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Ourselves unborn : a history of the fetus in modern America. Responsibility Sara Dubow.
Physical description viii, p. Online Available online. Green Library. The next century of developmental biology made things even more complicated.
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With in vitro fertilization—combining sperm and egg in a lab—scientists could directly observe the process of sperm entering the egg for the first time. It actually takes place over as long as 24 hours; a series of biochemical changes need to happen before the sperm can enter. Inside the body, fertilization can happen hours or even days after insemination, as the sperm travels up the fallopian tube. This journey also induces changes in the membrane of the sperm, called capacitation, that ready it to fertilize eggs.
The discovery of artificial capacitation was key to making in vitro fertilization possible.
It takes place the next day in the laundromat or the library. But even fertilization isn't a clean indicator of anything.
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Estimates run from 50 to 80 percent, and even some implanted embryos spontaneously abort. The woman might never know she was pregnant. Assuming that fertilization and implantation all go perfectly, scientists can reasonably disagree about when personhood begins, says Gilbert. An embryologist might say gastrulation, which is when an embryo can no longer divide to form identical twins.
A neuroscientist might say when one can measure brainwaves. Roe v. Wade allows abortion up to the point a fetus is viable outside the womb. But that's not much help, either. But earlier this year, Bell published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine showing reasonably good outcomes in preemies born at 22 weeks of gestational age. Two key technologies have pushed that date: the use of steroids, which can speed up fetal development, and surfactants that prevent lungs from collapsing after birth. Still, setting an absolute cutoff for fetal viability is impossible.
Is it some babies survive? Half survive? Or most babies survive? At 22 weeks, many of the babies that survive end up with permanent health problems or disabilities. Bell is wary of his research being appropriated by the debate over abortion. Every iteration and advance in the lab make the question even more the purview of philosophers and theologians. And lawyers. Getty Images.