Pop culture icon Andy Warhol once remarked that everyone is entitled to fifteen minutes of fame. For Shirley Ellis, it was more like two and a half minutes—played millions of times over. Her 1964 single, The Name Game, reached the three spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Got a name? Shirley could spin it: “Lincoln, Lincoln bo Bincoln Bonana fana fo Fincoln Fee fy mo Mincoln, Lincoln!” If your name is Bob, Fred, or Mary, it’s a little more complicated.
Names are important. They give us an identity that keeps us from being called “Hey, you.” Or Bincoln. But they don’t define our essence. The names Montague and Capulet identified Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as members of warring families. Yet when the lovers set eyes on each other, they saw far beyond the names. “What’s in a name?” Juliet asked. “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
A local television outlet recently reported that after delivering a premature baby, a teenager put the baby in a bag and threw it in a shopping mall dumpster. Whether the baby was alive at the time of delivery is unknown. Our online newspaper picked up the story. Based on information from the local State’s Attorney, the paper reported that the baby was a fetus. A slew of readers challenged the use of that name.
When the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices decide a case, they do so in a conference room into which no one else may enter. But when in 1973 the justices decided Roe v. Wade, a proverbial big white elephant joined them: the unborn baby. The justices knew that if they recognized an unborn baby as human, the case was over. The Court could not approve the killing of innocent human beings. So the Court ignored the elephant. It left unanswered the question of when human life begins. The Court used medical names like “embryo” and “fetus” to describe what it called “potential life.” Many people use those names to devalue the life within the mother. Forty years after Roe, some even call an unborn baby a “parasite.”
In the field of medicine, 40 years is like an eternity. Though Roe did not reveal what the justices understood about life, since Roe the medical field has unveiled much of God’s wondrous mystery of life. It starts when just one of 250 million of a man’s sperm cells fertilizes a woman’s ovum, or egg, to form a single-cell zygote. It is the moment of conception. Life has begun. With conception, the man’s 23 chromosomes join the woman’s 23 chromosomes in a DNA pattern that it has never existed previously and will never be repeated. The pattern contains the design for a person’s physical traits—hair and skin color, sex, size, bone structure, facial look, everything—for an entire lifetime.
Soon after conception, the zygote travels down the mother’s fallopian tube, rapidly growing as it moves. It begins to look like a raspberry containing inner and outer cells. It gets a new name, blastocyst. Within a week of conception, the blastocyst reaches the mother’s uterus and burrows into the wall for nourishment—implantation. The inner group of its cells is called yet another name: embryo. The outer group of cells nourishes and protects the embryo.
By the third week after conception, the embryo’s brain, spinal cord, heart, and other organs begin to appear. A primitive circulatory system begins to form. The baby is the size of a pen tip. By the next week, the neural tube in the baby’s spine is closing and the heart is pumping blood. Basic facial features begin to form. The mother still does not yet know she is pregnant. In the next few week, arms and legs start to grow, nostrils become visible and eyes begin to form. So do toes, eyelids, and ears.
By week nine the baby is known as a fetus. Growth is rapid as the body catches us up with the large head. Sex organs and fingernails begin to develop. Within a week the face has a human profile. By week twelve the baby’s sex can be determined. The next week a skeleton is starting to develop and a scalp line is forming. At fourteen weeks, the baby can suck a thumb and even show a preference for thumbs. By sixteen weeks, the baby can begin to hear and to find comfort from mother’s heartbeat. About halfway through a pregnancy, the baby can swallow. Hair begins to grow; fingerprints and footprints start to develop. At 23 weeks, the baby can move at the sound of mom’s voice. The baby can sleep and even dream. At 26 weeks the baby’s eyes open. If born then, the baby has a 90% chance of surviving without disability. A week later, the bones are fully developed. In the next weeks the baby opens her eyes wide open, practices breathing, and begins to detect light. By week 33, the baby is starting to get chubby and will gain a half-pound weekly for the next month. By week 35, the baby is full term; all organs are functioning on their own. In a couple weeks, the baby will come!
And no, an unborn baby was never a “parasite.” Why? A parasite must remain attached to its host. Given a chance, a baby will live separate from his mother. Sadly, that may be why people use the demeaning name. They don’t want to give the baby a chance.
It all gets back to Juliet’s question: what’s in names like zygote, embryo, and fetus? It is nothing less than the Hand of God at work in creating human life. His Hand remains as each person turns infant, toddler, child, adolescent, pre-teen, teenager, young adult, thirty-something, middle-ager, older adult, and elderly. All are just names. But they speak to something precious: life. Romeo’s life was the sweetness that Juliet knew. And loved.
That a premature baby is ever thrown in a dumpster is a tragedy. That our culture is so unwilling to recognize a baby, by whatever name and whatever stage, as a human being and gift of God is a tragedy all its own. And in the end, a far worse one.