A Response to “The Least Safe Space”

Editor’s note: This was submitted as a response to a recent op-ed entitled “The Least Safe Space.” You can find that article in full here.

In “The Least Safe Space”, Josh Craddock asserts his belief that life begins at conception. That belief is true because it is what he believes. That is acceptable. And he can champion his position from his moral framework. 

What is unacceptable is his, and the editorial staff’s, misunderstanding of the scientific data used to support the author’s belief. As a research scientist, I am disturbed by the blending of poorly cited facts and moral opinion that characterize this article. It is symptomatic of a larger trend in scientific reportage and opinion that use the authoritative weight of apparently scientific data to hide a blatantly moral perspective. It is this cocktail of fact and opinion that continues to confuse the lay-public on topics ranging from climate change to the health benefits of the latest miracle diet.

There is no scientific consensus on when life begins. The author cites an American Medical Association report from 1859 and the author seems to believe that report is immutable and continues to be the consensus. The AMA currently takes no position on when life begins.

In 1859, germ theory was more than 30 years away from mainstream medical consensus and Joseph Lister’s theories of antiseptic surgery would take another quarter-of-a-century to grudgingly catch on in the United States. The discovery of chromosomes, genes, and DNA would roll out over the century. Citing the beliefs of a small portion of the surgical medical community in 1859, long before embryology had matured as a science, is equivalent to citing the Articles of Confederation to make a Constitutional argument. We live under a different medical paradigm. 

The editorial staff should require a more recent citation, or ask that Craddock clarify that he adheres to all medical assertions made by the AMA as of 1859. Alternatively, Craddock could simply assert that he believes life begins at conception, acknowledging scientists continue to wrestle with what constitutes life, development, pregnancy, and humanity, and that he will not and cannot find a scientific consensus to support his view from the 21st century.

Craddock is not a doctor. Nor is Craddock a scientist, evidenced by the misspelling of our species in in his article. We belong to the species Homo sapiens. The genus must be capitalized, an elementary question from 7th grade biology. Otherwise the phrase simply means “thinking man” in Latin and does not refer to our species. Seeing this basic error would be grounds for both the writer and editor to be denied publication or participation in any opinion-based or evidence-based scientific publication. This kind of error, amongst many others, undermines Craddock’s credibility, reflecting his lack of engagement with embryological, medical, and anthropological literature.

Because of Craddock’s lack of engagement with current biological literature, he does not seem to understand the difference between development and an organism. The fetus is not capable of life outside the womb until, among other developmental necessities, the lungs are developed and pulmonary surfactant is produced by the fetus. Until that point, the fetus is not viable outside of the uterus. To argue that there is no developmental difference between a fetus, which cannot breathe or be nurtured by anything but regulation across the chorionic membrane, and a newborn (or fetus secreting surfactant) suggests the author has spent little time with Moore’s textbook, “Before We Are Born”, the sole embryological text he cites. A newborn child is a self-regulating organism that feeds itself, nurtured by any lactating woman or by synthetic formula. As a fetus is developing, possibly into a newborn, it is passively nurtured by regulatory processes dependent on the health of the mother. 

The possibility that development constitutes the presence of human rights is a radical assertion with implications that redound through our interactions with the environment and other species. The development of the species is not limited to the time in utero. Each individual is ultimately the product of millions of generations of mutation and natural selection. Did every bacterium, limbed fish, reptile, and primate that is embedded in our genetic code deserve human rights because it was part of the process that lead to humans? Do all organisms related to humans deserve human rights because their evolutionary history affected our own development? 

Craddock does not understand the implications of his arguments because he does not seem to understand the science he is drawing upon. Until he familiarizes himself with a 21st century understanding of biology, embryology, and development, an endeavor I would happily support and advise, I recommend he confine his discussion to moral arguments and legal definitions. I also recommend the Harvard Law Record editorial staff exercise greater responsibility when publishing material that is outside the realm of legal or societal discussion. Pseudoscience and antiquated facts like those cited in “The Least Safe Space” damage the public discourse in genetics, medicine, and biology.

Matthew Borths is a postdoctoral researcher at the Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine at Ohio University.

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