Still More Evidence That Babies in the Womb are Fully Human

A baby devloping in the womb (click for credit)
In a previous post, I noted that from a scientific point of view, it is quite clear that a baby developing in the womb is fully human. In fact, people who claim otherwise are forced to argue against science. This produces some really absurd ideas, such as Josh Rosenau’s claim that it is hard to distinguish between a baby developing in the womb and cancer!

Now even though I doubt that it will change the minds of the fervent pro-abortion crowd out there, it is important to communicate what science tells us about a baby developing in the womb. As I mentioned in the previous post linked above, not only does genetics tell us that from the moment of fertilization, a baby is 100% human, but recent studies also indicate that when given the opportunity, babies in the womb will socialize. This, of course, adds to the genetic evidence and confirms that babies in the womb are, indeed, fully human.

The newest thing science tells us is that parts of the brain that were thought not to develop until after a baby is born are actually well-developed in the womb. Interestingly enough, those parts of the brain are involved in the kinds of activities that make us…well…human.

To understand the significance of the findings, you need to know what a resting state network is. It is a pattern of low-frequency brain activity that is always happening, even when a person is asleep. You can find resting state networks (RSNs) for many brain functions. For example, there is a RSN for touch, an RSN for vision, an RSN for movement, etc.

There is one particular RSN that is quite interesting. It is called the default mode network. This RSN tends to increase its activity when a person is involved in such introspective activities as planning for the future, retrieving memories, or gauging the perspectives of others. It reduces its activity when a person is focused on external visual stimuli. For example, as I write this piece, my default mode network increases its activity as I think about what I will write, and it decreases its activity as I actually focus on the screen and type these words.

What does the default mode network actually do? Well, we aren’t completely sure, but most neurologists think it is an integral part of the brain’s ability to plan for the future, process past social interactions in an attempt to understand others, and get the most out of our brains when we are not involved with the rest of the world. 1

Now it was thought that resting state networks, especially the default mode network, developed well after birth. Indeed, since the default mode network is so involved in things associated with a human life, such as planning for the future and retrieving memories, how could it possibly be developed while a child is in the womb? However, when researchers actually tested this idea, they found that it was quite wrong.

Valentina Doria and her colleagues used functional MRI to examine 70 infants born prematurely. Here is how they summarize their results:

Visual, auditory, somatosensory, motor, default mode, frontoparietal, and executive control networks developed at different rates; however, by term, complete networks were present, several of which were integrated with thalamic activity. These results place the emergence of RSNs largely during the period of rapid neural growth in the third trimester of gestation, suggesting that they are formed before the acquisition of cognitive competencies in later childhood.2

So in the end, based on studying several babies born prematurely, this team of researchers tells us that the RSNs of a baby, including the child’s default mode network, are developed while the baby is still in the womb.

What does this tell us? Well, according to one member of the research team:

either being a fetus is a lot more fun than we remember, as we were able to lie there thinking about the future, or current understanding of what these networks do is mistaken

So if our understanding of the brain is correct, even in the womb, a baby is having the kinds of thoughts that characterize that baby as human. Add that to the genetic evidence and the social interaction evidence, and it is clear that even in the womb, a baby is fully human.

Now I will add one caveat to this. Function MRI is known to have problems when it comes to data analysis. Thus, the conclusions of this study are best treated as very tentative until they are confirmed by others.


1. Buckner RL, Andrews-Hanna JR, and Schacter DL., “The brain’s default network: anatomy, function, and relevance to disease,” Annals of the NY Academy of Science 1124:1-38, 2008.
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2. Valentina Doria, et al., “Emergence of resting state networks in the preterm human brain,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 107:20015-20, 2010.
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15 thoughts on “Still More Evidence That Babies in the Womb are Fully Human”

  1. I’m sorry, but I don’t think much of this in terms of evidence. It isn’t looking at a foetus in the womb, but at a baby who would be in the womb had they not been born early.

    It uses, as you note, a scanning technique that has been shown to be unreliable at best.

    It refers to mental processes that are little understood in fully developed adults or patients when they go wrong (as demonstrated by your recent debate on autism). Therefore the likelihood that there is another lurking factor there is uncomfortably strong.

    And the age of the babies involved, since they are necessarily viable for this test to occur, puts them on the human side of a commonly drawn line in abortion ethics debates and therefore unable to lend support to their cousins who are not yet viable.

    Now I don’t like abortion on principle, but I would not consider this useful evidence on this matter at all.

    1. Josiah, I will have to disagree with you on this one. Remember, all these babies were born prematurely. Thus, they were born in the process of development. This means their development provides a snapshot of that term in the womb. Now I agree that if only a few babies were studied, this might present a problem. However, 70 infants were studied, and they were born between 29 and 43 weeks (postmenstrual time). Thus, the researchers have a good timeline from many infants.

      Also, while RSNs are not fully understood, they certainly represent advanced brain development. Thus, even if the default mode network has nothing to do with introspection, it still represents an advanced brain. If nothing else, then, this study indicates that the brain of a baby in the womb is significantly more advanced than previously believed. Since even materialists agree that it is our brain that sets us apart from animals, that means a baby in the womb is already set apart from animals, at least in the third trimester.

      I would also suggest that you look into the abortion debate a bit more thoroughly, as the ages of these babies certainly do not put them on the “human” side of the line in the minds of aborting mothers. The Guttmacher Institute estimated that in 1992, more than 6,000 abortions of babies that were 23 weeks into development or beyond were performed.

      As you point out (and as I stated in the article) the real weakness of this study is the use of fMRI. Thus, it does need to be confirmed by other groups. If confirmed, the results are really quite important.

  2. I understand that these babies are prem-births, but they have been born. I have to question the validity of using a baby who has been born to explain how a foetus which has not been born, even given that the foetus and the baby are biologically the same age. There is an assumption that development is equivalent or even comparable between those in and out of the womb. Not to fall into the nature/nurture psychology debate but that is a massive assumption that you have to swallow before you can even consider the research. You can demonstrate that on a cellular level the baby brain is capable of higher thought processes by that age. You can’t state that this capacity is utilised in the womb, or that the brain even has the information it would need to utilise this capacity.

    I do not know enough about RSN’s to argue that point.

    There will be some, such as Peter Singer, who argue that any foetus or baby is not human. There will be some, such as yourself, who argue that human life starts with conception. But there are many who draw the line at the age of viability. My last point stands.The decision of 6000 mothers to abort after the age of viability does not change the fact that viability is often considered, in debate and in law, to be the critical point after which abortion becomes wrong. Nor does their (or that of the other 1.5 million) decision have any bearing on whether abortion is right or wrong. To have been born and to be alive, these babies are necessarily viable. Therefore they fall are on the legally and ethically “human” side for a vast number of debates on this topic.

    1. Josiah, you are certainly wrong on your first point. A preterm baby is an excellent gauge of fetal development. Indeed, much of what we learned about fetal development in the early years came from preterm babies, and this knowledge was later confirmed once technology allowed us to study development in the womb. Thus, using preterm babies as a guide to brain development in the womb stands on a huge amount of past experimental confirmation for other aspects of development.

      I will concede your last point to you. You are correct that while thousands of babies that are viable are murdered every year, the majority of people who are pro-abortion do see viability as the dividing line between non-human and human life.

  3. I agreed and agree that a preterm baby can be used to accurately gauge the extent of physical development, because there is no reason to suppose that they suddenly grow or mature physically upon emerging from the brain. I would still argue that you can’t say extend evidence of a baby’s thoughts to state that a foetus thinks in the same way. The very trauma of birth, the sudden influx of light, the concept of cold and of space- the senses are suddenly flooded with information for processing that a baby in the womb doesn’t have. Since the brain processes information from the senses, it is logical that a foetus will not be thinking in the same way as a born baby.

    However I will acknowledge that a baby’s mind is just as physically able to think even while in the womb, and if you take the mind as the differentiating factor between people and animals this does make it wrong to kill a foetus of that level of mental development.

  4. I doubt that anyone truly believes that a child in the womb is any less human, however I think that people are willing to cloud their minds with excuses so as to ignore it in favor of what their preferences would dictate. Perhaps I’m wrong though and there may be some people who have deluded themselves to a degree where the cloud of excuses has become a virtual wall in their darkened minds.

    Anyway, Merry Christmas.

  5. “Perhaps I’m wrong though and there may be some people who have deluded themselves to a degree where the cloud of excuses has become a virtual wall in their darkened minds.”

    I’m sure that there are some people who fall into that category. I suspect however that the majority don’t delude themselves so much as they’re convinced by the authorities around.

    It is cultural morals and the root of cultural moral differences. For example in most European cultures the woman’s breast is the peak of immodesty. In certain African cultures the breast is hardly considered but the legs must be kept covered. Neither has any absolute underpinning morality, it is the very genuine result of how they and their society is taught.
    An individual’s fundamental principles will be very much dependent on parents, teachers, doctors and other role models. Children especially though not exclusively are more likely to believe someONE than to believe someTHING. I expect that there are plenty of people who sincerely believe that abortion is quite fine merely because of this effect.

  6. Happy New Year to all, and I hope you had a Merry Christmas, as well.

    This discussing contains a curious disconnect for me. From what I have read of Roseneau, I doubt he says that an embryo is not human. Not a person, I would expect, and possibly not a human, but still human. But the sperm and egg cells which join together are human, after all. Even the cancer that might form is human.

    This may seem like a quibble, but if the embryo is not human, than it is inhuman, unhuman, non-human, etc., and I don’t think Roseneau would say embryuos are inhuman or any similar word. The terminology seems to paint him most unfairly.

    1. Here is part of what the article from Roseneau says:

      The third sentence declares by fiat that every fertilized egg is a human and entitled to all the rights associated with personhood (Egnor later insists that being human inherently grants personhood, so we’ll treat these terms as equivalent for the sake of argument). [emphasis mine]

      So in the end, Roseneau treats the term “human” and “person” as one, at least for the sake of the argument. Note also that I use the term “fully human” to further express the idea that the baby developing in the womb is a person.

      Finally, as is typical with Roseneau, the argument is incredibly sloppy. In the above quote, he claims that Egnor wants a baby in the womb to have “all the rights associated with personhood.” Egnor wants no such thing, as there are many rights associated with personhood that accumulate as a person grows up or depend on where the person lives (the right to drive, vote, etc.). Egnor simply wants a baby in the womb to have all the BASIC rights of a human being, which includes the right to life.

  7. I agree that Roseneau argues sloppily from time to time. I think that you would agree that a statement where he says he is accepting a specific terminology “for the sake of the argument” indicates that, in other arguments or at other times, he makes a differentiation.

  8. Is there any way you can turn off that wretched time limit on comments feature, or at least have it wait a period of time since the last comment rather than the last post? You make a comment as controversial as “it would have been better for the entire world if Hitler had been killed as a baby.” and then wordpress goes and disables any responses. Any argument cut short doesn’t help either person, and the full force of the arguments won’t be felt if responses are blocked.

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