When Did You Begin?
(Or the Status of the Embryo?)

Queensland Bioethics Centre
Reproduced with Permission
Queensland Bioethics Centre

There are three ways of approaching the question of the beginning of human life:

For most the answer to the last question will depend upon answers to at least one of the first two questions. However for some (perhaps more than we think) the third question is to be answered independent of the first two.

These three questions or categories should not be confused.

The Scientific Question:

When does the life of a human being begin?

This question is a scientific question. It is the same kind of question as "when does the life of a new mouse begin?" or "when does the life of a new monkey begin?" The same kind of criteria that a scientist would use to answer the latter two questions should be used to answer the first question. It is a question which is typically answered by people who make a study of biology, especially developmental biology or the more specialised human embryology.

The weight of scientific opinion is overwhelming.

"Individual life begins with conception by the union of gametes or sex cells. A spermatozoon (paternal) fuses with an oocyte (maternal) to form a zygote. Growth and development continue thereafter until a sexually mature adult is formed." (M. Brookes and A. Zietman, Clinical Embryology, Florida, CRC Press, 1998 p.2)

"Zygote: This cell results from fertilization of an oocyte by a sperm and is the beginning of a human being. Development begins at fertilization, when a sperm unites with an oocyte to form a zygote. Each of us started life as a cell called a zygote." (K.L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 2nd ed., WB Saunders Publishers, 1977)

"For each of us life begins at an unfelt, unhonored instant when a minute, wriggling sperm plunges headlong into a mature egg. The quiet egg, destined to die and rot unless it fuses with the sperm, reacts with vigorous activity and a spurt of energy.

At this moment, known as fertilization, not only does a separate entity come into being, but also its unique individuality. This entity has been endowed with a mysterious but important quality that is called viability, or the ability to live, able to survive the trials and adversities of life before birth, as well as life after birth in nine months hence." (Dr Tony Lipson, From Conception to Birth, Our most important journey, Millennium Books, 1994. Dr Lipson is, or was at the time of writing, a Paediatrician, Foetal Developmentalist and Geneticist at the Children’s Hospital, Sydney).

"From the time of fertilization onwards the embryo has the capacity for further development as an individual human being provided this is not interrupted… Therefore it would seem logical to infer that another human life begins at the time of fertilisation. If this proposition is accepted then the next point of consideration relates to the rights and status of the human embryo from the point of fertilisation." (Dr John Kerin, then Head of Reproductive Medicine Unit of Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Adelaide, giving evidence to the Senate Inquiry into Human Embryo Experimentation Bill, 1985)

"The term conception refers to the union of the male and female pronuclear elements of procreation from which a new living being develops. It is synonymous with the terms fecundation, impregnation, and fertilization … The zygote thus formed represents the beginning of new life." (J.P. Greenhill and E.A. Freidman, Biological Principles and Modern Practice of Obstetrics, Philadelphia, WB Saunders Publishers)

"it is the penetration of the ovum by a spermatozoa and the resulting mingling of the chromosomal material each brings to the union that culminates the process of fertilization and initiates the life of a new individual. Every one of the high animals starts life as a single cell - the fertilized ovum. The union of two such sex cells to form a zygote constitutes the process of fertilization and initiates the life a new individual." (Bradely M Patten, Foundations of Embryology, M.D., 3rd ed. NY, McGraw Hill, 1968)

"After three billion years of evolution, we have before us the instruction set that carries each of us from the one-cell egg through adulthood to the grave," Dr. Robert Waterston, of the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium, told a crowd at the National Institutes of Health.

The "pre-embryo"?

Some years back some scientists sought to introduce the term "pre-embryo" into the scientific lexicon. However under the weight of scientific criticism they withdrew the use of the term. (For references see: Dr Dianne N. Irving, "The Immediate Product of Human Cloning is a Human Being: claims to the contrary are scientifically wrong", presented to the subcommittee on Health and Environment of the Committee on Commerce, U.S. House of Representatives, Feb 12, 1998, http://lifeissues.net/writers/irv/irv_09cloninghuman1.html

The Philosophical Question:

This question is much more difficult to address in a short space. However the position is summed up by Dr Dianne N. Irving in her Testimony to the Subcommittee on Health and Environment of the Committee on Commerce U.S. House of Representatives, February 12, 1998:

"As with public policy, any philosophical analysis of personhood must begin with and be based on the correct scientific facts."

This is required for philosophical realism. Further a thing acts or functions according to the kind of nature it has - or what it is. If a "human being" is a "rational animal"; if the term "rational" must include virtually the vegetative and sensitive powers; if all of its powers must be present simultaneously with the body, with no splits - then personhood must begin when the human being begins - at fertilisation or cloning - when the "matter " is already "appropriately organized".

This actually matches the correct science: immediately at fertilization or cloning, specifically human enzymes and proteins are produced and specifically human tissues and organs are continuously developed from fertilization or cloning on. Personhood, then, should be based on what something is, not on how one actually thinks of feels (merely functional definitions of a human person).

Yet other philosophical answers have been offered ... The question must be, do those arguments for "delayed" personhood square with or match the correct scientific facts; are they based on historically correct philosophical claims, or even philosophical claims which are theoretically or practically defensible, or logically valid and sound? Where does this bioethics logic take us? I and many others have demonstrated that these arguments have consistently and extensively used incorrect science, do not match the correct scientific facts and are often historically inaccurate and philosophically indefensible (e.g. contain a mind/body split)."

The various markers given as for when personhood is "present" are arbitrary when one considers the condition of the embryo itself. The embryo (or foetus, when the marker is later in the life journey) is not substantially different before or after any of the supposed marker events.

Is the human embryo to be valued?

This question can be a moral question, a legal question and/or a political question.

Generally speaking it is usually assumed that one’s answer to this third question depends upon one’s answer to at least one of the first two questions if not both. The question "when does a human person begin" is usually understood as "value laden", i.e. once a person begins, he or she is to be valued.

However this does not always seem to be the case. There would appear to be some who seek to answer this third question independent of the first two. Whether the embryo is a human being or a human person is deemed irrelevant.

According to this stance it is up to us (where "us" might be society, parents, a particular group or a particular individual) to decide when another being is to be valued.

Invariably these judgments are arbitrary and serve the person(s) making the judgment in some way. One scientist based valuing the other upon how you feel about what you are looking at!

Such subjective judgments cannot be the basis for public policy. Our great legal and moral tradition is built upon the recognition of the inherent value of every human life. To accept any other standard would be to introduce arbitrariness and hence injustice into our public policy. Unfortunately such arbitrariness has been introduced into our legal system by virtue of a few court cases which have never been tested in a higher court.

Church Teaching

In her official teaching the Catholic Church has made several statements the beginning of life and respect for human life from its earliest stages:

"In reality, respect for human life is called for from the time that the process of generation begins. From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother, it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already."

To this perpetual evidence - perfectly independent of the discussions on the moment of animation - modern genetic science brings valuable confirmation. It has demonstrated that, from the first instant, there is established the program of what this living being will be: a man, this individual man with his characteristic aspects already well determined. Right from fertilization is begun the adventure of a human life, and each of its capacities requires timea rather lengthy time- to find its place and to be in a position to act. .. From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder. "The one who will be a man is already one." (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration on Abortion, 1974)

"Certainly no experimental datum can be in itself sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul; nevertheless, the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life: how could a human individual not be a human person?" (Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, The Gift of Life, 1987).