Most fertilized eggs spontaneously abort during the first weeks of life. Estimates of death before implantation range as high as 80 percent and bottom out around 45. More than thirty percent of those that do implant later die on the vine. This means that unprotected sex produces more dead fertilized eggs than live babies.
Reality TV’s Duggar parents are fundamentalist Christian opponents of contraception and abortion who have produced “19 Kids and Counting.” Based on the live births that Michelle Duggar delivered, we might estimate that Michelle and her man-on-a-mission flushed somewhere between 17 and 75 embryos in order to get the family they have.
The Reproductive Funnel
The fact is that nature or nature’s god designed reproduction as a big funnel. A lot more eggs and sperm get made than will ever hook up with each other. Many more eggs get fertilized than will ever implant. And more zygotes implant than will ever grow into babies. The world’s major religions, including even the most extremist forms of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, tacitly acknowledge that these reproductive false starts are not people by declining to name or baptize the ones that women’s bodies expel on a regular basis.
If we are honest, even the most conservative Baptist or Bishop claims personhood status for the human embryo only when the decision making of women is at question. No religious sect argues that we should save as many embryos as possible among the hundreds of thousands that die daily. No religious hierarchy dedicates its formidable financial resources or political clout to making this a global priority on par with, say, ending starvation.
In his now classic Discover article, “The Good Egg” science writer Stephen Hull lays out what is known about the process of conception, and he points out the difficulty that biology poses for those who want embryonic life legally protected:
The high failure rate begs challenging ethical questions. If life begins at conception, as many believe, why are so many lives immediately taken? If, as some ethicists argue, nascent life must be protected, how do we assess the degree of moral entitlement due a nascent entity that fails to pass nature’s own muster perhaps 80 percent of the time? And if the fate of an organism is indeed inscribed in the earliest biological inklings of an egg, does life begin with the gametes [the egg and sperm]?
Ethicist Toby Orb at Oxford says that if embryos have the same moral standing as persons, then spontaneous embryonic death should be the most horrendous moral problem of our time. He compares it to a plague that he calls The Scourge:
The Scourge struck swiftly and brutally. This terrifying new disease, more deadly than any before it, left no part of the world untouched. From the poorest countries in Africa to the richest countries in the West, it killed with equal, horrifying efficiency. It struck quickly, killing most of its victims within a few weeks of onset, and silently, for there were no detectable symptoms prior to death. Before the Scourge, the global death rate was 55 million per annum. That is, all causes of death—old age, war, murder, disease, and so on—conspired to take 55 million lives each year. The Scourge changed this dramatically. It alone killed more than 200 million people every year. . . . . Compared with the Scourge, all other problems seemed insignificant. . . . Other projects had to be put on hold and a major international effort directed toward loosening the Scourge’s grip upon humanity.
Groups that claim moral equivalence between embryos and persons and then fail to treat spontaneous embryo death as The Scourge are hypocritical, at best. That said, there is wisdom in their failure to walk the walk.
The Wisdom of Spontaneous Abortion
The processes that knit together the beginnings of life are incredibly effective in the long run, but at least at the start, they optimize for quantity over quality. Fertilized eggs and multi-celled blastulas and even more complex embryos wither for many reasons, not the least being that reproduction is hugely imperfect and a lot of egg-sperm mergers are defective. Alternately, they may flush out because the slow journey from fallopian tube to uterus got interrupted, or the mother’s womb wasn’t quite ready, or her immune system treated the embryo as a foreign invader; or for reasons yet unknown. Contraception researcher Dr. David Grimes describes the fascinating beginning stages of human life, how things go wrong, and how impressively nature eliminates most of the faulty embryos in his book, Every Third Woman.
Virtually all sexual reproduction, whether of plants or animals, follows a similar pattern, with lots of false starts built into the equation and a fertility rate that compensates. No farmer expects every seed to grow. Somewhat ironically, the Christian Bible reminds us of this in a story known as the Parable of the Sower:
A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain. (Matthew 13: 3-8 NRSV)
How Contraceptives Prevent Conception And Spontaneous Abortion
The fact that fertilized egg death is so common means that all birth control methods available today reduce the rate of embryonic hari-kari, and the more effective the contraceptive the more this is true. Top tier contraceptives, including the IUDs so hated by the Hobby Lobbyists, prevent more egg death daily than every pro-life picketer in America combined. And that’s not even counting how much therapeutic abortion decreases when women have access to better birth control.
Here is how top tier contraceptives actually work:
- The etonogestrel implant (Nexplanon) categorically shuts down ovulation. It has a published annual pregnancy rate around 1 in 2000 but in reality every pregnancy that occurred during clinical trials was conceived after the implant was removed. No egg, no fertilization, nothing to implant or abort. The fact that it also thins the uterine lining and thickens cervical mucus is largely irrelevant because women on the implant basically don’t ovulate.
- The levonorgestrel IUD (Mirena, Skyla) thickens the mucus plug at the entrance to the uterus, so that sperm can’t get through. No access, no fertilization, nothing to implant or abort. Once settled into place, it has an annual pregnancy rate around 1 in 800. Secondarily, a hormonal IUD also thins the endometrium, which is why periods decrease by 90 percent over time—which, incidentally, has some serious health benefits. A sperm that managed to get through and fertilize an egg would meet an unprepared uterus, but preventing implantation is not the big way this IUD prevents pregnancy. We can be confident that fertilized egg death in this case is less common than it would be without the protection—or with less effective protection like the Pill, which in real world use, has a 1 in 11 pregnancy rate.
- The nonhormonal copper IUD (Paragard; annual pregnancy rate 1 in 500) releases ions that act as a spermicide impairing a little egg-seeker’s ability to swim. They may alter the surface of the egg as well, preventing penetration. In other words, the primary and intended mechanisms of pregnancy prevention—despite all squawking to the contrary—are anti-conceptive aka contraceptive not abortifacient. IUDs may also heighten an immune response in the reproductive tract. It should be noted that of the top tier birth control methods, the Copper IUD is least effective and most likely to end up with a situation where a fertilized egg might bump up against the IUD itself and then flush out. But this happens far less often than when a women is not contracepting or is using a less effective family planning method. That includes the Pill, the condom and especially the rhythm method or “let go and let God.”
To summarize, top tier contraceptives are designed to prevent conception. This is their primary and intended mode of action and because they are so effective at what they do, for most women this is their only effect. Should an egg and sperm meet, unite, and then die, that is a failure of the purpose for which these contraceptives were designed. Based on all evidence available this is a rare event, and much less rare than when a woman is either not contracepting or is using a less effective method of family planning.
So, for the record let me say it again. A woman who values fertilized eggs or who believes her deity does should use the best birth control available. She also might want to do some reading on the biology of beginnings.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.