Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Life's Developmental Miracle

Miracle: A highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences. The foregoing definition of “miracle” modifies what many people traditionally believed about the term. A traditional definition of miraculous relates to events that are “not explicable by natural or scientific laws.” Immediate physical healing or raising from the dead would be in this category. Such works were typical of many of the works of Christ during his ministry. In our day most would locate the term miracle on a wide definitional spectrum ranging from unusual to extraordinary to clearly supernatural. Based on this inclusive standard, we assign human reproduction to the status of the miraculous.

Recently our family was blessed with the arrival of a sixth grandchild—our fourth grandson. During the past century our understanding of physical events giving rise to production of a new human life have multiplied exponentially. Our knowledge of prenatal events has been transformed from the general to the specific. We now know what is going on at the level of cellular development, differentiation, and regulation. We formerly knew that the infant's body developed. Now we know what sort of miracle this development entails. 

When we first visited our newest grandson after his birth in the hospital, we were overcome with wonder at the beauty of his perfect fingers, toes, other body parts, and overall resemblance to his brothers and sister. At this level, we marveled  appropriately in devotional thankfulness and wonder. When we dig deeper into developmental and regulatory details during the previous nine months, however, we have apt reason to proclaim his formation and existence a “miracle.” Truth be told, we might be more fascinated by details of developmental events during the formation of a new human being inside the womb than sudden transcendent miracle events. In both cases, the power of the Creator is wonderfully manifest.

The story begins with the joining of two monoploid cells called gametes, the male sperm and the female ovum, into one diploid cell known as a zygote which contains all the genetic information necessary to form a new individual. If the latter statement is true, we may see more clearly the rationale behind our opposition to abortion, the tragic destruction of a human life. The issue of abortion, therefore, places a different perspective on “a woman’s right to ‘choose’” if that choice entails the destruction of a human life.  

The development of the living zygote, a one celled particle formed by the union of gametes from a male and a female human being, is appropriately termed a miracle—“a highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.” Anyone who has experienced the birth of their own children or grandchildren, or the birth of children of friends or relatives, may vouch for the appropriateness of the superlative adjective “extraordinary.”

Prenatal human development is aptly described as a miracle. The sequence of events is breathtakingly rapid and eventful. The first two weeks comprise the germinal stage. The zygote divides into two, then four, eight, and sixteen cells. At this early stage differentiation of cell types begins. The cell mass soon forms a blastocyst with a small cavity and travels toward the uterus where tissues of the placenta form. The blastocyst arrives at the uterus about five days after fertilization and is implanted in the endometrial cells of the uterus 8-10 days after ovulation. At 12 days the cells of the ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm have begun to differentiate. Cells of the mesoderm are functionally distinct from other cell layers of the embryo. Mesoderm cells initiate the synthesis of gene products crucial for formation of many additional differentiated cells as gestation continues during the nine months of pregnancy. From the stem cells of the embryo, 200 different cell types ultimately develop and position themselves at the correct place and time. This may be the ultimate reproductive miracle. A baby has two trillion cells at birth.

As readers study the period of gestation, the time interval from conception to birth, they will certainly encounter an unfamiliar but vitally important term—Gastrulation— the early organization of the blastocyst into its three-layered cell structure. This process ultimately enables the developing body to produce healthy individual organs. This is termed organogenesis. It is a key concept in bioscience. An oft-quoted pronouncement by Lewis Wolpert, pioneering developmental biologist, notes, “It is not birth, marriage, or death but gastrulation which is truly the most important time in your life.” Wolpert’s statement about this event occurring in the first two weeks of human life relates to respect for the miracle of early prenatal development.

When we read the Psalmist’s description of his body being “knit together in my mother’s womb,” we acquire a profound appreciation for the process and wonders of reproduction. Our cursory study of the germinal stage of pregnancy does not even begin to uncover the depth of detail and beauty of earliest prenatal events, not to mention the sequence of events in the months to follow. It is our hope that readers will reinforce their mission to respect, honor, and preserve human life at this stage. The God of Creation is the Author of Life in many dimensions. We honor the Creator and the miracle of life He has authored.