NRL News

What the self-repairing power of unborn babies teaches us

by | May 12, 2016

Editor’s note. This appeared on page 2 of the May digital edition of National Right to Life News. Every story in this issue can be read at Please share the edition with your pro-life friends and family.

tissuevsbabyreIn late March, there was a brief but encouraging flurry of news coverage about a provocative study published in the journal Nature Communications. Researchers from the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, and the University of Leuven, Belgium, found that “Abnormal cells in the early embryo are not necessarily a sign that a baby will be born with a birth defect such as Down’s syndrome,” according to Science News. “[S]cientists show that abnormal cells are eliminated and replaced by healthy cells, repairing – and in many cases completely fixing – the embryo.”

Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, the lead author, explained, “The embryo has an amazing ability to correct itself.” According to the Daily Mail

‘We found that even when half of the cells in the early-stage embryo are abnormal, the embryo can fully repair itself.

‘If this is the case in humans too, it will mean that even when early indications suggest a child might have a birth defect because there are some, but importantly not all abnormal cells in its embryonic body, this isn’t necessarily the case.’

I asked Dr. David Prentice about the study’s significance. He began by observing that while a child should not be aborted because a chromosomal anomaly is found, the fact that this may be much more common than previously thought–and is self-correcting in many instances–should be reassuring to doubting parents.

“This does show that embryos have an inherent ability for repair, again suggesting that the typical tests done by PGD [Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis], or even early in gestation, may not be so accurate nor as trustworthy for forecasting the child’s outcome,” he said.

The study takes on added significance, given the personal experience of Professor Zernicka-Goetz, who gave birth to her second child at age 44. Science News reported she

was inspired to carry out the research following her own experience when pregnant with her second child. At the time, a CVS test found that as many as a quarter of the cells in the placenta that joined her and her developing baby were abnormal: could the developing baby also have abnormal cells? When Professor Zernicka-Goetz spoke to geneticists about the potential implications, she found that very little was understood about the fate of embryos containing abnormal cells and about the fate of these abnormal cells within the developing embryos.

You could take these findings (which involved mouse embryos) in many directions.

#1. It seems as if we will never stop being amazed by the human body’s incredible capacity to self-correct and self-repair. When I first read the stories, I couldn’t help think of patients with significant brain injuries written off as “vegetables” who “awoke.”

Some had been misdiagnosed, others were the beneficiary of outside stimulation and creative attempts (by scientists such as Adrian Owen) to use brain scans to communicate with people previously written off as unreachable–e.g. , those in a so-called “persistent vegetative state.”

#2. As Dr. Prentice made clear, having a chromosomal anomaly such as Down syndrome is no grounds to end that child’s life. It is lethal discrimination. This research shows that the unborn child is adept at self-correcting. Are we, as adults, capable of self-correcting our prejudices toward those with developmental disabilities? Finally

#3. I do not know Professor Zernicka-Goetz’s full story. What I do know from the news accounts is that her first instinct was not to abort her child. Often the very opposite is the case.

When we meet (as most of us invariably have or will) a woman who–for whatever reason–is abortion-minded, our task is to provide what she needs to help her off the express elevator whose doors opens up the abortion clinic.

That is a task pro-lifers willingly and eagerly assume.

Categories: Unborn Children