When a Clump Is not a Clump

Autonomous Life in the Womb

Can we finally give the myth that an unborn baby is “just a clump of cells” a decent burial?

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John Stonestreet

Yesterday Eric Metaxas told you about a manipulative article from The Atlantic that heaps scorn on the pro-life movement’s use of ultrasound technology to show pregnant women and others the humanity of the unborn child.

Just as a refresher, in the piece, author Moira Weigel shares such gems as this: “The technology has been used to create an ‘imaginary’ heartbeat and sped-up videos that falsely depict a response to stimulus.” Katie Couric thinks kids can feel gender in the womb, but an actual heartbeat is just a “stimulus?”

And here’s another utterly baseless claim from the article: “Ultrasound made it possible for the male doctor to evaluate the fetus without female interference.” Huh? What if the OB/GYN is a female?!

We shouldn’t be surprised by irrational attempts to undermine the cause for life. The case for life is stronger than ever. The abortion rate is down, and those who profit from abortion aren’t happy.

So they’re probably not going to be popping the corks off their champagne bottles when they read a fascinating new article in Public Discourse by Ana Maria Dumitru. It’s called “Science, Embryonic Autonomy, and the Question of When Life Begins.”

What is “embryonic autonomy,” you ask? According to a recent study, titled “Self-organization of the human embryo in the absence of maternal tissues,” human embryos from the earliest stages of life can direct their own development—in or out of the womb.  Why is this important? Here’s how Dumitru, who is a fifth-year M.D./Ph.D. candidate at Dartmouth, explains it:

daily_commentary_02_09_17“As scientists, my colleagues must concede that embryos are made up of living cells, but they don’t accept the embryo as a living organism. If the early embryo is ‘just a clump of cells,’ then you can justify abortion. By this logic, it’s not an autonomous being, and it’s definitely not a human person yet. It’s just a few cells growing in the mother’s body, and so the mother can choose to get rid of those cells if she wants to.”

The problem for this view, Dumitru writes, is that so-called “clumps” whether in a uterus or in a lab, don’t behave like clumps of cells. Instead, they appear to act independently, or autonomously, of any signals from the mother’s body, whether in or out of the womb. And “clumps” don’t do that.

As Ana Maria explains, “This one little cell, with its complete genetic content, can and does begin to divide and to grow, even in an experimental dish in an incubator in the closet space of some unmarked lab. … That means, as we suspected, embryos know what they’re supposed to do to live, and they try to live, whether they’re in their mother or not.”

And it means not only that the embryo is a living being, but that it’s a person. This demolishes another argument for legal abortion, that the unborn may be living, but not yet persons—in other words, deserving of legal protection.

But the research Dumitru cites undercuts this contention by showing that embryo autonomy and personhood are “interchangeable terms,” because although the embryo’s capacities—which pro-choicers say are necessary for personhood—are not yet fully developed, they are clearly in fact already present. They require no signals from the mother to develop, only nourishment—which of course we all need.

Ultimately, all this comes down, again, to worldview. As Dumitru says, “It’s time to own up to the truth. Science has already affirmed what we have long since suspected: we can call them fertilized eggs, zygotes, blastocysts, products of conception, or fetuses, but that doesn’t change reality. And the reality is this: they are autonomous humans from the very beginning.”

Come to BreakPoint.org, I’ll link you to this article. Please read it, study it, and then go have some productive pro-life conversations with your friends and neighbors.

Further Reading and Information
When a Clump Is not a Clump: Autonomous Life in the Womb

Click here to read Ana Maria Dumitru's article from Public Discourse, and as John suggested, initiate discussions in your spheres of influence. Start out by pointing to the amazing autonomy of human life from its very beginning.


Science, Embryonic Autonomy, and the Question of When Life Begins
Ana Maria Dumitru | The Public Discourse | January 24, 2017

Rate of U.S. Abortions Hits Lowest Since Roe v. Wade
Jan Hoffman | New York Times | January 18, 2017

Abortion Science: Heartbeats Are Imaginary, Unborn Babies Aren’t Alive, And Ultrasounds Are Just Tools Of The Patriarchy
Sean Davis | The Federalist | January 24, 2017

Available at the online bookstore

The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture
Scott Klusendorf | Crossway Books | March 2009


clump not a person
ok so if the embryo is autonomous, their should be no problem with it being removed if the mother wishes, after all the article says that it can develop in a petri dish and without the mother's intervention

So a woman should not have to gestate it inside her body, so their should be no objection to have it removed if the woman wishes not to be pregnant?
When a clump is not a person
I got to this page by clicking on the 0 on the index page, indicating no comments, so I was somewhat surprised to find a comment here already. I read WM's comment to see if he had stolen my thunder, and found that he largely had. I too was going to use flowers as examples, but rejected that, as well as invertebrates, fish, birds, and reptiles in favor of mammals, because their embryos grow in the womb like ours. Aside from that, I would add that the cells in a cancerous tumor divide like those in an embryo or fetus, and they by and large have the same human genetic code as the rest of our cells. Does that mean that a tumor is a person? Somebody tell the oncologists before they do another abortion of a tumor!

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, I am pro-life like WM, as I have said before on this site. But obviously illogical arguments, even in support of truths like the personhood of fetuses, don't advance the cause. They do just the opposite.
just a clump
As much as I appreciate the research of Maria Dimitru, it strikes me as a piece of evidence for the sanctity of life, but as a worldview ministry surely you can see that equivocations in some of the terms make the argument anything but airtight. For example, you say that the embryo "appears to act independently, or autonomously", but what exactly is independent or autonomous. Flowers act independently. And how is it that "embryo autonomy and personhood are 'interchangeable terms,'” Interchangeable? Really? Well, this may be a helpful addition to the so-called pro-life arsenal, but it stills comes down the truth that we are made in the image of God and that includes those inside the womb and outside. If science is our guide let's say so. If the Bible is our authority, let's put this research in perspective.