The year 1938 was a year of global turmoil. Hitler had seized control of the German army and placed Nazis in key posts. The civil war in Spain continued unabated on its path of murderous violence. Benito Mussolini published an anti-Jewish/African manifesto. Winston Churchill condemned Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. The League of Nations declared Japan to be an aggressor against China. It was a year in which certain political factions declared that Jews, Africans, Spaniards, Czechs, and Chinese were not fully human.
Yet, in this year of turbulence, there were areas that remained unaffected. In 1938, the beginning of human life was not an issue that was caught up in the maelstrom of cultural confusion. There was no reason to distort or contaminate its scientifically documentable reality. And so, Margaret Shea Gilbert, though a name that is not remembered by many, wrote a small book entitled Biography of the Unborn in which she described, with grace and biological precision, the beginning of human life.
Life begins for each of us,” she wrote in her opening paragraph, “at an unfelt, unknown, and unhonoured instant when a minute, wriggling sperm plunges into a mature ovum or egg . . . It is at this moment of fusion of the sperm and the ovum (a process call fertilization) that there arises a new individual who contains the potentialities for unnumbered generations of men.
The general public looked favorably on Gilbert’s book. It was not controversial in the least. The Williams & Wilkins Company, a leading publisher of scientific and medical works at the time, honored it by awarding its author a prize of $1,000 for “the best book on a scientific subject for general reading”. Ten years after its initial printing, Readers’ Digest widened the book’s readership by publishing it in a condensed form. 1938 was an island of serenity concerning the origin of human life despite what was going on in the rest of the world.
The fertilized egg, or zygote, contains all the information it needs to direct its development to the point where it attains consciousness and resembles other adult human beings. World class geneticist Jérôme Lejeune, the discoverer of trisomy, has stated that “as no other information will enter later into the zygote, the fertilized egg, one is forced to admit that all the necessary and sufficient information to define that particular creature is found at fertilization.” The zygote’s end is implicit in its beginning. Human life, therefore, begins at fertilization.
There is a widespread presumption that science marches on quite independently of culture influence. This view is naïve in the extreme, as history has shown. One need only consider the immense political pressure placed on scientists in Nazi Germany and in Stalinist Russia to subordinate their scientific findings to political correct viewpoints to confirm this point. Science may go forwards, but it also can go backwards.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said it well in his treatise, Medical Essays, in the mid-19th Century, when he remarked that “medicine, professedly founded on observation, is as sensitive to outside influence, political, religious, philosophical, imaginative, as is the barometer to the atmospheric density.” In theory, he said, medicine “ought to go on its own straightforward inductive path,” but in practice there exists “a closer relation between the Medical Sciences and the conditions of Society and the general thought of the time, than would at first be expected.” He was writing not only about medicine, but about science in general.
The general thought in the present is not congenial to the scientific basis for the beginning of human life. Some embryologists have accepted the fictitious and unscientific notion of a “pre-embryo” to make it appear that life did not begin at the moment of fertilization but at some indeterminate time later. The need to rationalize abortion has led to a falsification of science.
American biologists, in general, were more free in 1938 to expound upon the beginning of life than they are in today’s climate. 1938 was a turbulent year in many ways, but in that year the science of embryology that pinpointed the origin of human life was allowed to proceed according to its own objective standards. That same climate also allowed people to read about the origin of human life without fear of being out of step with the regnant attitudes of the times. We would all prefer clarity to chaos. Unfortunately, it is chaos that often makes it extremely difficult to find clarity. The year 1938 has much to teach us.