Chapter 3 - When does human life begin?


A. Documents

Relying on these first principles of human and Christian doctrine concerning marriage, we must again insist that the direct interruption of the generative process already begun must be totally rejected as a legitimate means of regulating the number of children. Especially to be rejected is direct abortion - even if done for reasons of health (Humanae Vitae No. 14).

From the moral viewpoint ... it is clear that, even if there is some doubt whether the entity conceived is already a human person, it is an objectively serious sin to expose oneself to the danger of committing murder: "He who will be a human being is already a human being" (Tertullian, Apologeticum IX, 8; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, "Declaration on Abortion," 18 November 1974; The Pope Speaks, 1975, pp. 250-262).

This Congregation is aware of the current debates concerning the beginning of human life, concerning the individuality of the human being and concerning the identity of the human person. The Congregation recalls the teachings found in the Declaration on Procured Abortion: "From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new 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 its own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already. To this perpetual evidence... modern genetic science brings valuable conformation. It has been determined that, from the first instant, the program is fixed as to 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 human life, and each of its great capacities requires time ... to find its place and to be in a position to act "(No. 12-13).

... 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 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? The Magisterium has not expressly committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching has not been changed, and is unchangeable.

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, and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life ("Respect for Life in Origin," Instruction on bioethics from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, 22 February 1987; The Pope Speaks, 1987, pp. 137-156).

B. Life Is Sacred from the Time of Fertilization

When judged from the viewpoint of morality, the abortion of a conceived human life is a transgression of God's commandment, whether that life is already a human person, or whether - theoretically - its animation by God is scheduled for a more developed phase of its existence. For if contraception is already intrinsically evil, all the more so is the interruption of a new human life already begun. And because the new life is at least probably a human person with all human rights, one who willingly kills what is probably a human person is guilty of a serious offense against the fifth commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."

To explain this, the following comparison is frequently used: if a hunter sees a movement behind a bush, and is not certain whether that is a bear or another hunter; if he then shoots what is there, he is guilty of being willing to kill another human being.

It is not possible to demonstrate that a newly fertilized human ovum is not yet a human being, with an immortal soul created directly by almighty God. The biological sciences cannot demonstrate that God does not create a human person at the time of conception. God does not appear visibly to human eyes when He creates a new human person. And the spiritual substance of the soul is not visible to the microscope.

What the scientist and philosopher can discern is that a life process begins at the beginning - at the time of conception. The life which we eventually recognize as human - as a member of our species - begins with one cell, when sperm and ovum fuse their genetic materials. All attempts to prove that the fertilized human ovum is not a human person fall short of certainty. We must therefore treat what is at least probably human, as being endowed with all human rights, protected from willful destruction by another human being by God's law: "Thou shalt not kill."

Human wisdom, and faith illuminated by supernatural light, perceive a greatness in a new human being which escapes the perspectives of microscopes and workings of chemical reactions. No human being comes into existence unless God Himself brings His almighty creative power into action.

Our limited appreciation of Christ's Incarnation can help us to appreciate what happens when God creates a human person in the genetic materials presented. Christ's human nature - body and soul - was anointed with the Personhood of the Son of God. At that moment God gave orders to the angels: "Let all God's angels worship him" (Heb 1:6). Does God not assign a Guardian Angel to each new human person when He creates him? And to the best of our knowledge, this occurs at the moment of fertilization.

God honors the parents by entrusting the new life to them for their love and keeping. An abortion is a wrongful betrayal of this entrustment given by God to parents, and is a grave injustice to the child, who has rights received directly from God, independent of the consent of society. Reverence for newly conceived life is therefore reverence shown to God, and is an acknowledgement of the rights of the child. It is basic to our faith and to human justice and culture.

C. When Does Human Life Begin?

Some have written that a human person does not begin at the time of conception when sperm and egg unite, but only sometime later. The reasons given: 1. The possibility of twinning - so they affirm - is still present at the early stages of conception and development; it seems that we become human 14 days after conception, when the primitive streak appears and twinning is no longer possible. 2. The primordium of the cerebral cortex, of the specifically human brain, appears only later; that is when human life begins - so they conjecture.


The above affirmations by theologians are not validated by science. Science can find no sign of change in the process of growth, of a switch from non-human to the human state. No scientist claims to see such a change. If twinning occurs: 1) Either the original person remains without change and God creates a second person. 2) Or God creates two persons in the first cell, who later separate into two bodies. Think of Siamese twins, two persons joined bodily; 3) Or the first person dies (less likely); God then creates the twins.

D. Geneticist Jerome Lejeune on the Beginning of Human Life

Geneticist Jerome Lejeune, M.D. explains how development is a continuous process from fertilization until birth. The living DNA of the 46 chromosomes of the fertilized first cell literally "organizes" the organs of this human life from the beginning; the life force in living DNA animates with its own life the particles, atoms, and molecules. The life animates the body building materials which are interchangeable; but the life message subsumes them into living parts of one organism: A chromosome [coiled DNA] is very comparable to a mini-cassette, in which a symphony is written, the symphony of life. Now, exactly as if you buy a cartridge on which Eine Kleine Nachtmusik of Mozart has been registered, if you play it in a normal recorder, the musician would not be reproduced, the notes of music will not be reproduced; they are not there; what would be reproduced is the movement of air which transmits to you the genius of Mozart. It's exactly the same way that life is played. On the tiny mini-cassettes which are chromosomes are written various parts of the opus which is for a human symphony; and as soon as all the information necessary and sufficient to spell out the whole symphony is there, this symphony plays itself; that is, a new man is beginning his career (Lejeune, "Testimony," p. 4).

Lejeune explains that the initial cell divides into two about 20 hours after fertilization; after about another 20 hours one of the 2 divides again; now there are 3. That fact is well known among geneticists, but why this should be is not certain. One is tempted to suggest that the three cells, via biological communication, finalize their corporate individuality before proceeding to further development.

After the temporary pause at the 3 cell stage, the other first generation cell divides also; now there are 4; the 4 divide into 8, then into 16; at the 16 cell stage, possibly at the 32 cell stage, a compaction occurs; the 2 cells which had first divided, and possibly the third cell of delayed division, are compacted inside the sphere, forming its center; these 3 build the body.

In the periphery around these 3 core cells are the 13 others; 7 are located in satellite or equatorial positions related to the 3 core cells; 3 others are located on top, and 3 on the bottom in the polar positions. These 7 + 3 + 3 build the placenta. Dr. Lejeune related that twinning cannot occur from satellite or polar cells; that only a core cell (or cells) can initiate twinning. Also, twinning will not occur beyond the 16 cell or the 32 cell stage (Private conversation, Houston, 14 April 1993).

Dr. Lejeune also observed that the individuality of a human life was identifiable at a very early stage, before the primitive streak or the primordium of the cerebral cortex made its appearance. In 1987 the discovery was made that the DNA of an embryo at age 3 days, when there were 4 or 8 cells, could be identified. People working with in vitro fertilization were able to remove one cell by carefully puncturing the zona pellucida with a tiny hole, removing the one cell, then closing the hole. The DNA of this cell was then reproduced via "chain polymerization" to make an analysis. Only one single person in the world has the specific pattern of DNA which marks this individual. "The DNA specific to each person, after we have used the technique, will look like a little succession of strips - lines of various widths at various distances, giving a distinctive pattern for each human being. It looks very much like the bar-code that you are familiar with in the supermarket..." a DNA code which is "absolutely specific to each of us." ("Genes and Human Life" in ALL About Issues, Fall 1991). If individuals are identifiable 3 days after fertilization, their identity is not subject to duplication later on.Once this individual exists, he or she remains forever.

E. Human Cloning

Scientists have even experimented with cloning human embryos at a very early stage. The experiment was made at George Washington University, School of Medicine, Washington, DC, by a team of researchers. After the experiment was publicized, Pope John Paul II, on 20 November 1993, reacted strongly by calling for the legal recognition of the human embryo to protect it from analysis or experimentation. "The embryo has to be recognized as a being subject to the laws of nations, otherwise we are endangering humanity," he said (AFP-Jiji). Laws, then, are necessary to place limits upon what scientists are permitted to do with human embryos. Dr. Lejeune, who always opposed such experimentation with early human beings, explained the experiment as follows: They took 17 living, human embryos, varying in development from two to eight cells, and created 48 distinct, living human embryos from them. The researchers' first step was to chemically remove each embryo's "zona pellucida," a hard, shell-like covering which nourishes and protects the developing baby. Next, the researchers separated each embryo into individual cells, called blastocytes. The 48 resulting blastocytes were then coated with a synthetic substance made to mimic the zona pellucida and placed in a solution conducive to embryonic development. The blastocytes did, in fact, begin to divide and grow, developing into distinct human embryos, each genetically identical to the original embryo from which it was taken. The new embryos developed to stages varying from two to thirty two cells each. Researchers planned to discard the embryos after seven days, but all died on their own within six days (reported in National Right to Life News, 5 November 1993).

In a subsequent article, "L'Embryon Deshumanise " published in Tom Pouce March-April 1994, Dr. Lejeune provides further information about the Washington experiment. Namely, that when a cell was isolated from the fertilized ovum at the 8 cell stage, it divided itself only three times to reach 2, then 4, then 8 cells, and then did not proliferate after that. If isolated at the 4 cell stage, it divided itself only four times, to reach 2, then 4, then 8, then 16 cells, when it stopped; when isolated at the 2 cell stage, it divided itself five times, to reach 2, then 4, then, 8 then 16, then 32 cells, when division ceased. He stated that human cloning is impossible because, after the first division, the resulting cells are no longer pleni-potent.

In this article Dr. Lejeune suggests that twinning might possibly occur at the 32 cell stage, when the three somatic cells of the 16 cell stage are six and can therefore be divided into two sets of three. The twinning would have been written into the genes at the time of conception, and would occur at the indicated sequential division.

A colleague of Dr. Lejeune in the Paris Institut de Progenese, Dr. Marie Peeters, explains that male and female genes associate as a complementary team to flesh out the new human body: Genetical as well as experimental embryology methods have uncovered a very important feature of embryonic development in humans. It has been shown that female and male genomic complements are differently imprinted in such a way that a contribution from both a maternal and a paternal genome are absolutely necessary for the embryo to complete its normal development. Differential genomic imprinting seems to impose some new and essential information to the one already contained in the genomic sequences (Moscow HLI Conference, 12 May 1994, pp. 4-5).

After further explanation, Dr. Peeters concludes that "The human genome is activated by the two cell stage. This makes true human cloning impossible" (Ibid., p. 6). We are logical, I believe, to conclude that if cloning is impossible at the two cell stage because the genetic sequences cannot be turned back to zero to initiate a second body, but continue to specialize for the building of one body, then twinning by natural cleavage is also not possible after the first cell division, unless this has been pre-written into the initial cell.

F. Human life is a genetic continuum from the initial cell

Science gives us no reason to believe that our human lives began in a colony of cells some days, weeks, or months after conception. On the contrary, it indicates that the life which is there later, is genetically and organizationally the same as the life which continued to develop from that beginning, from the first cell. The response of Prof. J. Francois Mattei (Le Monde, 12 October 1993) to a question by a journalist, who asked whether he maintained that an embryo was equivalent to a child, sums it up economically and neatly: Just as the fertilized egg before it, and after it the foetus, the newborn baby, the child, the adolescent, the adult, and the elderly person, the embryo is none other than the morphological expression of a single and identical life (quoted by Bishop Elio Sgreccia, L'Osservatore Romano, Weekly Edition in English, 10 November 1993).

God creates our souls by direct and immediate action, out of nothing; He creates our souls - our lives - not beforehand in heaven, but in the gametes provided by our parents. Exercising almighty power He declares: "Let us make THIS man in our image, in our likeness" (cf. Gen 1:26). What God has created out of nothing, let no man dare to injure or kill. And should it be true that His first actions in human gametes are preparatory to a later creative action, let no mere man interfere with His plans. What He has decided to create as a man, is already a man as far as we are concerned.

In the moral theology text book for seminarians authored by Fr. Peschke, the above testimony of scientists is absent. Instead of scientists, the author lists 20 theologians who hold that "the animation or hominization of the fertilized ovum" takes place later, "perhaps 16 days after conception." The listed "authorities" are: M. Hudczek, P. Schoenenberg, G. Siegmund, J. Donceel, J. Grundel, H. Rotter, W. Ruff, B. Haering, C. Curran, G. Lobo, J. Diamond, E. Chiavacci, G. Pastrana, F. Boeckle, R. McCormick, J. Mahoney, J.F. Malherde, N. Ford, T. Shannon and A. Wolter (1993 edition, p. 317). He concludes that if they are right, then "one could not speak of abortion in the strict sense before the lapse of a period of 16 days... The prohibition of an interference at this early stage would not be based on the reason that the pre-embryo is a person" (p. 317).

G. Use of abortifacient "contraceptives" and

H. In vitro fertilization transgresses the fifth commandment

For what purpose does he cite all these "authorities" to cast doubt on the personhood of the supposed "pre-embryo?" Does he, and do the cited theologians, await that a future Pope may declare contraception to be legitimate, and that ecclesial approval of early abortions and of in vitro fertilization - with its many "throw-away" human products - might then be possible? We are reminded of the proverb: A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions. (Prov. 18:2. Trans. NIV Study Bible)

As the author of the morals text himself states, quoting the Instruction of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987: "The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception" (op. cit. p. 320). But by citing all these dissenters the author tends to becloud the clear moral principle that one may not deliberately kill what is probably human. The text does not quote geneticists like Dr. Jerome Lejeune and Dr. Marie Peeters who show that the scientific assumptions of these 20 theologians, salva reverentia, are not correct. If the author delves into science, he ought to quote scientists for the edification of seminarians, not theologians who have an axe to grind to justify the prevailing use of abortifacient contraceptives, and the practice of in vitro fertilization (see below) during which many humans are destroyed and/or manipulated.

Because users of the presently marketed low dosage Pills, and of sundry chemical contraceptives as well as of the IUD, must reckon with the very real fact that women users conceive a new life from time to time, they transgress God's law not only by attempted contraception, but also by objectively doing abortions. Manufacturers, marketers, cooperators, and users of these sometimes abortifacient means do not court God's friendship by thus willingly disobeying His command: "Thou shalt not kill." For whenever users of these methods conceive, and then prevent the new conceptus from nidating in the uterus and developing, by thus snuffing out the new life, they are guilty of killing a fellow human being.

I. Early Natural Death of Fertilized Ova

Some people reason that God does not create a human person before the conceptus is implanted in the uterus, where the likelihood of proper development becomes firmly established. They claim that 40%-50% of conceptions are discarded by nature before successful implantation in the uterus has been achieved. God would not be so wasteful in the creation of human life, so they opine. What is to be said about this?


Even should it be true that 40%-50% of the fertilized ova are discarded by nature, we have no real proof that God does not create human persons in them also. The God who created myriads of angels which are without bodies, can also create myriads of humans into spiritual images and likenesses of God, even though their bodies are miniature single cells, or tiny embryos. A man who kills an embryo by an early abortion, whether, as mentioned above, by chemical or mechanical means, invokes upon himself the guilt of being willing to kill this human being created by God.

The same must be said about in vitro fertilization of embryos. When technicians destroy them as unfit for transfer into a uterus, or because they are superfluous, they break the Fifth Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill!" And if they put them into deep freeze, they are guilty of manipulating a fellow human being, a creature of God with rights, in a grossly unjust manner. Why in vitro fertilization is entirely wrong in the first place is explained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in "Respect for Human Life in Origin and the Dignity of Procreation," 22 February 1987. The document quotes Tertullian: "He who will be a human being is already a human being" (Apologeticum IX, 8). The document continues: As a consequence of respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of his conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights. The law cannot tolerate - indeed it must expressly prohibit - that human beings, even at the embryonal stage, should be treated as objects of experimentation (Part III).

But is it true that 40%-50% of fertilized human ova are discarded by nature and do not implant successfully in the uterus, as the Fr. Peschke text claims (1990 ed., p. 355)? Likely this is a gross exaggeration. Claims are made which do not pass strict scientific scrutiny. Studies of early human embryo loss following natural conception have yielded figures ranging from 8% to 78%. In any such study the participating couples must be representative of the normal population and the methods used to establish the conception that has occurred must be scientifically sound. The study which most closely satisfied these requirements yielded 8% (John McLean, p. 24).

How did he arrive at the figure of 8%, not 40%-50%? An embryo begins to secrete the hormone, human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG) on day 6 after conception, which can be monitored in the blood of the mother. If the hCG level rises to indicate a pregnancy, but menstruation follows on schedule, this indicates a lost conception.

In this test, one which comes close to scientific credibility, hCG levels rose in 92 cases to indicate pregnancy. 7 ended in normal menstruation, indicating the loss of a pregnancy before implantation; 85 kept their pregnancy. The loss was therefore 7 out of 92, or 8%. (For details, see the paper.)

But, you say, what about losses before day 6, before the hCG can be detected? Adequate studies have not been made as of this date. Dr. McLean (p. 26) indicates that a study to assess conception at a very early state, perhaps within 24 hours, may be possible, from the platelet counts of the mother. Such a study remains still to be done, however.

After reviewing the medical literature, Dr. H. J. Huisjes reports: "While it is generally agreed that the incidence of spontaneous abortion must be somewhere around 15%, a flawless epidemiological study has not yet been reported" (Huisjes, p. 6). This includes late as well as early spontaneous abortions. There is no solid scientific evidence to back up the assumption printed in the morals text that 40%-50% of pregnancies die before implantation. This widely asserted falsehood should be erased from all the many texts which have copied this unfounded assertion for the past 50 years.

One easy way to detect early pregnancy is monitoring the temperature. Around ovulation time the temperature shifts from low phase to high; about two weeks later it drops back to low with menstruation. If a conception occurs, the high phase may show a slight secondary elevation around day 6 of the high phase or a bit later; and this high phase continues on past the time of expected menstruation and into the first months of pregnancy. If the high phase has this special characteristic glitch to indicate a possible pregnancy, and then continues beyond day 20, but falls again and late menstruation follows, this probably indicates an early spontaneous abortion.

Dr. med. Josef Roetzer, Family Counselling Service, in Voecklabruch, Austria, has been reading temperature charts of women clients for over 40 years; his daughter Elizabeth assists him; each time a woman sends in a temperature chart, Elizabeth now gives it careful scrutiny, copies and files it, then returns the chart to the client with notations. They have examined over 200,000 charts, all of which are filed in their office. They told me that, from the evidence on the charts, they judge early fetal loss to be quite rare, quite exceptional. Certainly, says Dr. Roetzer, the asserted loss of 40%-50% is not verifiable, and is too high. If it were 8%-12%, this would bring it into the range expected in other mammals.

The response is therefore: the most recent scientific test would indicate that 8% of embryos are lost before implantation, not 40%-50%. But even if more are lost, this does not give us a right to treat early embryos as though they were "personless human lives." What is probably a man, we must treat as a man. "Thou shalt not kill!" binds us strictly to treat this life with reverence.

Next Page: Chapter 4 - The Overpopulation Myth
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