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A Person from the First Instant of Fertilization?

Part V: Conclusions

Vi. Conception Is the First Instant of Fertilization

It has been argued that an “electrical change” in the membrane potential of the “activated ovum,” expressed in the manifest change in the structure of the outer membrane or cell wall, is the fitting outward expression of the act of God which gives the first instant of personal life.  Drawing on biblical language, this has been described as the covenant of the flesh.  Although not every difficulty has been solved in terms of the precise definition of this first instant of fertilization, it is clear that there is an observable “event”.  In other words, the persistence of difficulties surrounding the question of the first instant of fertilization do not prevent the recognition that it has occurred; for the evidence of its occurrence is cumulative, starting from the ovum’s first response to the sperm.  The corollary of this is that if human “bodily life” indicates the presence of the soul, then death as defined as the departure of the soul, is when bodily life ceases.  Secondly, this work has entailed considering an action of God so intimate to the nature of human life that it is as fundamental to each one of us as it is to the foundation of creation.  It is as if, therefore, one is a “witness” to the ontological foundation of the “dialogue” of the conscience84 : as if the very origin of personal conscience proceeds, as it were, from the very mystery of life “from” Life (cf. Gn 2: 7).  Finally, the origin of human personhood from the first instant of fertilisation, “echoes” in the flesh of human procreation the interpersonal mysteries of the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation.

Vii. Any Actual Beginning of the Body Is an Actual Beginning of the Person

The “covenant of the flesh” is not “restricted” to the first instant of fertilization.  If the first instant of fertilization is the outward sign of an act of God, it follows that where there is the first instant of fertilization, or its equivalent, natural or manufactured85 , God creates a human person.  God has expressed Himself in the “covenant of the flesh”: a covenant of the flesh is an integral design: it takes account of both the mystery of God and the mystery of man.  Fundamental to the covenant of the flesh is the integrity of the natural order86 : the integrity of the natural order “manifests” the deliberate design of God.  Thus it follows that if there is a fundamental adherence, natural or illicitly manufactured, to the design of God, then a person will be given existence by God.  The following “cases” illustrate the various concerns that this raises.  If it is possible for a “twin” to develop out of the early embryonic cell divisions, then it is possible that the deliberate “separation” of embryonic stem cells is, in effect, the deliberate “multiplication” of genetically identical siblings87 .  Secondly, in the case of an activated human clone, whether “produced” by an altered nuclear transfer type of procedure or “simply” by the insertion of a “complete”, human somatic cell nucleus into an enucleated human ovum, there is substantial, biologically human identity.  According to the principle of the “covenant of the flesh”, if there is substantial,88 biologically human identity, there is the beginning of a human person.  Therefore clones produced by altered nuclear transfer and other types of procedure are, on “activation”, human persons.

Viii. There Is a Problem: How Does the Church Define Conception?

This essay advocates the possibility of a personal presence from the first instant of fertilization, which raises a problem with how the Church appears to define conception.  The following two documents express the teaching in question.  The first document is Donum Vitae: ‘Thus the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality.  The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception ...’89 .  Donum Vitae specifically relates ‘a personal presence’90 to the first moment that the zygote has formed, the ‘zygote is the cell produced when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused’91 .

The second document is Evangelium Vitae.  Interestingly enough, Pope John Paul II takes the same quote as Donum Vitae from the Declaration on Procured Abortion, which begins by saying: ‘“from the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother”...’92 .  But Pope John Paul II does not take the qualification which Donum Vitae added, which links a ‘personal presence’ to the definition of a zygote as the ‘cell produced when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused’.  Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II quotes, as Donum Vitae does, the following point from the Declaration on Procured Abortion: ‘from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person ...’.  In other words, the quotation distinguishes ‘what this living being will be ...’ (emphasis added) from the possibility of saying that ‘from the first instant’ this living being is a person.  Finally, however, Evangelium Vitae quotes Donum Vitae as saying that there can be discerned ‘a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life ...’.  Now the point is this: the thesis of this essay is that there is a ‘personal presence’ at precisely the first appearance of a human life: the response of the ovum to the activating presence of the sperm.  For at the very moment of the “transmission” of life, God creates a person and a divine-human parent-child relationship comes to exist.

In the first place, then, conception is by definition a beginning.  In terms of the evidence cited in this essay, there is a beginning to the existence of the embryo which is prior to the zygote stage of the child’s development.  In my opinion, then, if the zygote stage of development is called a beginning, it is in view of a philosophical interpretation of the embryological data.  The philosophical interpretation of the embryological data is that a personal presence is related to the ‘moment the zygote has formed’.  In the second place, however, there is the possibility that a more precise definition of the ‘first appearance of a human life’ would lead to an agreement between the thesis of this essay and a certain line of thinking in both Donum Vitae and Evangelium Vitae.  In other words, it seems clear that conception could be defined as the first instant of fertilisation; and, if so, that this is the “moment” of the ‘first appearance of a human life’: of a human person.

84 Cf. Veritatis Splendor, art 58: ‘The importance of this interior dialogue of man with himself can never be adequately appreciated.  But it is also a dialogue of man with God, the author of the law, the primordial image and final end of man.’    Back
85 There is no implication here, or anywhere else, of endorsing the “manufacture” of the human person.    Back
86 Cf. CCC, art 2415.    Back
87 Cf. also Paul Tully’s response to removing a single embryonic stem cell from an eight cell human embryo: ‘dividing the embryo at such an early stage was “effectively creating twins”’.  It was reported by Dan Frank, on p. 3 of The Catholic Herald, (October 21), 2005.  (Paul Tully was speaking on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.)    Back
88 Here the term “substantial” refers to alterations in the integrity of the human being, having occurred naturally or by human intervention, which do not alter the fact that the being is a person, one in body and soul.    Back
89 Donum Vitae, I, 1, p. 13.    Back
90 Donum Vitae, I, 1, p.13.    Back
91 Ibid, footnote *.    Back
92 Evangelium Vitae, art 60, quotation from the Declaration on Procured Abortion, nos. 12-13.    Back

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