The Baby Elephant Walk

National Geographic has produced a new TV special that follows the development of various animals in the womb. A dolphin fetus practices swimming. A baby elephant “walks” with stubby little legs. Commenting on the program at, Wall Street Journal editor James Taranto wryly contrasts the continuous development of these baby animals to the development of human beings in the womb from the standpoint of abortion advocates: 

“We [humans] develop by a little-understood process in which a clump of cells, similar to a tumor or a fingernail, miraculously becomes a baby at the moment the entire clump is exposed to air.” 

While we can all enjoy a good laugh over the abortion industry’s irrational and unscientific view of human life before birth, intentionally misleading women contemplating abortion about their child’s humanity is no laughing matter. 

In legislative testimony leading to South Dakota’s 2005 “informed consent” law, many aggrieved women testified that they would not have undergone an abortion had they known that their child was not merely the mass of “tissue” described by clinic personnel. South Dakota’s law tries to remedy this lack of truly informed consent by requiring abortion doctors to provide women with customary information on risks, alternatives and fetal development — and with a written statement that “the abortion will terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.”

Who would quibble with that factual statement? Planned Parenthood, naturally. Its “Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota” affiliate immediately challenged the law, arguing that this statement unconstitutionally compels “abortion doctors to enunciate the State’s viewpoint on an unsettled medical, philosophical, theological, and scientific issue, that is, whether a fetus is a human being.” Unsettled? Philosophical? Theological?

Nowhere does the South Dakota law conflate the terms “human being” and “human person,” although to be sure these two terms meant the same thing to virtually everyone before 1973. That year, Roe v. Wade taught us that — even outside the Third Reich — you could be a human being, and yet not be a human person (i.e., someone who has a legal right not to be killed).

In fact, the challenged law shows restraint, defining “human being” simply as “an individual living member of the species homo sapiens.” It makes no mention of “personhood” or any other legal concepts some may use to exclude unborn children from humanity.

Of course, there is nothing “unsettled” here from a medical or scientific standpoint. Modern textbooks in embryology treat human beings — beginning with one-celled embryos (zygotes) — as whole, living organisms, separate from their mother, and having different and unique DNA. The notion that an embryo is somehow an appendage of the mother is nonsensical, considering that about half of embryos are male. An embryo’s blood is also separate from mom’s and may differ from hers in both type and Rh factor.

Decades ago, we might have had to accept the statements of geneticists on these points. But today, medical technology — 3-D and 4-D ultrasound, fetoscopy, and fetal surgery — are familiar to most people from TV programs and the Internet if not from personal experience. The first pictures and videos parents share of their baby are no longer taken a few minutes after birth; now they are images of very active children kicking, wriggling and thumb-sucking in the womb after only three months’ gestation.

Not that science is the only source of truth about life in the womb. Revelation clarifies the meaning of human existence and enriches our understanding of life before birth (e.g., Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1:5). One need only think of how Christ’s incarnation (while yet an embryo) was conveyed by the Holy Spirit to John the Baptist (then a fetus, some six months older than Jesus) and to John’s mother, Elizabeth, who, on hearing Mary’s greeting:

cried out in a loud voice and said,
“Most blessed are you among women, 
and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 
… at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,  the infant in my womb leaped for joy”
(Luke 1:42-44). 

For its part, natural law philosophy (with roots in both Scripture and Greek philosophy) has contributed to the development of a universally acknowledged (though less than universally observed) doctrine of human rights that bears on this matter. The 1948 “Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” for example, proclaims the “inherent dignity” and the “equal and inalienable rights” of “all members of the human family,” specifically noting the right to life. Later the U.N. “Convention on the Rights of the Child,” ratified by 192 nations, explicitly applied this to the unborn child, stating that “the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth.”

It’s not surprising that Planned Parenthood would object to the South Dakota law. It has a big stake (more than a half-billion dollars annually) in maximizing abortion, and therefore in keeping women ignorant about its nature.

What is truly disturbing is the identity of three people who agree with Planned Parenthood’s claim: Chief Judge Karen Shreier of the U.S. District Court for South Dakota, and two members of the three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals who affirmed Judge Shreier’s preliminary injunction blocking the law’s enforcement.

Considering the gravity of the issue, it is difficult to see how three highly educated adults trained in law could conclude that the humanness of a fetus remains an unsettled question in science and medicine, or rests solely on a theological or philosophical point of view. Is it a question of moral blindness, or a lack of imagination? Would they reach the same conclusion if the life of their grandchild were at stake?

This last question is provoked by the 2004 dissenting opinion of Chief Judge Robert Pleus Jr. of Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeals in another abortion case (In re: Guardianship of J.D.S.).

Judge Pleus reasoned that Florida’s guardianship law should be read to include children in utero, because this was the only way to advance the state’s compelling interest in the life, health and welfare of unborn children. He then recounted a personal story:

“I have a new grandson. His name is Nicholas. … Early in the second trimester, we were able to view a sonogram and determine that Nicholas was a boy. We have pictures of sonograms taken when Nicholas was 14 weeks old. … You could tell he was alive because he moved his arms and legs. … From the moment of his conception, Nicholas was a human life.

“If all the judges in the world and all justices on the Supreme Court decided that Nicholas was not a person and merely a ‘fetus’ until his birth, I would know them blind to reality. Before his birth, Nicholas was alive. Nicholas had an identity. Nicholas was a person. … Our rule of law can no longer remain blind to the realities of human life.”

We owe our support and thanks to Pleus, and we need to ask ourselves this: How do you begin to transform a society in which people coo over a baby elephant walking in the womb, but turn away from the young womb-walking humans who need their help?

Susan E. Wills is associate director for education at the pro-life office of the

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.