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A Person from the First Instant of Fertilization?

Part II: The Beginning of each Human Person

In order to establish the “ordinary” beginning of a human person, it is necessary to clarify whether or not there is a true transmission of human life.  There are two conclusions to this section.  On the one hand the ovum and the sperm are not “equally” alive; and on the other hand, the “inequality” between them supports the view that there is a true transmission of life.

(IIi) Ovum and sperm are not “equally” alive: there is a true ‘transmission of life’13

There is a widespread claim, although sometimes it is an all but explicit implication, that ovum and sperm are alive; and, secondly, the term ‘alive’ is generally applied to sperm and ovum without any kind of discussion or qualification, thereby suggesting some kind of equivalence.  In this section it is therefore necessary to ask “that” further question: in what sense are sperm and egg ‘alive’?  Does ‘alive’ mean the same thing in each case?  Answering this question helps to establish the reality of the event of human fertilisation; and, therefore, the “ground” of further reflection.

In general, the following authorities assert or imply that sperm and egg are alive: Mary Warnock in Making Babies14 ; the authors of A Question of Life: The Warnock Report15 ; the pioneer of In-vitro Fertilization, Robert Edwards, in his book Life Before Birth16 ; C. R. Austin in his book Human Embryos17 and by Brian Clowes in The Facts of Life18 .  Not only are the sexual gametes, separately and prior to fertilization, described as alive, either explicitly or implicitly, but this can also be adduced as part of the problem of being able to identify when a human life begins19 .  There does, however, appear to be the following distinction.  On the one hand there is a kind of life that is an “activity” which is “derived” from another, such as the growth of a seed within an apple or, more generally, the movement of a pencil in the hand of an artist.  On the other hand there is a kind of life which expresses an activity that is “intrinsic” to a being.  If life is defined as the intrinsic possession of movement and sensation20 , then it is expressed in the life of the sperm; for it is clear that the sperm moves and has a limited degree of sensation, if sensation can be defined as “responding” to the ovum.  If life can also be defined as a state of “derived” activity, then it is naturally expressed in the “activity” of the ovum on ovulation21 .

What, then, is the derived “activity” of the ovum?  In short, the ovum produces and expels a polar body.  This is a process by which the nucleus of the ovum readies “itself” for eventual fusion with the nucleus of the sperm.  In other words, the ovum prepares itself for fertilisation by the programmed expulsion of a part of its deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).  Thus the fusion of the nuclei of the sperm and the ovum restore the correct number of chromosomes for the development of the human being.  The question, however, remains: Does the ovum’s production of a polar body imply that it is alive and, if alive, alive in the same sense as the sperm is alive?

An initial investigation of this question raised the following, different accounts of ovulation: ‘After emission of the first polar body, ovulation occurs and the egg passes into the oviduct, where the second meiotic division follows sperm penetration’22 .  The key point here is that the production of a polar body occurs before ovulation; and that after ovulation there is an enigmatic inertness of the ovum: ‘The act of sperm entry serves as a stimulus to the egg, which passes into a temporary resting state after the first meiotic division and seems to need this kind of “awakening”’23 .  This raises the question: Why is the ovum “temporarily” inert?  Doesn’t that way of looking at this inertia almost imply that the “temporary” inertness is somehow temporary within an otherwise continuously active state; however, the point is precisely that the ovum’s inertia is only “temporary” if it is then fertilised by a sperm.  If the ovum is not fertilised, the inertia of the ovum is intractable and it degenerates.  The second account speaks of a ripening which continues after ovulation and culminates in the production and expulsion of the same, first polar body.  In A Child is Born, Lars Hamberger, commenting on photographs by Lennart Nilsson, says: ‘Once inside the Fallopian tube, the ovum....now ripens increasingly’24 ; and this ripening is defined as: ‘Half the chromosomes in the ovum, expelled when it ripens, collect in a cell called a polar body inside the ovum wall’25 .  Thus it appears that the ‘ovum’ is active after ovulation; and, if active, then in some sense “alive”.

It is now necessary to discuss whether it can be said that the ovum is alive intrinsically, that is of itself, or whether it is alive extrinsically, that is from another?  The question is this: What is the immediate cause of the ovum’s activity?  The immediate cause of the ovum’s production of a polar body could be due to the presence of hormones.  In other words, the ovum is not alive intrinsically.  The ovum produces a polar body because of the massive presence of oestrogen producing cells, both in the ovulating ovary and surrounding the expelled ovum26 .  It can be seen, too, in a photograph following ovulation, that there is a close relationship between the blood and ovulation27 ; and in so far as the blood is a bearer of hormonal messages, it is probable that the activity of the ovum, pre-fertilization, is an activity which is “driven” by the nature of the hormones transmitted in the female blood supply and surrounding oestrogen producing cells.

In this final paragraph I shall use ‘egg’ instead of ‘ovum’, for the sake of avoiding a distracting assonance between ‘ovary’ and ‘ovum’.  Thus the egg is not alive as the sperm is alive in that the egg is ‘matured’ in the ovary; and so the ovary hormonally governs any ‘activity’ of the egg prior to or at the time of ovulation.  Thus the timing of the production of the egg’s first polar body, the ‘excretion’ of surplus chromosomal material as a result of the ordering of the dormant chromosomal material in the egg, indicates the possibility of it being ‘governed’ by the ovary in some way.  This makes the egg ready to receive the new chromosomal material from the sperm at fertilization.  What definition, then, can be given concerning the “life” of the egg?  As far as the previous evidence permits it to be said, the egg possesses the “residual” life of a “cell” which has been expelled, internally, from within the somatic interior of the woman’s body.  In other words, the “state” of the ovum is the “natural” state of a cell which has, by design, come to the term of its development: a development which naturally culminates, through the final process of ovulation, at the point of being made ready for fertilisation.  The egg has, in a certain sense, been brought to the point of being open to the possibility of receiving life; indeed, this is literally expressed in the fact that the external wall of the egg is a structure of “pores” open to the possibility of penetration by a sperm.

(IIii) The First Instant of Fertilisation Is a True Beginning28

When it comes to the original, archaic meaning of conception, it is precisely that of a beginning: ‘con-cep-tion: the archaic sense of which is ‘A beginning ...’29 .  In terms of the beginning of a child, of a human person, the first instant of an “ordinary” conception is the first instant of fertilization30 .  That there is a first instant of fertilization is for some a controversial claim and, therefore, requires some elucidation.  On the one hand to say that there is a first instant of fertilization is to say that there is an “activation” of the ovum which is precisely the “goal” of a sperm’s penetration of an “opening” in the ovum’s outer “wall”.  In fact the “outer wall” of the ovum is more like a loosely knitted, “pattern of openings”, than the image of a boiled egg.  If one is to avoid the confusion that arises from an unconscious comparison between the appearance of an egg and the appearance of an ovum, it is better to refer to the egg under the name of ‘ovum’.  On the penetration of one of these “openings” by a sperm, Lars Hamberger writes: ‘Now something remarkable occurs: the ovum shuts and bolts all the doors [other openings], preventing all other sperm from entering’31 .  An effect of this general closure of the ovum’s openings is that the head of the sperm is now “held fast” into the wall of the ovum.  On the other hand, there are a whole series of difficulties which proceed from this account of a beginning; difficulties which do not, however, alter the fact of an “observable” beginning.

In the first place, there is a kind of interaction between the sperm and the ovum which is a combination of the movement of the sperm, the contact between the sperm and the ovum, the chemical changes which have taken place at the “head” of the sperm32 and the effect of all these things on the ovum.  In other words the very change of state of the ovum constitutes a radical beginning, not only of all development that is to follow but in the very first instance in the “state” of the “ovum” itself.  Whereas before the activity of the sperm the ovum was “inactive,” from the “moment” of the ovum’s response to the sperm onwards, the ovum is by definition of that “moment” of response activated into activity.  There is also a change of state in the sperm. Whereas it was active and swimming it is ‘[n]ow inside’, and ‘discards its energetic tail ... leaving only the head’33 .  One of the difficulties, then, is of saying at exactly what temporal moment and as a result of precisely what effect, or combination of effects, the ovum is now a fertilized ovum and beginning its program of development that culminates, stage by stage, with the manifestation of the person so conceived.  The following, more precise definition of the “outward” sign of this first instant of fertilization, contributes to defining the “instant” life begins: “life begins with the activation of ion channels as the sperm merges with the egg in fertilization.  All cells have electrical charges within and outside the cell and the difference is known as the membrane potential.  Fertilization changes the potential to prevent other sperm from joining the fertilized egg”34 .  On the one hand, the more that becomes known of a particular phenomenon, the more difficult in terms of time, space, points and kinds of contact, becomes the task of identifying the first instant of an outward action35 .  On the other hand, the resultant changes in the ovum’s membrane potential is not just about preventing other sperm from entering, although this is necessary, it is also and primarily about manifesting the integrity of the new being.  Thus there is a concrete expression of the first instant that the new entity is an embryo: the closure of the “openings” and the first manifestation, therefore, of its bodily integrity.

On fertilization, then, the ovum both “receives” the life of the sperm and “re-expresses” the life of that sperm in terms of its own actuated potential for a structured, dynamic development of the “life” that has been transmitted to it.  In the case of using an enucleated ovum and a donor nucleus which is complete, the “entity” is then ‘triggered to divide with electricity’36 .  In other words, whether as part of the natural process of fertilization or whether as “trigger” of an artificially constructed entity37 , life as it is transmitted has the characteristic of an electrical change.  Even if life as it is transmitted has the characteristic of an electro-physical change in membrane potential, expressed in the inauguration of bio-physical changes, the life that is generated is fundamentally dependent on the nature of the bio-physical ovum or “constructed” clone.  The agent of activation, then, does not make an animal ovum into a human ovum.  Thus the type of ovum is fundamental to the type of being that is going to be begotten.  Similarly in the case of the sperm, the human sperm makes a fundamental contribution to the type of being that is going to be begotten, in that “absorption” by the ovum follows on the sperm’s activation of the ovum.

(IIiii) Fertilization: An “Outward” Sign of an “Inward” Act of God

The life of the sperm is transmitted to the ovum, transforming the ovum’s “inert” readiness into a “starting” state of activity.  Through the sperm’s transformation of the ovum’s state of inactivity or inertia, ovum and sperm have ceased to be separate entities.  Together, albeit in different but complementary ways, the “moment” of sperm-ovum “interaction” constitutes the first instant of the beginning of a new entity: the embryonic child of the parents; however, as we shall see, the first instant of this new beginning entails an act of God for its ontological completion.  In terms of the natural language of the first “outward” sign of a new entity, in a certain sense, the transmission of life is also an incorporation of the life of the sperm into the life of the new entity: the embryonic child.  In that the sperm loses its tail, however, it is almost as if the life of the sperm takes a new “form” in the new entity: the life of the new entity is not “life” in its “transmissible” form as the life of the sperm, but “life” as realizing its potential for replicating visible human “being”.  It can only be said, however, that the new entity of the embryonic child is realizing the ovum’s passive “potential” for becoming the principle of the bodily substance of the new being, if it is understood that the outward transmission of life is informed by the divine creation of a human soul.  There is a kind of parallel, then, between understanding transformation to be integral to the transmission of life and understanding the unique unity of the human person in the following terms: ‘As an incarnate spirit, that is a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit man is called to love in his unified totality’38 .  In other words, as the activity of the sperm is transformed into the “internal” dynamism of the developing embryo according to the design of the Creator, a new, complementary and “completing” act of God fulfils His original design and creates a being so “integrally one” that it can be called ‘an incarnate spirit’.

While it is perhaps impossible for me to express this insight with any greater clarity than has been done, certain other insights have contributed to this way of thinking.  Mary, as virginal Mother of the Lord, is uniquely placed to ponder the action of God at the beginning of life and to lead us into these mysteries.  Following the reflections of Pope John Paul II on Mary and the Eucharist39 , it is possible to see that there is a profound relevance of the Eucharist to the beginning of human life.  On the one hand, the Eucharist expresses the mysterious relationship of an outward sign to the mystery who is Christ, entailing as it does in a simultaneous substantial change in the bread and wine.  Similarly, there is a substantial change at the beginning of life in that the life of the sperm and the bodily substance of the ovum are simultaneously “changed” into the life of a person.  On the other hand, the “instant” of the Eucharistic change, which comes about through the interpersonal relationship between Christ and His Church, finds a “parallel” in the “instant” that the person comes to exist, one in soul and body, through the interpersonal relationship between God and the spouses.

Notwithstanding the differences between the beginning of the life of a person and the coming-to-be of the Eucharistic presence of Christ40 , the two mysteries intersect at the level of the interpersonal relationships involved and the existence of a “moment” of instantaneous, substantial change.  More specifically, in terms of the “outward” sign of the mystery of the Eucharistic presence of Christ, there remains the “appearance” of bread and wine.  Whereas in the case of the beginning of a human person, while there remains a certain continuity between the “appearance” of the “life transmitted” at conception and the existence of the sexual gametes, the new entity that comes to exist possesses a new outward appearance and a new expressiveness: a new expressiveness which derives precisely from the fact that there is now not two entities but one.  The very first instant of fertilisation, naturally expressed in the physical integrity of the new being possessing an external membrane impermeable to penetration by further sperm, naturally bears the significance of being an “outward” sign of the very generation of the person by the Creator.  Secondly, there is a certain sense in which it is part of the “way” that God speaks, that He “speaks” in terms of an action that makes visible that it is God who has acted; however, the “word” embodied by the Creator in an act of the Creator, is a “word” which will find, elsewhere, a complementarily explicit statement of what the Creator has done41 .  In the case of the Eucharistic presence of Christ, it is the whole liturgy which communicates, in each part and as a whole, that it is God who acts in the person of the priest.  In the case of creation itself, one can “see” that the whole of creation is an “external” witness to the act of God which brought it into existence (cf. Gn 1: 1 etc.42 ).  Without entering into a detailed discussion of particular texts, the early chapters of Genesis are particularly concerned with the expressed relationship between an act of God and that act of God being “visible”: visible not only to the eyes of reason but, in its depth and breath, visible to the eyes of faith.  This is because creation is a communication: it is a foundation and a condition of “communion”.  As the word of God says: ‘I did not speak in secret’ (Is 45: 19, but cf. also verse 18).  In other words, the “event” of creation has the complementary “word” of Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium.

In terms of the beginning of human personhood, therefore, it is possible that God manifests His creative action in terms of a concrete sign: the closing of the “pores” in the membrane-wall of the new entity which, “simultaneously”, is the first “external” manifestation of the existence of the embryo.  Considering the various forms of the covenant in salvation history, each in some way becoming more personal and integral to the life of the person, it would be fitting to call what God has established at the beginning of life as a “covenant of flesh”: where there is the “transmission”43 of human life, God creates a person.

13 This phrase is certainly used in Humanae Vitae (1968), by Pope Paul VI, and cannot be understood “in general” as standing apart from the Christian understanding that a person comes to exist through an act of God which is complementary to the events of the natural order.  Nevertheless, it is possible that Paul VI has indicated a sense in which the parental contribution, while not defined, constitutes in its own right a real transmission of life: husband and wife have the ‘capacity to transmit life which God the Creator, through specific laws, has built into it’ (art. 13).  In anticipation of the argument of this paper, if the first instant of fertilisation is the first instant of human personhood, then it follows that human parenthood is, as it were, a created “echo” of the Creator; for, each in their own way, the human as dependent on the divine act of causation and the divine causation dependent, by design, on human cooperation, “cause” the creation of a human person.    Back
14 Mary Warnock, Making Babies: Is there a Right to have Children?, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 33; and cf. her ‘Foreword’ (p. ix) to Norman Ford’s, When Did I Begin?, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).    Back
15 A Question of Life: The Warnock Report, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985), p. 60.    Back
16 Life Before Birth: Reflections on the Embryo Debate, (London: Hutchinson, 1989), p. 54.    Back
17 Human Embryos: The Debate on Assisted Reproduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), pp. 4-5, 7-8.    Back
18 Cf. The Facts of Life, (Front Royal, Virginia: Human Life International, 1997), p. 151: ‘the woman’s ovum and the man’s spermatozoa are living cells. These two living cells then fuse, reorganize, grow and continue to have all of the properties of a live cell.’    Back
19 Cf. Edwards, Life Before Birth, pp. 53-54 but also pp. 49-54.    Back
20 Cf. ST, I, 75, art 1.    Back
21 It may be the case that any cell of the body has a certain “life” beyond its removal from the body and that what varies is the time and nature of the duration of that “life”.    Back
22 Austin, Human Embryos, p. 5.    Back
23 Austin, Human Embryos, p. 7; cf. also Odra Noel, scientific artist’s “Mitochondrial dawn”, who makes the comment: ‘Once fertilization occurs they [the mitochondria] will spring into action: some will divide, some will lie dormant, for the coming generation’ http://www.odranoel.eu/Odra%20Noel/%20gallery%20%-20ovum.htm 11/02/2009.    Back
24 A Child Is Born, translation: Clare James, (London: Doubleday, 1990), p. 36.    Back
25 A Child Is Born, p. 37    Back
26 A Child Is Born, p. 36.    Back
27 A Child Is Born, p. 32 (text) p. 33 (picture).    Back
28 The following discussion is indebted to the incredible images produced by Lennart Nilsson, a sample of which was presented in an edition of The Sunday Times Magazine, September 16, 1990, pp. 42-55.    Back
29 The American Heritage College Dictionary, senior Lexicographer, David A. Jost (Project Director), (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, third edition, 1993), p. 228.    Back
30 I remind my reader that this essay is primarily a discussion of the “simple” case of conception.    Back
31 A Child Is Born, p. 51.    Back
32 A Child Is Born, p.50: Pre-penetration of the ovum wall the sperm wears a “cap” called an ‘acrosome.  Inside the cap are the proteins called enzymes that help to break down the nutrient cells surrounding the ovum.  While wearing the cap, no sperm can enter the ovum.’    Back
33 The Sunday Telegraph, p. 45.    Back
34 A statement made by the Nobel Prize Committee for Physiology and Medicine in 1991, as reported by Brian Clowes in The Facts of Life, p. 154: footnote 4, gives the source as the New York Times, 8 October 1991.    Back
35 In the case of the transmission of a nerve impulse, there is a directional, wave like sequence of changes in the ions “inside” and “outside” the membrane of the nerve fibre.  In the case of the fertilized ovum, however, the transmission of a change in the membrane potential may move “outwards” from the point of entry of the sperm.  Alternatively, in that the passage of electricity is remarkably “rapid”, there may be a “simultaneous” change in membrane potential.  But whether the change in membrane potential is “outwards” or “simultaneous”, the question becomes as subtle as the biochemical structures and activities at the “interface” of the meeting of sperm and ovum.    Back
36 Roger Highfield, “How the South Korean team managed their technical tour de force”, The Daily Telegraph, Friday, May 20, 2005, p. 4.    Back
37 This “entity” only becomes a person on the instant of being triggered into life.  In the instant of being triggered into life, God honours the “covenant” of the flesh.  The covenant of the flesh is where God gives life where life is ready to be received.  Furthermore, the “covenant of flesh” was established from the beginning.  In other words, the covenant of flesh was an integral part of the creation of man, male and female.    Back
38 Familiaris Consortio, art 11.    Back
39 Cf. Ecclesia de Eucharistia, 53.    Back
40 Further comparison between the beginning of personal life and the other Eucharistic controversies is beyond the scope of this essay (e.g. as ‘remaining unchanged’ or ‘con-substantiation’).    Back
41 Cf. Dei Verbum, art. 2, for the statement of principle.    Back
42 There are good Scriptural reasons why the idea that God created “out of chaos” is an unjustified reading of the biblical text.  In essence, the whole structure of Genesis looks back, as it were, to the origin of each “thing” and, therefore, to the origin of everything from the creative action of God.    Back
43 I have enclosed this word in speech marks to allow for the fact that an activated human clone, however brought into existence, is nevertheless expressing the end result, as it were, of the transmission of life.    Back

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