Beginning Life: the Marvellous Journey from Conception to Birth

By Geraldine Lux Flanagan

Firefly Books, Willowdale, Ont.

120 pages, $26.00

Book Review

If you thought the womb was dark and silent and that you spent your time there tightly curled up in a permanent fetal position, you need to read Geraldine Lux Flanagan’s Beginning Life: the Marvellous Journey from Conception to Birth.

“I have never found this to be ‘cold science’,” says Flanagan, “but colourful and vivid.” Combining stunning photographs with a lucid text, she provides a unique window to the womb.

The first seven days of human life can be the most puzzling section of the journey. In many earlier books, this stage has often been reduced to charts or, at best, fuzzy, dimly lit, ‘flat’ photos.

The electron microscope and the endoscopic camera produce powerful, solid three-dimensional images seem to jump off the page. Thus we can follow in microscopic detail our first formative hours and days.

The human egg or ovum is no larger than the dot on this ‘i’. Beginning Life magnifies the ovum 2,000 times. The father’s sperm is magnified 9,000 times and the fallopian tube channel looks like a lovely, underwater ocean landscape, magnified 30,000 times.

Often gorgeous picture books can suffer from a weak or pedantic text but Flanagan does no \t disappoint. She provides a truly compelling narrative, one that both enhances our understanding and expands our sense of wonder.

“The tiny embryo is not like a machine, first made and then made to go. It is a working organism from the start…on about day 13, well in advance of the needed circulation, a group of cells moves into position where the chest will be. These cells arrange themselves into a U-shaped tube to become the heart.

“The womb is not a quiet, isolated, place; life within it offers abundant and varied experiences that prepare the baby for the world she will meet when she moves out.”

In the fifth month one researcher, using ultrasound, observed identical twin boys, residing in a shared amnion sac, having a “boxing match with repeated rounds of a few minutes each.”

“The shelter of the womb is not a soundproof chamber, nor is it isolated from the wider world the mother lives in.” Babies can show some auditory responses from the 16th week. Cars honking, jet engines screeching and music crescendos all can stir babies into activity.

Babies learn a tremendous amount before they are born. Voices come through the abdominal wall, muffled like a poor phone connection.

Accessible science

Flanagan has mad a science accessible to the lay person without falling into the trap of sentimentality. She could never be accused of “dumbing down.” She avoids cumbersome footnotes but provides end-notes detailing the medical research supporting her text.

Two small quibbles: a glossary would also have been helpful and there are almost no metric measurements.

Flanagan is an award-winning author, internationally acclaimed for her clearly written presentations of scientific subjects. Her three previous books have been translated into 14 languages. Her best known book, The First Nine Months of Life, became a classic over 30 years ago.

Flanagan is not herself the photographer but has chosen her photos judiciously from a wide selection of professional sources, many of them previously unpublished.

Clearly the preborn child, even in her earliest hours, is no more “blob of tissue” as the pro-abortionists would have us believe. And photos of “preemies” to illustrate the development of babies in the last trimester, implicitly speak against late trimester abortions.

Beginning Life deserves to become a classic work of reference for young people and expectant parents and indeed for all who are curious about our origins.

The book is an eloquent testimony to the humanity of the child in the womb.