Subscription Subscription
Home > News > Opinion News > Article > Once long ago an egg and a sperm

Once long ago, an egg and a sperm

Updated on: 05 March,2024 06:52 AM IST  |  Mumbai
C Y Gopinath |

At what precise moment after conception does an embryonic cluster of cells become a person? Or to put it another way, is there life after birth?

Once long ago, an egg and a sperm

About 50 per cent of fertilised eggs do not mature into foetuses and perish. In Alabama’s new law, this is murder since embryos are persons, equal constitutional protection. Illustration by C Y Gopinath using Midjourney

C Y GopinathThe sun sets today at 6.26 pm. As usual, I am scratching my head. The sun is a rather sizeable celestial object and looks even larger near the horizon. What precisely happens at 6.26 pm, I ask no one in particular, that is called a sunset? Does the lower edge touch the horizon? Is it sunset when half of it has dipped below the horizon? Or is it when the entire solar disc is out of view?

As insecure human beings, we crave precision in all things. We will meet at 6.32 pm this evening, not give or take 45 minutes. We will pronounce the happy couple man and wife at this precise muhurat, exactly when the shadow planet Rahu’s time ends. Our salaries will be Rs 32,500, not around Rs 30,000, plus or minus Rs 5,400.

What about the moment of sunset in a human life, the instant when someone beloved passes away? The death certificate and the coroner must record a particular minute, and we may ask the same question—what died in that minute?

The dead heart has been known to kickstart itself after being pronounced dead.

A person can be completely brain dead and comatose and still be kept alive for years, heart pumping away.

There are cases when both brain and heart have died and come back blazing, full of stories of the afterlife.

As a lifelong hobby astrologer, I know how important the exact time of birth is for ascertaining a person’s lagna or rising sign. I have spent my years asking in vain whether that moment is when the head appears or when the whole infant is out. Or is it when it draws first breath? What if it was a Caesarian birth?

No one questions that the baby is alive at the moment of birth except in a few rare, tragic cases. All that remains is to proclaim the gender and let the orchestra play.

A recent court ruling has brought up a disturbing question: if the baby is alive when born, at what precise moment during the nine months after conception did it become alive? When does a cluster of cells become a person?

In the opinion of Tom Parker, Chief Justice in the primitive American state of Alabama, a person comes into being the very moment a male sperm fuses with a female egg to form an embryo and a new baby gets going. Alabama’s Supreme Court’s judgment addressed damage or destruction of embryos frozen as part of in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Even a frozen embryo, says Justice Parker, is a person. Damaging or destroying one is the same as murder. 

As evidence, he cites classic Christian theologians like St Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin to modern conservative Christian manifestos. Aquinas, he says, “distinguished human life from other things God made, including nonhuman life, on the grounds that man was made in God’s image.” 

God told the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Surely, He was talking about frozen embryos.

Human life, Parker declared, “cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.”

IVF is how couples that cannot have children have them. It’s the solution for couples who don’t want a child quite yet but fear declining fertility may impede them when they do. Eggs are extracted from the mother and introduced to sperm from the father. Once fertilisation happens and an embryo forms, it is implanted into the mother—or frozen and kept in waiting for years. In 2019, eight million children were born through IVF.

It’s an iffy process. About 50 per cent of fertilised eggs do not mature into foetuses and perish. In Alabama’s new law, this is murder since embryos are persons, equal constitutional protection.

Of course, they are. The problems begin after birth when the child, alas, turns out to be brown, black, or have Oriental features. It is afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome. It is not tall enough. Its parents are migrant workers. Worse, it’s female. Ooopsie. Turns out you’re a non-person after all. Sorry about that. 

Life may or may not begin at conception, but it ends not long after birth for a big chunk of humanity.

As usual, Bollywood has all the answers, and it comes in the voice of Amitabh Bachchan in his delightful movie Mr Natwarlal. In this scene, a younger, dashing Bachchan is thrilling a crowd of hill children with a story about a terrified hunter who meets a terrifying tiger in a jungle. The meeting does not go well for the hunter. Bachchan sings—

Khuda ki kasam, maza aa gaya
Mujhe maar kar, besharam kha gaya.
(I swear on God, that shameless tiger killed me and then—ate me)
A child says, “But you’re not dead, quite alive!”
Mr Natwarlal, deadpan and flat on the ground, says, “Arre, yeh jeena bhi koi jeena hai, lallu?”
You call this living a life?

You can reach C Y Gopinath at
Send your feedback to
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

"Exciting news! Mid-day is now on WhatsApp Channels Subscribe today by clicking the link and stay updated with the latest news!" Click here!

Register for FREE
to continue reading !

This is not a paywall.
However, your registration helps us understand your preferences better and enables us to provide insightful and credible journalism for all our readers.

Mid-Day Web Stories

Mid-Day Web Stories

This website uses cookie or similar technologies, to enhance your browsing experience and provide personalised recommendations. By continuing to use our website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Cookie Policy. OK