When Does The Person Begin?

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A Person from the First Instant of Fertilization?1

Francis Etheredge (2007; revised March 2009)

Part I: Introduction

We live in a time in which there are many technological advances which, one way or another, challenge us to think about the origin of each one of us: ‘to ponder’ the “simple case”2 of the mysterious moment that a human person comes to exist3.  God loves each one of us, whatever “human act” has brought us into existence; however, as the Magisterium of the Catholic Church teaches, not everything that is possible is morally permissible.  Therefore, in the course of discussing the “simple case” of the conception of the person, there is no intention to endorse a procedure repudiated by the Church.

The meaning of human person with which this essay is primarily concerned is, therefore, ontological.  This essay is a reflection, then, on the possibility that a human person, one in soul and gendered body, comes to exist through the “interpenetration” of an act of God and the inseparably unitive and procreative action of husband and wife.

More specifically, this essay concentrates on the discussion of two possibilities: two possibilities which, in one way or another, it seems possible to support from the present state of the teachings of the Catholic Church.  The first possibility is this: Does a person come to exist at the first instant of fertilisation?  In other words, the first instant of conception is the first instant of fertilisation4.  The first instant of fertilisation is here defined as the moment that “life” is transmitted by the human sperm to the human ovum5; indeed, through the “animating moment” of the transmission of life, the ovum both ceases to be what it was and becomes, through the very moment of the transmission of life, a new entity: a bodily expression of the person6.  Finally, the first bodily expression of the person coming to exist is the manifestation of the integrity of the embryo: the embryonic membrane seals itself around the sperm head and simultaneously closes the remaining “entrance” pores.  The closing of the embryo wall is itself a “response” to the electro-chemical interaction between the sperm head, minus its acrosome or covering, and the inner membrane of the opening in the ovum wall.  Thus the embryo enters upon the dynamic path of life, which is a progressive manifestation of the existence of a person.  In other words, the act of God which constitutes the creation of the soul, one with the body, finds an outward expression in the “first instant” of the “transmission of life” and the body’s coming to be: the closing of the embryo’s external membrane.  The closing of the embryo’s external membrane expresses the existential fact of the beginning of the embryo’s life: of the life of the embryo having been given a beginning.

The second possibility, which is not so much discussed in this essay as implicitly rejected, is the possibility that the first instant of personhood does not come to be until the formation of the zygote7, when ‘the nuclei of the two gametes have fused’8.  The possibility, that personhood is not ontologically founded until the fusion of the nuclei of the sperm and the ovum, generates a distinction between the first instant of fertilization and the ‘moment the zygote has formed’9.  An effect of the aforementioned distinction is that the first instant of fertilization is rejected as the first instant of “bodily-personal” life.  In other words, I am not challenging the principle that the body’s coming to exist is “simultaneous” to the moment of ensoulment10.  In one sense, the Church declares what I want to defend, namely that the person comes to exist from the first instant that ‘the ovum is fertilized’11 precisely because this is held to be the first moment that the body has come to exist.  What is at issue, then, is the definition of the first instant that the body comes to exist.  For it seems clear from the constant reference of the Magisterium to the origin of the person from the ‘moment of conception’12, that the Church implicitly holds that whatever can be proved to be the first instant of conception, She will hold to be the first instant of the conception of the human person.  Consequently, even if the formulation of what the first moment of conception consists of is subject to refinement, it is clear that the Church holds to the origin of the person from conception.  I hold, then, that the thesis of this essay, that the first instant of conception is the first instant of fertilization, is not in principle contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church.  Nevertheless, in view of a multitude of factors, not least of which are the many limitations of the author, I simply offer this essay as a contribution to an objectification of the truth concerning the first instant of human personhood.

The argument of this essay will therefore converge from three directions: embryology; philosophy and theology.  The main body of this essay, however, while not adhering to a strict division along these lines, nevertheless progresses, as it were, from embryology, through philosophy, to theology.  There is first an attempt to identify the reality of the first instant of fertilisation and, on the basis of it, to reflect on its significance as a “word” of the Creator.  In order to assist this reflection on the word “embodied” by the Creator in the language of spousal love, it is necessary to do two things.  On the one hand it is necessary to identity something of the relevant philosophical background to the term ‘soul’; and on the other hand it is necessary to draw on whatever is helpful in the mysteries of our salvation: the conception of Christ; Our Lady’s Immaculate Conception; and the mystery of mysteries, the Eucharist.

1 Both the early and more recent stages of this investigation have particularly benefited from the advice and criticism of Rev. Dr. Richard Conrad OP.  A number of other people have contributed by way of occasional discussions, comments and textual criticisms.  The remaining faults of this paper, however, are naturally mine.    Back
2 Natural twinning is also a natural form embodying a “word” of the Creator; but it is excluded from this discussion for the reason of its intrinsic complexity.    Back
3 Cf. David L. Schindler, “Veritatis Splendor and the Foundations of Bioethics”, Communio, Vol 32, no. 1, (Spring 2005), p. 201.    Back
4 In the report published in 1998, Identity and Status of the Human Embryo, (Libreria Editrice Vaticana) of the III General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life (1997), there are three voices which express views which are tending to the same point of view of this essay: Juan De Dios Vial Correa and Monica Dabike “The Embryo as an Organism” (pp. 321, 323 and 327-8) and Helen Watt “The Origin of Persons” (pp. 363-4).    Back
5 Cf. another voice making the same kind of argument: ‘Compared with the changes in both material composition and developmental trajectory that occur at the fusion of sperm and egg, syngamy [where syngamy is ‘the breakdown of nuclear membranes in preparation for cell division’ p. 7 of the same article] is fundamentally an arbitrary definition for the beginning of life’ (“When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective”, Maureen L. Condic, Westchester Institute White Paper Series: Volume 1, Number 1, 2008, p. 8: downloaded 20/11/09).    Back
6 Cf. Pope John Paul II, Gen aud, Jan 9, 1980:4, for a reference to this principle, although it is expressed in a different, though not wholly different context: Adam beholds Eve and the ‘body [that] expresses the “person”’; and cf. Part Viii of this essay for a discussion of the relevant part of Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, art 60.    Back
7 This position receives a generally good exposition by Benedict Ashley OP in “When Does a Human Person Begin To Exist?” pp. 329-368 of The Ashley Reader: Redeeming Reason, an anthology of essays published by Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University, 2006; however, on pp. 336-337, Ashley inaccurately assimilates the possibility of ‘hominization before completion of fertilization’ with the possibility that either sperm or ovum are already a ‘human organism’ (p. 336).  This does not, therefore, allow sufficient clarity for the emergence of the hypothesis discussed here, namely, the possibility of hominization at the first instant of fertilization and therefore at the very beginning of the process of fertilization; for the first instant of fertilization is also before the ‘completion of fertilization’.    Back
8 Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation (Donum Vitae): I, 1, p. 13, footnote *.  In general, the papers of the XII General Assembly of the Academy for Life “The Human Embryo before Implantation” (at www.academiavita.org 2006) tend to the position of Donum Vitae; it has to be said, however, that there are points which could be taken in favour of the thesis of this essay.  Let an observation be noted, however, from an another context, where it is said: ‘The embryo is the first stage in the development of a multi-cellular organism (it immediately follows the fusion of the pronuclei in the ovule) but it is not properly an organic body.  What is specifically called an organic body is one that has a diversity of organs.  This is not the case with an embryo because it has not yet developed a system of organs’ (“Response to the Statement and Comments of Prof. Spaemann and Dr. Shewmon” p. 17 of a whole document entitled “Why the Concept of Brain Death is Valid as a Definition of Death” published Pontificia Academia Scientarivm, Vatican City, 2008, pp. 1-20 (in the English translation)).  In response to the second point, namely that the ‘embryo … has not yet developed a system of organs’, one offers the reply that the organs are sufficient for the beginning of embryonic life and development e.g. pronuclei and the ordered progression of the calcium wave and all the “processes” and activities which begin with it (cf. “The Human Embryo in its Pre-Implantation Phase: Scientific aspects and bioethical considerations, Pontifical Academy for Life, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006, e.g. pp. 11-14).  In other words, “embryonic organs” are proportionate to the fact of what is necessary to the first expression of embryonic life and development.    Back
9 Donum Vitae, I, 1, p. 13.    Back
10 I developed the principle: ‘where the body lives, there the soul is, and where both are, there is the person’, (p. 8 of 180 pp.) in an unpublished investigations ordered to when each one of us comes to exist.  But this principle requires further discussion in view of death.  Cf. a similar principle ‘the human being ... “begins to be when his body begins”’., quoted from supplemento n. 4 (1989) of the Centre of Bioethics of the Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore by Livio Melina, in his essay “Epistemological Questions with Regard to the Status of the Human Embryo”, p. 103 of pp. 96-127 of Identity and Status of the Human Embryo.    Back
11 Pope John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, art 60, quoting from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document, Declaration on Procured Abortion, (1974), Nos 12-13.    Back
12 E.g. Pope John Paul II, “Discourse of Holy Father John Paul II”, p. 12 of The Nature and Dignity of the Human Person as the Foundation of the Right to Life, proceedings of the VIII General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life (2002), (Citta del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2003).  Cf. also “Instruction Dignitatis Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions”, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_do... (16/12/2008), Introduction 1: ‘The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death.’    Back

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