Syngamy: when you became a unique individual

syngamySeveral years ago, I learned about “syngamy.” It informed how we are to think of one another. I had reason to be reminded of it for a couple of reasons this week, one circumstantial and one sad.

This Thursday, I will be presenting at a conference on prenatal testing and Down syndrome sponsored by the Lejeune-USA Foundation. The Lejeune Foundation is named after the French physician, Jerome Lejeune, that discovered the genetic basis for Down syndrome. My talk will be on legislation and policy initiatives. The conference will be held at Trinity University in Deerfield, Illinois, and is free and available to the public, with live-streaming for those who cannot attend.

The only other time I’ve visited Trinity University was to present at a bioethics conference in 2010. It was there that I met Bill Cutrer, who introduced me to the idea of “syngamy” in his presentation.

Bill practiced as an OB/Gyn in Texas until a heart condition caused him to look for another career opportunity. Bill came to my hometown, Louisville, to be a professor at the Southern Baptist Seminary, where he served as the C. Edwin Gheens Professorship of Marriage and Family Ministries and as the medical director for the campus health clinic. Bill also acted as a the medical director for A Woman’s Choice pregnancy resource center, where a colleague with my firm is now the Executive Director. I laughed that, given all the intersections we had in Louisville, it took a conference in Chicago for us to meet one another.

In Bill’s talk, he featured the biological phenomena known as “syngamy”–pronounced “sing-a-me.” Syngamy is the moment when the genetic material from the father and the mother combine to form the zygote, the very first cell with that particular genetic make-up. Given its pronunciation, it sounded to me like “sing-of-me,” the genetic song of one’s self, to echo Whitman. Understanding this concept further informs the understanding of how unique we all are from the very beginning of our formation.

We all understand that we are unique individuals. This is re-affirmed through observations like Mr. Rogers marveling that “every person you see is different from every other person in the world.” But, syngamy provides the biological evidence of the truth of this understanding. 

Each human life is unique, with that genetic uniqueness happening at the point of syngamy. For those considering Down syndrome prenatal testing, perhaps understanding syngamy can also inform that beyond just the extra 21st Chromosome, that human life has an entirely unique genetic make-up that will never be repeated again.

Regrettably, I also had reason to think of Bill’s lesson of syngamy when I learned yesterday that he had passed away on Saturday at the too-young age of 62. Bill had gone out for a morning bike ride and, apparently, the heart condition came on too hard and at a bad time.

Today will be Bill’s visitation and tomorrow his funeral where Bill’s wholly-unique life will be celebrated. Thursday, I will travel to Trinity University where I first learned the term “syngamy,” this genetic “sing-of-me,” the biological basis for the uniqueness of each human life.


  1. Very unique post that made me smile with the knowing, and also makes me want to convey sympathy for the too-short life of a man I’d love to have met.

  2. Nice reflection Marl. It was also Jerome Lejeune who discovered Syngamy, along with Trisomy 21, so there’s another connection.

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