Human Development Photos: Objection & Response

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Someone recently posted a reference to one of our pages on a newsgroup. The page featured a couple of photographs of developing babies. This sparked an objection, which is quite similar to objections I have heard a couple of times before when presenting similar pictures in lectures. So I'll present the text of the objection here, with my response:

The Objection

"I find outright lies. That 21-week infant is no such thing. And that 6-week embryo looks more like 10 weeks."

[On the 6 week embryo] "I estimated that the CRL would be 35 mm. That would make it over 10 weeks LMP (8 weeks from fertilization). The visual appearance also indicates 8 weeks (post fertilization)"


While the objector is not a doctor, he used a couple of medical acronyms that may require explanation.

"CRL" stands for "Crown-to-Rump Length". Doctors often measure developing babies CRL with ultrasound to estimate their age. "LMP" stands for "Last Menstrual Period". A developing baby's age is often measured from the mother's LMP rather than from conception, because the mother typically knows the date of her last menstrual period, but it is extremely unlikely that she knows the exact date of conception.

My Response

The 6-week embryo picture is from the Bell Institute of Pathology at the University of Minnesota. They describe it as 6 weeks LMP. I freely admit that I do not know if this estimate was based on the size of the embryo, the mother's reporting of her last menstrual period or her estimate of when she became pregnant, or by some other method. But I am interested to hear that this objector considers his guesses at the fetal age to be more reliable than those of professional pathologists at the University of Minnesota. Especially considering that they had the actual embryo there in front of them, while he is only looking at a photograph. Perhaps they should ask him to review their medical textbooks for other errors?

In any case, trying to estimate the baby's size from this photo and using that to determine the gestational age is not reliable enough for the distinction he wants to make. I tried to estimate the size by comparing to the size of the adult hands, working on the assumption that the second joint of the forefinger was about 25 mm, and I came up with a crown-to-rump length somewhere between 15 and 30 mm. According to a text I have here, a 6 week embryo is typically 15 mm and an 8 week is 40 mm. Even if I'm estimating low, he's still in the ballpark, certainly not far enough off to accuse doctors at UM of deceit or incompetence.

If you doubt this particular picture, I suggest you look up any good illustrated text on fetal development, and you should be able to find plenty of very similar pictures with similar ages. I have in front of me a non-technical book entitled A Child is Born, by Lennart Nilsson. Nillson has many incredible pictures of children in the womb. His photos are far better than anything we have on our site. He is probably the best known intra-uterine photographer in the world, and his pictures have appeared in many books and magazines. (I'd love to use Mr Nilsson's photos on our site, but I am told that Mr Nilsson is pro-abortion and will not allow pro-lifers to use his photos anymore.) Anyway, his 6-week-embryo photo (page 61) appears to be at a similar stage of development to the baby in the photo we show.

Much the same can be said about the 21-week-old preemie. The photo was given to me by an obstetrician. I suppose I could try to check back with the hospital to see if they have records to confirm the age. But there's little point. The picture is no different from that of numerous other premature infants of similar gestational age. Again, just look at Mr Nilsson's book. The front cover shows an 18-week-gestation baby (still in the womb) who, as far as surface appearances go -- which is all the objector has to go on, looking at one photograph -- this baby appears just as well developed as the baby we report as 21 weeks.

Now let's try some elementary logic: Let's give the objector the benefit of the doubt, and suppose, just suppose, that the baby in the second picture is really older than 21 weeks. Let us then ask him, would he allow a baby of this gestational age -- whatever age he claims this baby must be -- would he allow this baby to be killed by abortion? If so, who cares what his age is? Whether it's 21 weeks, as we claim, or even if it were really 22 or 23 or 39 ... so what? In any case, he still has no moral problem with killing this baby.

Or perhaps he will say that he would not kill this baby, but only one at some earlier stage of development. Well, I presume he did not challenge the second picture purely as an academic exercise, so if he's drawing a line, he must be saying that it comes sometime after 21 weeks. Right? But wait a minute, he claims that the baby in the first picture is about 10 weeks. That would be well within his sometime-after-21-week cutoff! So regardless of whether this baby is 6 weeks or 10 weeks, he would allow her to be killed by abortion. So why are we arguing about two or three or four weeks one way or the other? It has absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand, which is whether or not it should be legal to abort this baby.

Why did this objector challenge us on a point which makes no difference to the subject under debate? Well, remember how he tossed in those medical acronyms? He conceded in another post that he is not a doctor, so it is unlikely that he was so familiar with these acronyms that it didn't occur to him that they would be unfamiliar to most people. Were they used for brevity, or were they used to make his statement sound more "technical" and authoritative?

The only possible conclusion is that he is simply bringing up irrelevant objections in the hopes of confusing people about the real issues involved. Is that child REALLY only 6 weeks old? Was that photo really taken in Minnesota and not in Wisconsin? And what about the starving Chinese? Can you prove the Pythagorean theorem? How high is up? etc etc Let's get back to the real question: Should it be legal to kill this baby?

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Posted 9 Sep 2000.

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