When Catholic Academics Abandon the Unborn

A few weeks ago Lisa Fullam, a featured blogger at dotCommonweal, the blog of the politically liberal magazine Commonweal, posted “Hobby Lobby and Science” in which she clarifies for us how the “science” does not support the claims made by the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs and, incidentally, the Catholic Church.

She writes, “In medical terminology, a woman is not considered pregnant until the developing embryo implants in the uterine wall, approximately a week after fertilization, (so on average about 7-10 days after ovulation). Since one can’t have an abortion until one is pregnant, by medical standards contraceptives that block implantation by changing the uterine lining are not abortifacient.”

Fullam then says, “Roman Catholic magisterial teaching on the other hand, holds that the developing embryo should be treated as a person from conception.” Have you ever noticed it is usually those with a thing about the Church who use “Roman” rather than just “Catholic?”

Having established the fact that pregnancy begins not with fertilization but with implantation, Fullam explains how none of the contraceptives objected to by Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood—Plan B, Ella, and two forms of IUDs—could cause abortions because each of them only inhibits ovulation and none of them harm the implanted embryo.

She states that she is not a “pharmacologist or an MD” and neither am I but about ten seconds of Internet research shows Fullam is simply wrong. Any layman can read the Wiki article on pregnancy, “The event of fertilization is sometimes used as a mark of the initiation of pregnancy….”

Don’t like Wikipedia, try WebMd which explains the hormone human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) can be detected within the first week after conception. This hormone “is a pregnancy hormone present in your blood from the time of conception.”

Just consider the experience of any woman getting the news she’s pregnant. Do she and her doctor begin counting her pregnancy from implantation? Actually, they begin counting from her last menstrual cycle. As to actual conception, it is calculated as two weeks after that and up to two weeks prior to implantation. It would be absurd for him to suggest she had a baby in there for two weeks but she’s only been pregnant since yesterday.

Fullam insists the medical establishment agrees with her when in fact it is mostly the highly politicized American Association of OB-Gyns (ACOG), a group that has been campaigning since before the dawn of the abortion age for the definition of pregnancy to change from conception to implantation. The Guttmacher Institute, the research group founded by Planned Parenthood, joins them in this fight.

Nearly 50 years ago, as the sexual revolution was revving, three years before Humanae Vitae, ACOG wrote in its first Terminology Bulletin that, “Conception is the implantation of a fertilized ovum.”

In 2005, a Guttmacher publication said, “The medical community has long been clear: Pregnancy is established when a fertilized egg has been implanted in the wall of a woman’s uterus.”

Do ACOG’s members even agree with their position on implantation? Not according to a 2011 study.

A professor at the University of Chicago surveyed 1,000 ob-gyns and the results were published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. He found that 57 percent said pregnancy begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg. That would be 31,350 of ACOG’s own members disagree with ACOG and Fullam. Only 28 percent said pregnancy begins at implantation. The rest were not sure.

Dr. Farr Curlin, senior author of the study said, “People say the medical profession has settled on this. And what our data show rather clearly is that it is not at all settled among the medical profession.”

Christopher Gacek of the Family Research Council was also curious about this implantation claim being settled and he spent some weeks in the Library of Congress poring over medical dictionaries to find out. His results were published in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly.

Gacek found of the four major medical dictionaries—Dorland’s, Stedman’s, Taber’s, and Mosby’s—only one consistently backed Fullam’s claim.

What he found in the medical dictionaries was there is no consensus for the implantation claim. Granted, some of them make the claim but not all of them and among those that have made it, they have actually gone back and forth between fertilization being the start of pregnancy and implantation being the start. Sometimes they have switched from fertilization to implantation and then back again.

According to Gacek, “Dorland’s has never presented a purely implantation-based definition of either ‘conception’ or ‘pregnancy.’ Dorland’s definitions are heavily weighted to a fertilization-based viewpoint.” Dorland’s is the oldest of the medical dictionaries.

Gacek found Stedman’s, the second oldest of the medical dictionaries, to be back and forth on the issue. From 1961 on their definition of conception and pregnancy has been “fertilization-based six times and implantation-based three times.” Oddly, the 1982, 1990, and 1995 editions all used a fertilization-based definition. In 2000, they switched to implantation, but in 2006 went back to fertilization. At the very least, Stedman’s does not support Fullam’s proposition.

Taber’s is the dictionary that most closely supports the Fullam proposition. From its founding in 1940 until 1997 it consistently defined conception as fertilization-based. However, in 1973 the dictionary began defining pregnancy in the Fullam way, at implantation.

The dictionary most consistently fertilization-based has been Mosby’s, founded in 1980. Gacek says, “Mosby’s has not wavered from a fertilization-based analysis of conception or pregnancy. Furthermore, Mosby’s has never hinted at acceptance of an implantation-based definition for ‘conception’ and ‘pregnancy.’”

So, it is clear that Fullam is simply wrong in her assertion that “In medical terminology, a woman is not considered pregnant until the developing embryo implants in the uterine wall….”

So, what’s with Lisa Fullam? The medical dictionaries disagree with her. A large majority of ob-gyns disagree with her. Clearly she is wrong in her assertion that it is an agreed upon scientific fact that pregnancy begins at implantation.

Besides blogging for dotCommonweal, Lisa Fullam is an associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkley. She holds graduate degrees from Cornell University and also the Harvard Divinity School. She teaches courses in sexual ethics, moral theology, and virtue and vice, among others.

In 2010 at dotCommonweal she wrote approvingly of embryo destructive research. Her only qualm was that the research was being done by a private company rather than a university and therefore ethical considerations come into play. Once more she mocked Catholics and Catholic teaching. She says Catholics who hold to the teaching of when life begins “will be in a difficult spot if these therapies prove successful.” She says even these faithful Catholics will want to avail themselves of all the treatments and cures, none of which have panned out.

In an article on virtue ethics, she said some of the Church’s teachings on masturbation, fornication, contraception, adultery, and homosexuality are “grounded in bad biology, bad psychology, or bad theology and should be discarded.”

Fullam is a partisan in a semantics war the purpose of which is to allow drug companies to convince women to buy their sometimes-deadly products. After all, a woman is far more likely to buy a contraceptive than a pill or device that would kill her unborn baby. This is really manipulation and fraud and Fullam is a party to it.

The science is abundantly clear; a human life begins at conception. Whether you call it a pregnancy or something else is entirely irrelevant to the fact that this human embryo is not just alive but growing. Her nature does not change at implantation. She has a full complement of distinct DNA, a particular sex, a certain hair color, and is only days away from a heartbeat.

It is a puzzle why anyone, particularly someone teaching at a Catholic university and writing at a Catholic publication would want to define her out of existence.

Austin Ruse

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Austin Ruse is a contributing editor to Crisis and president of the Center for Family & Human Rights (C-FAM). He is the author of the upcoming Catholic Case for Trump (Regnery, 2020). You can follow him on Twitter @austinruse.

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