The National Catholic Review
John F. Kavanaugh

They showed the ad again, a week before thousands would traipse off to Washington. The advertisement was not about the Pro-Life demonstration, and yet it had everything to do with it. In the middle of Tim Russert’s Meet the Press, General Electric presented, once again, a riveting commercial for its 4D Ultrasound Imaging System. The music for the sound track is a version of Ewan McColl’s ballad from the 1960’s, The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.

What is riveting about the commercial is the second face you see. After framing a mother’s loving gaze, we see the face of an unborn human being, courtesy of Ultrasound. The other, in this case, the unborn child, so often hidden or ignored like all the other voiceless and unnoticed who do not count in this world, is made present to us. And there is no doubt what we are looking at.

A man’s spoken voice rises over the song. When you see your baby for the first time...it really is a miracle.

There are some abortion rights people who cannot stand this commercial. I have heard others call it propaganda. But it is not propaganda. Propaganda is when you change your name from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League to NARAL Pro-Choice America. Better not to have the A-word actually spelled out. Better to make it an issue of choice and Americanism. Propaganda is when you do not want people to know the truth. When you don’t want people to see the face of the other. Propaganda is when you don’t want people to consider the facts.

The ultrasound portrait is probably of a third-trimester unborn child, as was the stunning cover photograph on Time magazine last Nov. 11. Here is, of course, the end stage of a pregnancy, a journey in many ways as complex and arduous for the unborn as it is emotionally and physically demanding for mothers. It is this third trimester that will most likely first be protected by law, should any change to Roe v. Wade ever occur. The evidence of our frail but splendid humanity is so overwhelming here that, even with Roe v. Wade, some states are able to place restrictions on abortion. It is important to note as well that of the almost one million abortions a year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that only 12,400 take place during the third trimester. Only.

Estimates for second trimester abortions run at about 10 percent, or possibly 100,000 a year in the United States. This three-month period is a time of awesome fetal development, so much so that the recommended procedures for abortion vary considerably from 12 weeks to 20 weeks. Even at the earliest stages, however, there is that face. At 84 days, just before the second trimester begins, there are eyes and ears as well, and hands whose thumbs are sometimes sucked. I believe it is becoming daily more possible that we will find national consensus to protect such unborn. Only someone incredibly foolish or hard-hearted can deny the evidence that this is a living human being.

Ninety percent of abortions occur in the first trimester. Seven weeks after conception there is a period when the face is forming. There are brain, heart, stomach, liver, spinal and umbilical cords. This data led the late Carl Sagan to state it was indubitably a human being and should be protected. I think, some day, deep in my heart, as the song goes, we will find consensus some day. The facts may compel us.

The hard part for consensus will be over the beginning of an individual human life. The disagreement is not a religious one, but a scientific and possibly metaphysical one. And it haunts all debates over embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning. We are dealing here with the very earliest stages of human life. Two dominant options are these: You began when a group of cells that would become you began having specialized functions, became implanted in a uterus and functioned as an organic unity; or you began at conception.

The first option, in politics, research and ethics, usually focuses on the period from the seventh to the 14th day after conception. Twinning can occur, as well as recombination. Countless unknown spontaneous miscarriages occur. The cells all are totipotentialthat is, each one could possibly become a total human being or any part of a human being. That is why they are called stem cells. That is why cloning, therapeutic or otherwise, enters here. That is why they are so precious. I think, from the viewpoint of evidence alone, this position will honestly be argued, and consensus may never be reached.

But I think the evidence for conception is strongest. I am told that in one act of intercourse, about 100 million sperm are released, give or take 0.1 percent. One hundred thousand of them make it to the oviduct, and a few dozen are lucky to reach the area of the egg. One, most often, succeeds. And that was when you started. Any of the other hundred million sperm that started the journey would not have been you but a brother or a sister, with a different face and a different center of consciousness. It was a unique human genome, possibly programmed to be shared with an identical twin who could come into existence later and would have its own center of life and consciousness, but it was you. And the odds against you even being conceived, with your own genome, are greater than the odds against winning the national lottery every day of a year.

The awesome genetic argument, the DNA information, the in-forming, the form, endowed with a life, is so signal here. Not only does that fertilized ovum have within itself the makings of your brain and heart. It has the map of your face, yes, your face.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.