Oct 9, 2015


Representative André Jacque
Wisconsin Assembly District 2

Dear Representative Jacque:

I have a favor to ask.  Can you give me the name of a US congressman from Florida with your interest in rights of the unborn and who is comfortable dealing in scientific issues?  I should greatly appreciate it.  I am not one of your constituents, have never donated to a campaign of yours and do not expect to.  However the favor is small enough and my need is great; besides, your commitment is great. 

This is not a trap, but I invite you to be most cautious.  If I cannot persuade a skeptical mind I am the wrong person to be taking an interest here.  You may not want to finish reading this letter, but I hope you do read it. 

In some ways we are not natural allies.  My career has been in medicine, and my love is science.  There are scientific experiments you wish not to see done, specifically the use of fetal tissue in research.  That is how I learned your name.  (In Wisconsin, an Early Clash over Fetal Tissue Science 349 no. 6254 September 18, 2015 page 1267)  In any debate between scientists and anybody else, I’ll get the science side because it’s the science journals I read. 

Before going on, let me insert a request that logically should come at the end.  Of course you are more than welcome to look at any of the scientific papers I refer to, directly or indirectly, form your own conclusion and do as you see fit.  But for me this is research.  The time is not yet to give advice.  And a premature debate could do harm.  It might cast a pall over the whole field.  Less crucially, if you refer to me or use my interpretation in any public statement, I might draw an attack.  That is not something I would relish.  Once many years ago I told my mother that I was finding Harvard Medical School most trying.  She answered, “I don’t know why you ever thought you could be a doctor anyway.  Doctors are tough.  You’re not tough.  You ought to teach English.”

It was never easy living up to her expectations.  And she was absolutely right.  I’m not tough.  I was once thrown out of a genetics society meeting because my ideas were so radical; it still bothers me.  And a few weeks ago an email of mine was refused by the Swedish public health people with the single word “abuse.”  Not fair.  We’re talking science.  That might be right or wrong, but if it is honest then there is never abuse.  Of course the tools of science can be turned to abusive language and acts, but a question is always fair.  Right, Mamma, I’m not tough, but I still understand threats to the unborn that few understand, and I am obliged to speak.

My medical career has been in diagnostic radiology.  So my patient contact has been rather limited, but let me spin another yarn.  Again many years ago I was directed by the senior partners of the radiology group I was working for to attend a monthly meeting of the medical society of a rural county.  One bit of business was that a clinic was opening that was going to take an interest in family planning, and they needed the permission of the society to offer free pregnancy tests.  Most of the doctors were foreign medical graduates who did not see through the motivation.  The question was asked, “Why do they want to do everything for free?”  There was general consternation.  You could almost see the question marks over everybody’s head.  So I said, “They want power over the moment.”  Now everybody had a second, rather larger question mark.  So I said, “They want to be there when she finds out she’s pregnant.”  The room seemed filled with question marks.  So I said, “They want to be able to choose which abortion mill to steer her to.”  The question marks vanished, and the request was refused.

All right.  Are we on the same page?

When does life begin?  The only answer I have ever read from a science article said, in rather contemptuous tone, that it is a stupid question showing the ignorance of the person who asks.  Life does not “begin.”  The egg is alive; the sperm is alive.  They get together, but there is no “new life.”  

So I rephrase, “When does a person begin?”  In our culture there are two extremes that bracket the debate.  “Life begins at conception” and, “life begins at birth.”  Between these two rages the battle, but think a moment.  They do not cover the logical possibilities.  It is easy to imagine a culture in which the individual becomes a person at some ceremony.  Before that the parents are free to destroy the individual.  Happily this is not part of the debate, but I understand that the ancient Romans regularly would “expose” an unwanted baby.  They’d put it out on a hillside.  I’m thinking that most of those babies were suffering from Rh incompatibility; they were going to die or be brain damaged anyway.  Usually you can tell at a glance if you’ve had a little experience at it.  So the infant, if obviously diseased, might be rejected.  Absent modern medicine, “begins at birth” could be problematic. 

That was then and this is now, so we ignore it.  But look at the other end of things.  Sure, when a woman “conceives,” when the young embryo implants on the wall of the uterus, it is a major event.  If the embryo can hang in there for a couple of weeks so that the mother misses a period, then she knows a new person is on the way.  And indeed, a missed period, in our society, more than half the time means there will be a new taxpayer.

But it is not truly the beginning of the story.  Something like a week before conception the relevant sperm reaches the relevant egg.  Then, if there is to be conception, the sperm and egg must join to form a “zygote.”  That’s Greek for “yoke,” as in yoke of oxen.  Each gives up its individuality in order to form a team. 

Before that instant on contact, it is not possible to declare that there is a person.  It might be another sperm that gets there first.  But at that moment the person is defined in terms of all its genetic makeup  plus (and this is new and a subject of sharp debate) certain chemical markers on the DNA that makes up the genes (and a lot of other stuff).  The effects of the genes, of course, are “genetic.”  The effects of the markers are, “epigenetic.”  But it’s all there.  Prior to contact, no person.  After contact, person complete with eye color, stature, potential intelligence, blood type and a host of other inheritable characteristics.

So here is where I part company with the crowd.  I say the person begins at contact.  Of course that team, so to speak, has a host of hurdles to clear.  They break down into two components.  Pre-zygotic factors are those that prevent the egg and sperm from forming a zygote, which also includes all of the things that can prevent the sperm from reaching the egg.  Post-zygotic factors are those that prevent the zygote from developing into an embryo that will implant and, usually, go on to adulthood.  If the adult suffers from some sort of sexual defect (and lowering  sperm counts, decreasing male development and increasing abnormal male development are going on all over the world right now) that is still post-zygotic.  Don’t worry if this seems unfamiliar; I spent a week at a meeting of a society of reproductive medicine, and every specialist I could corner would go pale and change the subject if I mentioned pre-zygotic or post-zygotic.  Here is a link to a poster I presented at the meeting.

Follow the link.  The first graph is from a study done in Iceland.  They compare fertility with the kinship of the couple.  As you can see, the nearer the kin the more babies.  The effect might not be strong, but it is quite clear.  The error bars are two standard deviations, meaning roughly that any couple’s experience will fall within those bars a tad over 95% of the time.  Hold your hat now, in that society, and presumably in any developed society, when egg meets sperm the probability of going on to make an embryo that implants will be within that range almost all the time.  The variation in fertility is due to kinship alone; nothing else is important.

In other words, whether the egg and sperm, at that moment when they meet, go on to pay taxes is due to kinship.  If you marry anybody but second cousin or closer, you are killing babies.

I’ll bet you didn’t see that coming.  So when I say a person begins at contact, I am not saying the same thing as at conception.  There is something you can do to give it the best chance at implantation; marry kin.  … so we are all killing babies if we don’t marry first cousin once removed?  Not so fast.  The second graph looks at grandchildren.  Now the greatest number of grandchildren is between second cousin or closer and their cousin or closer, in plain language that’s third cousin.  To spare the most egg and sperm combinations in the next generation, you need to marry third cousin.

Even that is problematic.  If we all married third cousins the population growth rate would be insupportable.  They say that when the pioneers were developing the West, they were having something like fifteen children per woman.  Each little village would bud off a new village, which had less genetic diversity and maintained that or close to that optimal degree of kinship.  Pity the Indians.  They lived in villages where the population size was bigger, was stable.  They went down in a tidal wave of white flesh.

What you want is a population growth rate of zero; anything else will kill you in the long run.  So the “everybody marry third cousin” strategy is too short sighted.  There is a number, and I don’t know what it is but I suspect it is close to 100, where if you have that many adults and keep it that way for enough generations the population will be at equilibrium.  That’s what you need.  Anything else destroys babies. 

And now I suspect I am more pro-life than anybody you have ever met. 

At the same time, I do not like the idea of a government telling us whom we must marry.  What do governments do?  They accept immigrants.  That kills the babies of the immigrants as well as babies of the citizens.  Mind you, this has nothing to do with ethnicity.  This is just a matter of breaking up the villages the immigrants come from and placing them in communities that just might be able to survive, but cannot refuse the outsiders.  No, I don’t like the idea of government control.  Their record is poor, no terrible, no … well if there ever was anything satanic, what our government is doing is right there. 

So much for the measured prose of the scientist, eh? 

Since the government cannot be trusted, what is to be done?  Why warn people, of course.  If you talk to the experts they will smugly say that in developed countries the birth rate is a bit below replacement, and this is a good thing.  The population should fall to a good level and then will be time enough to take any action to encourage people to choose to have more babies.

But they cannot choose.  Well they cannot choose once their married.  The only, the single solitary choice that affects fertility in this generation and the rest, is whom to marry.  People need to know. 

Thus I am more pro-choice than anybody you ever met. 

If you don’t know what the consequences of your choice are going to be, then you aren’t free.  That’s not a hard problem, like long division or cat’s cradle; that’s easy.

“But,” think you, what’s your hurry.  It will be thousands of years before we get into dire straights with the present stable birth rate.  Well it’s not stable.  Looking at the statistics on, take say Sweden.  Their birth rate was ample, then fell and “stabilized” somewhat below replacement.  But if you ask the program to follow fertility on one axis and age at first marriage for women on the other, you will see that once the rate falls below replacement age at first marriage starts going up.  When I look at the numbers, it looks like that age will reach 38 in about eight years.

There’s nothing to do to stop it.  Those women are already born; in fact they are about 30 right now.  If you wanted to intervene, your window of opportunity closed in 1985.  And the rest of the rich world is not 30 years behind.  There is the fall in fertility and then the rise in age at first marriage.  And according to the statistics on that site, by 2005, when the site was put up, every single country in the world was affected.

That’s my hurry.  We need the scientists to learn a lot if we are to stand a chance.  That’s why we don’t want to pick a fight. 

As I said, six pages or so ago, I’m not your constituent so have no right to ask you for a favor save that we both care about the unborn.  But if you can find somebody who is comfortable with science and in contact with the pro-life community, maybe we can get a network formed. 

If you want the scientific approach rather than this rather ungainly one, I cannot recommend too highly chapter 19 “Marry in of Die Out” by Professor Robin Fox in the textbook Handbook on Evolution and Society.

Please let me know whom I can contact.  Feel free to forward this letter.  But it is not ready yet for public consumption, I think.  


M. Linton Herbert MD

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