The elephant and the embryo

Posted: Dec 01, 2006 12:01 AM
The elephant and the embryo

When does an elephant become an elephant? That is the question.

At least it's the one that popped into my mind as I viewed images from an upcoming National Geographic documentary: "In the Womb: Animals."

The film, scheduled to air Dec. 10, may be the best weapon yet for the pro-life movement. That wasn't the purpose of the documentary -- the first ever to record animals in the womb -- but these images of gestating life pack a powerful wallop.

The mind makes a natural leap to questions of how we consider and treat the pre-born.

Let's just say that the thought of aborting a baby elephant, even in the earliest gestational stages, is repugnant in a way that transcends intellectual arguments about constitutional rights to privacy.

The images were captured with 4-D ultrasound scans and enhanced with computer graphics. In the elephant's case, suffice it to say they took a backdoor approach. Niiiiice elephant.

Other stars of the film are a puppy and a dolphin. We watch the golden retriever fetus perform full-grown dog behaviors in the womb, a dolphin learn to swim inside its mother, and the elephant grow from a single cell to a 260-pound, well, elephant.

Seeing similar images of a human fetus -- blinking, sucking his thumb and responding to sounds -- is equally amazing, of course. But something about these animals in utero breathes fresh air into the life debate.

Why? Because they're so adorable, helpless and vulnerable. It's the puppy reflex. With the exception of the occasional mass murderer, people see a puppy and go Awwww. They want to cuddle it.

Most people have the same reflex with human babies, too, but as a society, we've managed to emotionally distance ourselves from the human fetus. To think of it as cute or human would make abortion a much tougher choice

Within the context of abortion, ultrasounds of human fetuses are, in fact, controversial. Pro-life pregnancy counselors are considered manipulative and intimidating when they show a pregnant woman considering abortion an ultrasound of her fetus.

Pro-choice advocates recently protested when President Bush appointed Massachusetts OB-GYN Eric Keroack to the federal family-planning office -- in part because of his connection to a pregnancy counseling service that offers ultrasound imaging.

To be fair, Keroack does have some odd ideas. He contends, for example, that contraception is damaging to women because it thwarts their procreative power. He also has compared premarital sex to drug addiction and says it's damaging to marriage. Whether premarital sex is addictive, I can't say, but marriage is certainly an effective antidote.

Keroack's opposition to birth control is problematic, given that his job involves administering funds to groups that provide birth control, primarily to low-income women. Otherwise, his ideas about pregnancy counseling are sensible. I've long argued that education is the best tool in reducing abortion. Show girls and women their child in utero and abortion will eliminate itself.

Now we have another tool. That is, if we're really serious about reducing abortion. Take ``In the Womb'' to every classroom in America and let students do their own free-associating. When the tears are dry -- audiences reportedly weep at this film -- abortion will seem inconceivable. Who could destroy an unborn puppy?

We Americans are suckers for animals, often displaying greater empathy for them than for people. Be honest. In movie battle scenes, whose deaths bother you more -- men's or the horses'? Thought so.

Walt Disney figured this out a long time ago. He anthropomorphized a cartoon creature named Bambi and deer hunters have been despised ever since. Show children and teenagers Dumbo, Flipper and Old Yeller in the womb, and they'll extrapolate all by themselves. No fire and brimstone necessary.

Adults, ever effective in obfuscating the obvious, apparently have a tougher time. Recently, a federal appeals court heard arguments aimed at the essential life question: When does a human being become a human being?

The case was related to a South Dakota ``informed consent'' law that would have required doctors to tell women contemplating abortion that the operation would ``terminate the life of a whole, separate, unique, living human being.''

The court ruled 2-1 against enforcement of the law.

We may not be able to define when a human being becomes a human being, but even children know this much: An elephant doesn't become an elephant without first being a single cell.