Like so many moms, Brooke Stanton and Christiane West—coauthors of When You Became You and both mothers of four—struck up a friendship because their children attended the same elementary school in Northern Virginia. That friendship progressed quickly from chats about kids and school to heavier topics.
In 2014, two years after the women met, Brooke attended a leadership event called the Nantucket Project, where she heard talks about how to use the power of science to both “elevate and save human lives.” That same year, the People’s Climate March and the subsequent UN Climate Summit dominated the news and generated a renewed interest in a 2006 documentary entitled An Inconvenient Truth that focused on Al Gore’s campaign to teach about global warming.
As Brooke witnessed these events, she thought back to the 2008 interview of then-Senator Barack Obama by Pastor Rick Warren at the Saddleback Presidential Candidates Forum. Pastor Warren asked: “At what point does a baby get human rights, in your view?” Obama responded: “Well, you know, I think that whether you’re looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.”1
With science prevailing in the news, the women began to wonder why people would rely on science to guide their actions on issues such as climate change, clean water, beauty products, and more, but they would not allow science to guide their actions when it came to protecting human lives.
Brooke states: “I was honestly baffled that someone of Obama’s status, with his visibility, background, and education, could get away with such an absurd, erroneous public stance pertaining to fundamental science about humankind.”
As Brooke and Christiane began making connections, they realized that, in itself, “human development is an inconvenient truth.” And they also recognized that there was another factor in play: “erroneous or ‘toxic’ science.”
According to Brooke: “We discovered that science denial may be the root of the problem, but it is only part of the problem today. After extensive research and meetings with scientists and medical experts, we learned that the scientific experts to ask about when a [person’s] life starts are human embryologists.”
She goes on to explain that the Carnegie Stages of Human Embryonic Development state definitively that a human being’s life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg. Brooke and Christiane realized that most people (nearly 60%) are not aware of this scientific fact. Further, they found that 40% of Americans are not aware that a preborn baby is a human being. As the women investigated further, they found research conducted by Dr. Steven Jacobs who said that, when over 5,000 biologists were asked what might happen if people truly understood when a human being’s life begins, 87% said abortion rates would decrease.2
Brooke explains: “There is a massive gap between what science knows and what the public knows about when a human [being’s] life starts and what it means to be a human being, and this science illiteracy gap is fueling malformed consent, abortion, and other destructive trends that comprise ‘the crisis of human life.’”
Brooke and Christiane felt they had a unique opportunity in front of them—one that focused on eliminating this toxic science and that focused strictly on the accuracy of science.
From this realization came a new calling for the women.
In 2015, understanding that they must do something to help facilitate the dissemination of correct and basic scientific information, Brooke and Christiane founded Contend Projects. Brooke explains: “Contend Projects is a secular science education organization that is focused on the biological science of human embryology and when a human being begins to exist. . . . We [work] to make this science simple and accessible for everyone because it is relevant and important to all of us.”
Neither woman is a scientist. Nor does either have a background in science. Brooke graduated from the University of Virginia and holds an MBA in finance from Johns Hopkins; Christiane graduated from McGill University and holds an MA in international affairs from Johns Hopkins. But with their vision and the desire to teach, they searched for a team to help them achieve their goals.
For the past five years, they have studied under Dr. Dianne Irving, a former career-appointed bench research biochemist and biologist at the National Institutes of Health, who wrote a doctoral dissertation on human embryo research entitled “Philosophical and Scientific Analysis of the Nature of the Early Human Embryo.” Further, they routinely collaborate with a team of scientists to ensure that the content produced by Contend Projects is scientifically accurate. But they stress that a science background is not necessary to understand their work: “Children can learn when a human being begins to exist. You don’t need to be an embryologist to know about the start of our species!”
While Contend Projects aspires to educate everyone, Brooke and Christiane believe their greatest opportunity lies with younger people: “For older Americans, it will be difficult to rethink and unlearn decades of junk science. . . . Getting human embryology into K–12 science education standards is essential.”
The women’s goal is to teach the Carnegie Stages of Human Embryonic Development and the continuum of human life in an easy-to-understand and comprehensive manner.
Teaching truth to the very young
With the desire to teach the next generation, and inspired by elementary school teachers who had approached them for a science lesson that would introduce young students to human development, the two women decided to coauthor a children’s book entitled When You Became You, published by Mascot Books in 2020.
Brooke and Christiane worked with a New York Times best-selling illustrator for four months, providing guidance and ideas for the illustrations. According to Brooke: “The illustrations truly capture and enhance the essence of the book’s scientifically accurate celebration of our shared humanity, in terms of human development. The illustrator [who was advised by her American partners to omit her name from the book due to its “controversial” nature] took great care to make the artwork engaging and beautiful while keeping the science at the center of the story.”
These beautiful illustrations are inspired by the Carnegie Stages of Human Embryonic Development and by actual images of preborn human beings at various stages. In addition, the illustrations “incorporated abstract DNA strands, the infinity symbol, the Earth, the solar system, chemical symbols, elements from the periodic table, etc. to reinforce the message that we are introducing children to important science about when a human being . . . begins to exist.”
The authors believe that this book is crucial because “most people don’t know when a human life starts and that a human being is the same human being throughout their human development.”
Further, the women state that we should celebrate the science of embryology and that, “without knowledge of this objective truth, we cannot possibly derive legitimate personal positions, make accurately informed decisions, or determine valid public policies and laws about a human embryo, a human fetus, or any other stage of human development.”
“How are we to advance a culture that celebrates human life unless we know the scientifically accurate definition of human life?” they ask.
A vital resource
Predictably, the book has faced some criticism. But the authors believe this demonstrates just how needed it is: “The correct science has been obscured for so long that many people believe that the information presented in When You Became You is merely our opinion vs. objective, empirical, and contemporary scientific facts of the biological science of human embryology. . . . Suggesting When You Became You is promoting a religious viewpoint is as absurd as suggesting that a book about hydrogen is promoting a religious viewpoint.”
The authors hope that readers will feel inspired to share the book not only with their own children and grandchildren, but also with teachers and principals. They suggest personalizing the scientific content by sharing photos of the child and other family members at different ages—born and preborn—after reading. This will spur many wonderful conversations about the value of human beings at all stages of development.
The future holds great things for Brooke, Christiane, and Contend Projects. A second book, currently with the tentative title The First 56 Days of YOU, is in the works. Meanwhile, Contend Projects continues to teach and inspire by offering a wide variety of educational resources and science lessons, and the two women deliver talks throughout the country and publish articles to draw attention to the scientific basis of the beginning of a person’s life.
With the goal of creating an understanding of the science of human embryology, the women hope that eventually they will help facilitate a culture where all human beings, no matter their stage of development, will be cherished and respected.
1. “Saddleback Presidential Candidates Forum,” CNN Transcript, August 17, 2008, transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0808/17/se.01.html.
2. Steven Jacobs, “Balancing Abortion Rights and Fetal Rights: A Mixed Methods Mediation of the U.S. Abortion Debate,” Doctorate Dissertation, University of Chicago, June 2019, knowledge.uchicago.edu/record/1883.