Opinion Columns & Blogs

Robert L. Sharp: Talking about sex

All good etiquette books advise not to talk about politics, religion or money at social events.

Gosh, those are about the only interesting things going.

Well, there's also sex. And while many think that's been covered in the discussion of same-sex marriage, many others realize that is less about, ahem, "doing it" than about personal relationships -- comfort, trust, arguing about what brand of toothpaste to buy.

I am thinking a little more clinically, and sorry, that involves religion.

This has to do with when does life begin? I don't think we can know this with any more certainty than we can know when life ends. Of course, this is an integral part of the abortion discussion.

A childhood friend from Linden who is Mormon, tells me "At conception. Simple isn't it?"

Well, no. At least not in terms of a universal understanding.

Plato contended that the human soul does not enter the body until birth.

English common law located the beginning of a human soul at "quickening," believed to be the stage when the soul enters the body and the embryo could be felt moving within the uterus, which occurs at about four months.

The decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973 was based on the survivability of the fetus outside of the womb.

Buddhists oppose the destruction of any form of life, but abortion is common in Japan. Then in sorrow, they erect little stone Jizo statues, sometimes with bandanas around their necks.

Patty Sitkin in Bellota, the eastern suburbs of greater metropolitan Linden, reports: "Almost 70 years ago our Dominican catechist told us teenage girls that life began when 'the fetus quickens in the womb' four or five months after conception. St Thomas Aquinas had said it, we believed it and would have our belief confirmed years later during each pregnancy when that 'quickening' moment occurred and we knew suddenly that we were no longer carrying an exciting but amorphous possibility, but a tiny, unique person."

However, current Catholic thought, extrapolated from dogma promulgated by Pope Pius IX in 1854 of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, has life beginning at conception; conveniently, he also dictated papal infallibility (it apparently took time for the Word to get to California).

Protestant Christians vary, as does Jewish opinion, from fundamentalist and orthodox, to liberal congregations. Of course, Unitarians are waaay over there to the left.

Some Hindu theologians believe personhood begins at three months and develops through to five months of gestation.

Islamic scholars differ on when life begins, but 120 days is often seen as the point at which a fetus becomes fully human.

Jewish Talmudic Law assumes that the full title to life arises only at birth. Rabbinical writings have established that viability of a child is not fully established until it has passed the thirteenth day of its life.

I apologize in advance to readers who may have a more sophisticated knowledge of various religious thought.

Science as usual stirs this pot. While many believe that life begins at fertilization, research now shows that fertilization is a process that occurs over 12-24 hours. Even then, a zygote can split into two or more zygotes up until 14 or 15 days after fertilization, making twins or other multiples. Those who believe in a soul being bestowed at conception may well scratch their heads over whether souls can also split.

Gastrulation (pay attention, there will be a test) is that point at which the zygote is an individual and can no longer become two or more individuals.

Another viewpoint is a common definition of death (and thus could be applied to a definition of life) is a recognizable electroencephalogram (EEG) pattern, which occurs around 24-27 weeks after conception.

Much of the above was cribbed from "Developmental Biology," eighth edition, by Scott F. Gilbert, 2006 (http://tinyurl.com/5mtxxn).

So many things that pull people's chains are matters that could benefit from being ignored. Homosexuality, abortion, fighting over parking spaces are ones that I have thoughts about, usually queasy. However, I have to remind myself that, agree or disagree, matters that don't affect me can benefit from a big dose of minding my own business.

You started reading this because of the word "sex" at the top. Sorry, but I hope you learned something.

My opinion, before studying the subject of when life begins, would have been, as my Mormon friend believes, "at conception, of course." That was before I read the different opinions on this subject and had to look up the word "gastrulation."

It's not simple.

Robert L. Sharp grew up in Linden and spent most of the following 30 years as an international banker in Asia including four years as a Naval officer in that part of the world.