Out of the stream of consciousness so common in four-year-old children came the startling assertion: “I remember myself, eyes closed, inside mommy’s belly.” Wondering whether she was in the middle of some playful reverie or solitary game, I asked her what was it that she had just said. Intently staring at me, she repeated with even more emphasis: “Yes, I remember myself, unable to open my eyes, inside my mommy’s belly, it was dark”. Soon after, she returned to her latest crayon masterpiece.
Several points struck me in that unusual, but wholly spontaneous and matter-of-fact assertion: The reality of a self (“I remember myself”)—individual, self-conscious, and continuous—who remembers and is aware of her own body and that of her mother as related but distinct physical beings; a self that is also aware of an environment charged with attributes (outside/inside and clear/dark dimensions) was evident (“eyes closed, inside my mommy’s belly, it was dark”).
No less startling was the intimation of a will to act. She was “unable to open” her eyes as if she had been purposely trying to do so, but realized that she could not. The sense of possibility, desire, choice, and failure was already present, if only in a rudimentary form, in this human being who, already curious and inquisitive, wished to open her eyes but was unable do so. Moreover, the absolute certitude and gravitas with which the statements were uttered was, to say the least, astounding. She, who can only be described as a healthy, generally lively, and unaffected child, was not play-acting but expressing an unequivocal and pressing reality.
The myths which hold that the unborn human being is merely a bunch of fetal cells and that the mother’s autonomy trumps all else, stood fatally shattered by the young girl’s stark recollection of pre-birth experience as a separate, personal self, able to feel, relate, and will. Unassumingly, the four-year-old had been a compelling witness to the truth of human personhood before birth and, consequently, an unsuspecting advocate of the need to recognize in the unborn the dignity all human persons share.
Defenders of reproductive choice and skeptics may claim that an adult in the child’s life must have put those ideas in her mind. Possibly, but not probably. Although it was my very first conversation with the child, I have known her parents for some time. Although nominally Catholic, neither is particularly committed to pro-life talk or activism, as none of her other close relatives seem to be. The girl has just started kindergarten and could not have learned about such issues at school. Furthermore, although this was my first immediate encounter with this phenomenon, childhood accounts of life before birth are not uncommon. The websites of more than a few hypnotherapists are peppered with claims of pre-birth reminiscences that suggest the continuity of the self throughout the various life stages, even when the pro-life cause is conspicuously absent from their mission.
Research from such diverse fields as neuroscience, embryology, reproductive endocrinology, and cognitive, developmental, and prenatal psychology lends support to the fact of prenatal learning and memory. Ultrasound, electroencephalography, and magnetic resonance imaging studies do not contradict these observations. Twins in utero, for instance, have been seen to exhibit some interpersonal gestures that are later repeated immediately after birth. So called prenatal learning systems have been profitably marketed based on that persuasive evidence. Even evolutionary psychology’s questionable claim that natural selection “explains how” the human mind, so equipped, evolved is not at odds with those findings on prenatal learning and memory.
Pro-choicers and skeptics may also claim that I have made too much out of a four-year-old’s words. Not so. My humble musings using the basic tools of introductory philosophy can hardly be thus construed. Moreover, it is a good policy never to underestimate a child’s insights, not just for the child’s benefit but for ours. A candid discourse unlikely to have been tainted by adult preconceptions is, besides being an unexpected joy, often quite rewarding.
An unassailable pro-life argument was handed to me by a four-year-old. If only we all could remember.
Alma Acevedo, Ph.D., teaches courses in applied ethics and conducts research in this field.