When Life Begins: A Reply to Dr. Matthew Borths

This article is a response to Josh Craddock’s opinion piece The Least Safe Space,” which ran on March 7, 2016, and Dr. Matthew Borths’s letter to the editor, A Response to ‘The Least Safe Space’,” which ran on March 8.

Dr. Borths’ response to Josh Craddock’s article appears to make two main points:

  1. Craddock’s credibility is questionable; and
  2. Craddock does not adequately support the proposition that human life begins at—that is, a human organism begins to exist at the moment of—conception. [1]

But the arguments Dr. Borths offers in support of these points are not only weak; they are also hypocritical.

1. Credibility

Dr. Borths writes that Craddock’s credibility is “undermine[d]” because of certain “error[s]” in The Least Safe Space. Principal among these errors is “the misspelling of our species in [sic] in [Craddock’s] article.” Dr. Borths devotes an entire paragraph—of which there are only nine in his response—to discussing this error.

Misspelling a single word, however, is generally irrelevant to one’s credibility. (Upon further reflection, Dr. Borths should agree, given that he misspelled the name of his own work on his Stony Brook University biography webpage.) [2] But perhaps a critical mass of such errors could render one’s credibility, in at least some respect, suspect. For example, if one confuses misspelling a word with the failure to capitalize properly one of its letters; assumes that one could misspell “our species” as opposed to our species’ name; erroneously repeats a word, such as “in;” and splits infinitives, such as “to catch on,” one’s credibility in judgment of the English language use of another person could reasonably be questioned.

Regardless, such errors hardly “evidence[]” the proposition that one is not a scientist or “reflect[] [a] lack of engagement with embryological, medical, and anthropological literature.” [3] Errors, including spelling errors, [4] appear even in scientific publications, [5] usually indicating merely that the writer and editor are human beings. [6] And that brings us to Dr. Borths’ next point.

2. Human Life

On one hand, Dr. Borths appears to assume that Craddock cited only “an American Medical Association report from 1859” in support of the proposition that human life begins at conception: Dr. Borths claims that “[t]he [Harvard Law Record] 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.” But on the other hand, curiously, Dr. Borths recognizes that Craddock cites “Moore’s textbook, ‘Before We Are Born.’” [7] Dr. Borths refers to this textbook as the sole embryological text [Craddock] cites,” yet fails to realize that Craddock also cites another reputable embryology textbook in the very next footnote: Bruce M. Carlson, Patten’s Foundations of Embryology (1996). [8]

Even if Craddock had not adequately supported the proposition that human life begins at conception, Dr. Borths, a self-proclaimed “research scientist,” should have sought to discover that there is wide consensus on that proposition within the scientific community. For example, here is a Princeton University webpage that gathers approximately twelve additional citations for the proposition that human life begins at conception; and here is an article that gathers approximately 40 such citations. Support for the proposition is not limited to the leading embryology textbooks and ranges from Nature and National Geographic to the National Institutes of Health. [9] This is to say: that human life begins at conception is relatively well settled. [10]

But although the question whether a human organism begins to exist at conception is relatively well settled—and Dr. Borths has failed to cite even a single authority to the contrary—the question whether status as a human organism is sufficient to confer moral standing or to imply personhood is not. Craddock, I believe, contributed to the productive discussion of that latter question. Did Dr. Borths?

Alex G. Leone is a recent graduate of Harvard Law School.


[1] Because the word “conception” is not entirely clear, this article will for the sake of argument assume that conception is completed at the latest plausible time: when the human embryo is implanted in the uterus. See generally Philip G. Peters, Jr., The Ambiguous Meaning of Human Conception, 40 U.C. Davis L. Rev. 199 (2006). Accordingly, this article is indifferent to the question whether human life actually begins at conception so defined or, by the time of conception so defined, human life has actually already begun.

[2] The work appears as follows on the webpage [https://medicine.stonybrookmedicine.edu/anatomy/people/graduatestudents/borths]: “Borths, M. and Martin, T. 2009. Clawing through the Gimarota: Distal Phalange Diversity in a Late Jurassic Mammalian Fauna. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 29: 3.” (A screenshot of the webpage as it exists on the date of publication is on file with the author.) For the proper spelling of the word “Guimarota,” the name of a coal mine in central Portugal, view page four this Stony Brook University graduate publication, or see, for example, Thomas Martin & Bernard Krebs, Guimarota—A Jurassic Ecosystem (2000).

To clarify the spelling of “Guimarota,” I endeavored to cite Dr. Borths’ work directly, but neither I nor a Harvard Law Library research librarian could easily locate the article in Volume 29, Issue 3, of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Ultimately, the research librarian was able to locate Borths’ piece in the supplement to Volume 29, but clarified that the piece “seems it was [part of] a poster session at a symposium,” as opposed to being a published article as the citation on Borths’ webpage might suggest. (Correspondence with the research librarian is on file with the author.)

Interestingly, it appears that even in this supplement Dr. Borths misspelled “Guimarota,” entitling his work there, “Clawing through the Giumarota: Distal Phalange Diversity in a Late Jurassic Mammalian Fauna.”   See Abstracts of Papers: Sixty-ninth Annual Meeting, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, 29.3 J. Vertebrate Paleontology 1A, 68A (2009). The description of the work, on the other hand, seems to spell the word correctly. See id.

[3] Consider, furthermore, the thousands of scientists who are not native English speakers and who would be arbitrarily disadvantaged by Dr. Borths’ reasoning.

[4] See, e.g., Jim Austin, Spelling, Grammar, and Scientific Publishing, Science (Feb. 12, 2014, 4:15 PM), http://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2014/02/spelling-grammar-and-scientific-publishing; J. J. Pollock & A. Zamora, Collection and characterization of spelling errors in scientific and scholarly text, 34 J. Am. Soc. Info. Sci 51 (1983).

Contrast these findings and those in the articles cited in the footnote directly below with Borths’ remarkably strong statement: “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” (emphasis added).

[5] See, e.g., David B. Allison et al., Reproducibility: A tragedy of errors, Nature (Feb. 3, 2016), http://www.nature.com/news/reproducibility-a-tragedy-of-errors-1.19264; A. Molckovsky et al., Characterization of published errors in high-impact oncology journals, 18 Current Oncology 26 (2011).

[6] This article ignores the philosophical question whether we are human organisms. We probably aren’t. See, e.g., Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life 24–39 (2003).

[7] That is, Keith L. Moore, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology (2008), a reputable embryology textbook.

[8] Indeed, one wonders whether Dr. Borths gave Craddock’s article the benefit of even a single, careful read. For example, Dr. Borths claims that Craddock “argue[s] that there is no developmental difference between a fetus . . . and a newborn.” Yet an entire section of Craddock’s article is entitled “Level of Development,” a section in which Craddock explicitly recognizes the “differences between us and unborn humans in the womb.”

[9] See, e.g., Meiosis and Fertilization, National Center for Biotechnology Information, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9901/ (quoting Geoffrey M Cooper, The Cell: A Molecular Approach (2000)) (“The development of a new progeny organism is . . . initiated by the fusion of . . . gametes at fertilization.”).

[10] And, arguably, this significant moment is even marked with an awe-inspiring flash of light. See Sarah Knapton, Bright flash of light marks incredible moment life begins when sperm meets egg, The Telegraph: Science (Apr. 16, 2016, 11:49 AM), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2016/04/26/bright-flash-of-light-marks-incredible-moment-life-begins-when-s/; F.E. Duncan et al., The zinc spark is an inorganic signature of human egg activation, 6 Sci. Rep. 24737 (2016), http://www.nature.com/articles/srep24737.

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