by Peter D. Williams
Bill Nye is a popular science broadcaster and comedian who made a popular Disney children’s science show ‘Bill Nye the Science Guy’ for ‘PBS’ (‘Public Broadcasting Service’, the US version of the BBC) in the mid 90s. He isn’t well known this side of the Pond, but for many Americans he carries the same credibility on matters of science as Johnny Ball, David Attenborough, or Brian Cox, do in the UK. Ball is perhaps the best analogy, given his appearance on children’s telly about the same time period, and the fondness which many feel for him.
This is the reason why, when Nye recently made a controversial video for the website ‘Big Think’, it went viral. Called ‘Can We Stop Telling Women What to Do With Their Bodies?’, the blurb for the video summarises his thesis: “anti-abortion legislation is derived from outdated beliefs that predate smart science by fifty centuries”. Given that this came from Nye, the framing for his pro-abortion conclusion as the informed scientific perspective granted it powerful credibility. Consequently, a slew of articles on popular magazine sites spread news of the video titled with comments like ‘Bill Nye Debunks Anti-Abortion Logic With Science’, ‘Bill Nye debunks anti-abortionist logic with science’, and ‘Bill Nye Brings Down Hammer of Science on Abortion Opponents’.
What then was this pure ‘science’ that has so utterly ‘debunked’ and ‘crushed’ right-to-life laws and arguments? Well, let’s take a look:
The basis that Nye gives for his assertion is at the very beginning of the video. Nye claims:
“Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilised than become humans. Eggs get fertilised – and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova – a lot. But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb. But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say, if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilised it therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue? Whom are you going to imprison? Every woman who’s had a fertilised egg pass through her? Every guy whose sperm has fertilised an egg and then it didn’t become a human? Have all these people failed you? It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding and you literally – or apparently literally – don’t know what you’re talking about”.
Strongly-put stuff. Is it right, though? Well, to put it mildly: no, not in the slightest. In fact, insofar as we can work out any logical argument from what Nye says, it is in fact so utterly, utterly incorrect that it constitutes on his part an astonishing degree of biological illiteracy, and an exemplary form of embryological ignorance.
Let’s start with the basic misunderstanding of the beginning of human life that is peppered throughout his comments: the idea that “eggs” become “fertilised” but do not “become humans”. This appears to be, after all, the basis for his implication: that a “fertilised egg” does not have the “same rights as an individual”.
Well, as a matter of fact, there is no such thing properly speaking as a ‘fertilised egg’. When an egg becomes fertilised by a sperm at conception, the sperm and the egg effectively cease to exist. They have merged into a new organism entirely: the zygote, which is the beginning of a new human being. Unborn children do not “become” human beings. They are human beings from their conception.
You needn’t take my word on it to see this fact, as it’s repeated across a range of embryological and medical textbooks by experts in these fields. Take Dr. William J. Larsen, an academic whose research was at the forefront of cell developmental and reproductive biology, and who stated in his book Human Embryology(1):
“… [W]e begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilisation to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual.”
Indeed, in describing the ‘developing human’ in their text of the same name(2), Dr. Keith L. Moore and Dr. T.V.N. Persaud, are even more explicit when they state:
“Human development begins at fertilisation when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to produce a single cell – a zygote. This highly specialised, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.”
Similarly, Dr. Ronan R. O’Rahilly and Dr. Fabiola Müller, in their Human Embryology and Teratology(3), characterise the newly created Zygote thus:
“Zygote: This cell results from the union of an oocyte and a sperm. A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo). The expression fertilised ovum refers to a secondary oocyte that is impregnated by a sperm; when fertilisation is complete, the oocyte becomes a zygote.”
What no less than five experts in embryology tell us then, is that when a female egg is fertilised by a male sperm, there is no longer an ovum but a newly conceived human being. This reality – that a new human being has come into existence – is the fundamental basis for the right-to-life movement’s contention that unborn children should be protected from abortion: all human beings are equal, and so all human beings have the same basic human rights. Contrary to Nye’s statements then, the “fertilised egg” does not “become a human”. He or she is an individual human being, from their conception onwards, and should have their human right to life respected.
Having dealt with his core assumption then, what should we make of Nye’s counter-arguments to this idea? He seems to have three:
- Many eggs are fertilised (i.e. unborn are conceived) than survive the reproductive process.
- They also ‘need’ to attach to the uterine wall (i.e. achieve implantation).
- If unborn children are equal to adults, then this would mean that we must assert that every father and mother who have had a conceived child miscarry or fail to implant has “failed” us and should be sued or imprisoned.
The first two of these statements are irrelevant biological claims. It isn’t entirely clear, for example, why Nye mentions that the conceived child ‘needs’ to attach to the uterine wall. What this identifies is ‘implantation’, when the embryonic human begins to be sustained by her mother as a blastocyst when she embeds into the endometrium of the uterus. For what, however, does Nye think implantation is ‘needed’?
Some U.S. abortion lobbyists have used the American Medical Association marking of implantation as the beginning of pregnancy as a means of equivocating over when a human life begins, and it may be that Nye is doing the same. Yet this is fallacious: implantation is not the beginning of human existence – it is the beginning of gestation. As we have seen, every human being began to exist at their conception, not when they began to be sustained and gestated by their mother.
Perhaps the mention of implantation was simply a continuation of his first point: that many conceived children fail to survive. In any case, accepting for the sake of argument that many children are conceived but fail to survive (some estimates have gone from one third to one half of conceived children in total), this tells us absolutely nothing about abortion.
After all, abortion is a deliberate act of killing. Miscarriage or failure to implant is an accident of nature. The former is a moral crime, the latter is a natural tragedy. We cannot often control whether nature ends the lives of fellow human beings, but we can control whether we do so. That many unborn lives end before they get to the point of gestation, then, is about as relevant to the humanity of the unborn child as high infant mortality rates in past centuries were to the humanity of new-born babies. I.e. Not at all.
For the same reason, for Nye to, with gross insensitivity, suggest that because parents suffer the natural tragedy of miscarriage or failure to implant, that right-to-lifers think that they must be penalised is so obvious a non sequitur that it boggles the mind as to how he could make such a plainly erroneous assertion. We punish people for intentionally wicked actions, not for passively experienced accidents. A mother and a father whose child has sadly died deserve our sympathy, and have in no way ‘failed’ or warranted condemnation.
And there we have it. Nye’s arguments, such as they are, are riddled with biologically false assumptions about the nature of the newly conceived unborn child, and are so hopelessly illogical and ill-thought out that what little accurate facts he does know are completely misapplied and ill-considered. In the light of this, everything else he says in the video, even if it were not (as it is) flippant nonsense, is utterly irrelevant.
Indeed, since these comments by Mr. Nye, supposedly a man who spends his life educating people about scientific truth, are so astonishingly misinformed and irrational, they leave his eventual conclusion without any intelligent basis. You can only think ‘Can we stop telling women what to do with their bodies?’ is a meaningful question regarding abortion if you ignore the fact that abortion involves a woman doing (or rather allowing someone else to do) something to someone else’s body – the body of her unborn child. Given this, for a channel that is meant to distil significant and big ideas into relevant and applicable knowledge, its title alone marks Big Think’s video out as an explicitly biased and shallow presentation.
In contrast to Nye’s embarrassing ignorance and irrationality, the three-part BBC series ‘Countdown To Life: The Extraordinary Making Of You’ on the BBC, hosted by Dr. Michael Mosley, has in the last few weeks been showing the amazing development of the unborn child. Unlike Mr. Nye, who simply has a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Dr. Mosley is a trained Doctor and has years of experience making programmes about biology and medicine. It is telling then, that from the first episode, he marks the beginning and follows the development of the individual human being from the point of conception. (Not implantation, or any later point.)
I am not claiming Dr. Mosley as a member of the right-to-life movement. I have no idea what his politics are when it comes to abortion or embryo-destructive research and medical practice. What is clear however, from the presentation he gives, as from the second episode of the 1998 BBC documentary The Human Body by Lord Winston (with whom Dr. Mosley had produced three other series), is that when the sperm from our father fertilised the ovum of our mother, we each of us began to exist as new individuals. This, as I have pointed out, is the foundational reality on the basis of which all right-to-life campaigning and advocacy takes place. Reinforcing this right understanding of unborn humanity, Countdown To Life fascinatingly accounts how so much of what happens to us in the womb can affect us in profound ways: from our skin colour, to our sex and sexual identity, to even how the organs in our body are arranged.
Dr. Mosley’s documentary is an excellent and informed illustration of the humanity of unborn children, and much recommended whilst it is still available to licence fee payers on BBC iPlayer. The first episode has just over a week until it expires, but can be downloaded for a period longer than that. Hopefully it will educate many people as to the reality of human origins, and particularly those abortion lobby supporters who, like Mr. Nye, literally – or apparently literally – don’t know what they’re talking about.
Peter D. Williams is Executive Officer at Right To Life.
(1) William J. Larsen, Human Embryology, 3rd ed. (Philadelphia: Churchill Livingstone), pg. 1 (emphases added).
(2) Keith L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th Ed. (New York: Saunders, 2003), p. 16, (emphases added).
(3) Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd. ed., (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001), pg. 8 (emphasis added).