Jessica Lovejoy.

Darcy Reeder

Written by

Empathy for the win! Top Writer in 10 tags — Essays on Feminism, Culture, Relationships, Sexuality, Veganism, and Parenting. ko-fi.com/darcyreeder She/her.

Fearless She Wrote

This is a space to empower differences, tell our stories, and share our lives together. We will not be silenced. We will be fearless. And we will write.