Planned Parenthood and the Origin of Life

The recent Planned Parenthood videos showing doctors and medical technicians casually describing fetal dismemberment are an instructive slap across the face for all who remain anesthetized to what happens in an abortion. One well-known cable news anchor was visibly upset when discussing the first video with her on-air guest:

“Where is your humanity?” she asked. “[The Planned Parenthood doctor] is guzzling down wine and stuffing her face full of salad while she talks about the end of a potential life.… I’m saying there ought to be some humanity and respect for the dignity of a potential life.” (Emphasis added)

That this television journalist twice referred to the fetus as a “potential life” is in some important ways more disturbing than the barbaric ruminations of a morally impaired physician, because the former highlights a pervasive cultural ambivalence toward the unborn.

Let’s remember that the persons in these videos are speaking about actual arms, actual legs, actual hearts, and actual livers. There is nothing potential about them. If you doubt that, just ask the researchers using those organs in their laboratories. The question that everyone should ask is, how does one obtain actual human organs from a potential human life?

In its landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court sidestepped the all-important question by dismissively swatting it aside: “We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins.” Instead, the seven-justice majority summoned its creative muse and gave us “potential life”—the high court’s preferred term for that thing in the mother’s womb that we shall not call a baby. And in balancing the rights of the mother against those of the helpless fetus, the court took a decidedly unbalanced view in ruling that the unborn fetus does not attain sufficient moral value to justify legal protections (trifling though they are) until reaching “viability”—the point at which the fetus is “capable of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb.”

The reasoning that follows from the court’s concept of potential life sounds a lot like the Missouri Compromise. If you happen to be of African descent (are a fetus), and you happen to reside south of the 36th parallel (your mother’s womb), you are mere property with virtually no constitutional protections. But if by chance you enter this country north of the 36th parallel (cross through the birth canal) before a slave-trader (abortionist) snatches you, you are a free and whole person.

Before Roe, life scientists the world over had always considered life to be a binary concept—biological organisms are either alive, or they are dead. Even after the historic ruling, it has been difficult to shed science of the nettlesome notion that life is life, death is death, and there is no shadowy in-between state called potential life. Blackmun never defined potential life—scientifically or ontologically—and in the 42 years since Roe not one scientist, judge, philosopher, or theologian has been able to figure out what it is. The closest anyone has come is Supreme Court justice Anthony Scalia, who referred to the unborn as “this thing that we don’t know what it is.”

Looking at the question in another way, this potential “thing” must be an actual something, right? It is not an acorn or a Unicorn, after all. It has physical mass and a complete set of human chromosomes unlike any other person who has ever lived (or potentially lived). It is growing and developing under its own self-directed commands, and needs only warmth, nutrition, and a modicum of protection to survive and continue along the pathway to human adulthood. In all of these ways, it is a lot like a three-month-old baby, or a nine-year old little leaguer.

So what is it, actually?

The question sits there like a leftover piece to an appliance the high court thought it had correctly assembled. In effect, the seven-justice majority rejected the notion that an unborn human organism is a life because the line demarcating when life begins was apparently too difficult to discern. So they solved that problem by fashioning a new concept called potential life, which has absolutely no demarcation lines at all.

For nearly a century prior to Roe, the medical profession considered life’s beginning to be a simple, time-tested fact:

“We of today know that man is born of sexual union; that he starts life as an embryo within the body of the female; and that the embryo is formed from the fusion of two single cells, the ovum and the sperm. This all seems so simple and evident to us that it is difficult to picture a time when it was not part of common knowledge.” (A. Guttmacher: Life in the Making, Garden City Publishing)

Dr. Alan Guttmacher—obstetrician, president of Planned Parenthood at the time of the landmark abortion case, and man for whom the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute is named—wrote these words in 1933. While embryologists might note the rare exception of identical twinning, or quibble with his use of the term embryo in place of the more precise zygote, Dr. Guttmacher’s point is “simple and evident”: Life begins and a whole human being is formed when the man’s sperm fuses with (fertilizes) the woman’s egg.

Until Justice Blackmun and his colleagues informed us that the question of life’s beginning is too challenging for us to figure out, biologists and physicians considered this question to have been definitively settled in the late 1800s. And moreover, every scientific discovery over the past 150 years has reaffirmed what Justice Blackmun told us is just a theory.

Curiously, in the four decades since Roe, science and medicine still have not caught up with the high court. Obstetricians from Oahu to Poughkeepsie still refer to pregnant women as expectant mothers, and to their uterine contents as babies. And medical students still read the following sorts of descriptions in their embryology textbooks:

“Human Development begins at fertilization when a sperm fuses with an oocyte [mother’s egg]. This … marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” (K. Moore: The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, Saunders, 10th Edition, 2015)

A skeptic might say that a reluctant group of activist jurists bent on achieving a particular social outcome gave birth to the dysmorphic idea of potential life as an unhappy judicial compromise. A skeptic might point out that there is no scientific evidence—not a speck—that points to any moment other than conception (fertilization) as the beginning of a fully human life. A skeptic might conclude that, however one feels about an embryo—whether you believe it to be a clump of cells or a metaphysically whole human being—there is one thing all of us should be able to agree on: It is not a potential life.

Hopefully, one day intellectual elites like bioethicist Art Caplan will learn what G. K. Chesterton’s Common Man has known all along—that, from the moment of conception, the mother holds inside of her a whole and complete human life. And when that day comes, Roe v. Wade will be seen for what it is: Dred Scott redux. In the latter case, the court ruled that human beings born to one class of people (African slaves and their descendants) were mere property, whereas the Roe court broadened that concept and determined that all human beings are mere property up until the moment of birth, and with very few exceptions can be disposed of as desired. One of the great ironies of our Constitutional history is that the Fourteenth Amendment, used to nullify Dred Scott, was invoked 100 years later as the basis for denying rights to an even larger class of people—that is, each and every unborn child since January 22, 1973.


Philip Hawley, Jr., M.D. is a physician and former Assistant Professor of Clinical Pediatrics at University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine. His novel, STIGMA, was published by HarperCollins.

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