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When Life Begins and Why It Matters

August 12, AD2014 35 Comments

Part of the strategy of abortion advocates is to cloud the starting point of life so that the act of abortion is seen as inconsequential as removing a wart. Before the routine use of prenatal ultrasounds it was easy to say abortion was just getting rid of a “clump of cells” or a “blob of tissue”. Now that ultrasound technology has given us a window into the womb those terms seem ludicrous. A mere clump or blob does not have a beating heart and fingers and toes.

But what about earlier in gestation when the nascent being is hidden from the ultrasound? Is there life?

In the recently-argued Supreme Court case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the government asserted that birth control methods which interfere with implantation shouldn’t be considered abortifacients or abortion-inducing drugs. Although conception takes place a full week prior to implantation, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) defines pregnancy as beginning with the embryo’s implantation into the uterine lining; prior to successful implantation, the government claimed, there’s no pregnancy to be aborted.

The response from the plaintiffs was to show a stack of textbooks from prestigious universities around the United States. Each of these texts clearly stated that life begins at conception. Who is right?

Why Life Begins at Conception

From a scientific perspective, there is no question that life begins at conception. It is inaccurate to call the result a “fertilized egg” which makes it sound like fertilization just enhances the female gamete. The sperm and the ova join at fertilization and then cease to exist. The entity existing after fertilization is something completely new, a zygote.

The zygote meets all scientific criteria that define life. It has metabolism characterized by a series of chemical reactions that both build and break down substances to further the zygote’s growth and development. The zygote is responsive to changes occurring within its cell membrane as well as in the external environment. There is purposeful movement of the whole zygote as well as of its internal organelles, specialized structures inside the cell. There is both growth and differentiation as the zygote divides into more cells and these cells specialize to perform critical functions. This development includes the formation of cells that will one day allow the reproduction of the new life formed at fertilization.

It is important to note that this growth and differentiation is wholly directed by the unique DNA that is completely present in the single-celled zygote. The mother provides an environment conducive to this growth but her DNA does not control it. Clearly, from the formation of the first cell at fertilization, the resulting being is alive. The DNA is human DNA so this life is human life.

The Moving Target

What various abortion advocates try to say is that life does not merit recognition until it crosses some arbitrary threshold. Defining pregnancy as beginning with implantation cannot change the scientific fact that prior to implantation, a human life exists from the moment of conception.

Viability outside the womb, the standard advocated by the majority in Roe v. Wade, is a moving target, since medical technology is constantly moving that milestone to earlier and earlier stages of development. Neurological level of development, another proposed benchmark for characterizing human life, is an artificial construct, with no basis in the biological understanding of what constitutes a living being. Therefore, defining the beginning of life as any point other than conception is a denial of scientific reality.

Some abortion advocates will concede that life begins at conception, but will then argue that life has no standing until it meets some milestone of development. They deny “personhood” to this immature life. The problem with this approach is that it denies the existence of intrinsic human dignity.

ACOG does not recognize life’s existence until implantation, and does not afford any life a right to exist until after birth. Other abortion advocates will draw arbitrary lines throughout gestation, based on nothing more than their own visceral response to destroying life at various levels of maturity. For some, the presence of a heartbeat will be enough to declare the fetus too developed to destroy. For others, even passage through the birth canal is not enough to establish a right to life. Until the mother accepts the child as her own, the child’s life is disposable.

The Danger to Human Dignity

This lack of objectivity is dangerous because it makes human dignity an acquired trait granted by others. If a right to life is granted, it can also be taken away. The supporters for physician assisted suicide and euthanasia use the same logic as abortion advocates. They choose arbitrary levels of cognitive function or perceptions of the quality and utility of life to define the protection and moral standing offered to others. As Pope Francis repeatedly reminds us, we have developed a “throw-away culture” that includes throwing away human lives that we find inconvenient or burdensome.

Human life begins at conception. This is not revealed religious dogma that can be rejected by non-believers. This is a scientific fact.

Failure to safeguard this life says that some human life is valued more than others. However, once we start capriciously declaring some lives are not big enough, smart enough, old enough, or even just wanted enough to be worthy of protection, all human life becomes vulnerable. The weak and marginalized become subject to the whims of the strong and powerful. Building a culture of life requires consistent ethics that hold all human life, no matter the stage of development, cognitive capacity, or physical capabilities, as intrinsically dignified and of inestimable worth.

Filed in: Medicine, Science • Tags: , ,

About the Author:

Denise's vocation is being a wife, mother, and grandmother. Her occupation has wound its way through being a practicing family physician to studying Catholic health care ethics to writing and teaching about all things Catholic. She is a fellow with Human Life International and regularly contributes to the HLI Truth & Charity Forum. She also writes a monthly column for Zenit.org. She and her husband John have been married for thirty years and have lived all over the United States, courtesy of John's Air Force career. They are now settled in the suburbs of Northern Virginia and blessed with four children and two grandchildren (so far).

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  • Rosemary Bogdan

    “The problem with this approach is that it denies the existence of intrinsic human dignity.” Well said, Denise. Yes, that is the problem. It is so disturbing that the concept of intrinsic human dignity does not seem to have even occurred to some people. So grateful for people like you speaking the truth!

  • Elijah fan

    Denise,
    You write: “…the scientific fact that prior to implantation, a human life exists from the moment of conception.”
    If pro-life exaggerates in this area, it looks to some that pro life is doing the not so truthful a priori route i.e. the Church (not yet in infallible formulation) says A. so let’s arrive at A. come hell or high water. The mistake is in your words “a human life exists from the moment of conception”.
    Human life exists but not ( a ) human life. Genetically the living matter is human not trout or butterfly… but the cells have not committed to being part of this organ or that organ…they are totipotential.
    The fact that the cells are totipotential for c. 14 days and can be scientifically teased into identical twinning during some of that time means the matter is human life but not a person. At roughly day 17 say, there is surely non totipotential cells that have committed usually to a place in one person. Now you can’t tease them into twinning just as you can’t tease a one year old child into twinning.
    Case two…the chimeric who is eventually a person formed from two fraternal twin fertilized ova laying too close to each other in the first days after conception. They fuse because of this proximity and become one cell mass. Your above text would mean there were two persons who became one person which is impossible. But two human totipotential cell masses uniting into one cell mass which later becomes maybe one person is rational. What if the mass identically twins at day 9. That would mean that two persons fused into one person in the first days and then later that same one person split into two persons.
    The Church is infallibly committed against abortion but she has not infallibly determined when a person is present. Prolife laity and lower clergy think they know and the non infallible CDF wrote pretty much in their direction but the chimeric problem and the identical twinning problem uncover the real problem….totipotential cell masses are not yet one person or two or four…because they are totipotential.

    • D Hunnell

      Actually, the Church has committed to the protection of all human life from conception to natural death. At the moment of conception, as you concede, the formation of the zygote is the formation of new human life. Whether that zygote goes on to form one human person as is typical or through some quirks of cell division forms multiple human persons is irrelevant. You are trying to draw a line that states there must be some arbitrary percentage of differentiated cells before life can be declared a person worthy of dignity and protection. What is the percentage? What is the rational basis for such a line? Even fully grown adults have cells with the potential to differentiate in a variety of ways. The course of growth, differentiation, responsiveness, movement, metabolism, and reproduction begins at conception. As I stated in the article, as soon as we try to draw lines and declare some human life disposable, we put all human life at risk because we subject the weak to the whims of the powerful.

    • Elijah fan

      The Church has not infallibly committed against pre implantation wastage because if the Church ever goes there, She must tell every obese pre menopausal married Catholic woman to lose excess weight because obesity, similar to contraceptive pills, inhibits implantation. Are obese women murderers? They are if a person is present from conception because obesity is a choice once one is aware that they can change it by exercise and half meals. Yet no Pope in history has suggested that obese Catholic women must lose weight or be guilty of murder. No Bishop in history has warned anyone about it.
      No matter what cells are doing in an adult, that adult cannot split off into twins. To shade totipotentiality of a cell mass into adult cellular changes won’t work. The early embryo for roughly 14 days can twin or tripulet….because the cells are totipotential. Whenever in the future, you tell obese women that there is a person present from conception on, you are setting them up for great guilt when they finally read that obesity inhibits implantation. Their next question is how many tiny persons did I kill through my eating habits.
      And you are blocking who knows how many intelligent converts who think they have to believe that as infallible and it is not. We convert the less educated in Africa, we convert Protestants fleeing gay lenient churches. I wonder how many very educated others…we’ll never convert due to this area being coopted by extremism. There is no person as long as there is a totipotential cell mass that might become 4 persons on day 12.

    • D Hunnell

      The Church most definitely has spoken about interrupting implantation and recognizes human life as having intrinsic dignity and inestimable worth from the moment of conception. That is why the Church condemns birth control methods that interrupt implantation as the IUD does, the morning after pill that acts after fertilization occurs, as well as IVF. I suggest you read both Dignitas Personae and Donum Vitae. St. Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae also addresses this.

      Your discussion of obesity impeding implantation is only germane to this discussion if you are suggesting that women intentionally become obese in order to avoid pregnancy by lessening the chance of implantation. Otherwise, the effects of obesity on fertility are not any more relevant than any other medical condition that disrupts implantation. Implantation fails due to factors on the part of either the mother or the child. This nascent human life is often lost in what seems like normal menstrual flow and the mother may never even know that she had conceived. That does not change the fact that the life did exist, however briefly, and was known by God.

      Protecting life from conception to natural death is the full teaching of the Church, not extremism. Evangelization means proclaiming the full truth, not a watered down version to try and make it more palatable. We always speak with charity but the truth cannot be compromised. Offering the truth is not an impediment to conversion. I know many truly brilliant people who have converted to Catholicism during their adult years. I suggest you read the work of Dr. Peter Kreeft. You might also enjoy the conversion story of Jennifer Fulwiler in her book, Something Other Than God.

      Finally I assure you, the Heavenly Host rejoices with every soul brought home to Christ, whether that soul belongs to someone living in impoverished Africa or to someone who graces the halls of Ivy League academia. Elitism is far more dangerous to evangelical efforts than is speaking of the sanctity of all human life.

    • Elijah fan

      You avoided my use of “infallible” and then tell me to read a CDF document which by nature is not a source of infallibility and which I referred to in my first post in the last par….neither is all of Evangelium Vitae infallible except the three small paragraphs on abortion, euthanasia, and killing the innocent where the consensus of all the Bishops is noted in each case.
      Then you picture all obesity as a choice only when it is intended to prevent procreation which no one on earth ever tried. Rediculous. Obesity is often a choice of over eating which brings on implantation failure ergo the woman is responsible for the fat and anything that follows logically upon being fat. If you choose to drive drunk, the courts will indict you for not simply drinking but for what follows from that choice of drinking.
      Failed implantation follows from being over weight so the woman who chooses to eat too much and not exercise implicitly chooses all that follows including failed implantation and lesser health in general unless the obesity is intrinsic to a system failure within her. But given multiple cases on TV of countless people losing enormous weight, it is obviously a moral choice for many to choose weight loss and thus choose that many healthy implantations that may follow.
      Extremism is an historical problem within Catholicism. In Exsurge Domine by Pope Leo X, Catholics were excommunicated latae sententiae if they agreed with Luther that killing heretics was against the Holy Spirit ( see art. 33 condemned ). Now in another encyclical, Splendor of the Truth, sect.80, John Paul II says that ” coercion of the spirit” is an intrinsic evil. Ergo in effect he agreed with Luther as most of us do in that detail. John Paul proceeded to apologize for the roughly 5000 killings that ensued from Exsurge Domine…some by another Pope, Pius V. Which encyclical was infallible? Neither. But John Paul II’s is closer to the truth. But the incident shows that killing heretics who we now trust with our heart transplants was an extreme within Catholicism. Frankly now Popes have gone to an opposite extreme in not wanting to execute mass murderers like Mc Veigh. In 1829 you were committing a mortal sin of usury if you charged your neighbor any interest on a personal loan and it demanded therefore confession. After 1830, you were perfectly free to charge that same interest and it was no sin. The Vatican in several answers to dubia from dioceses quietly said that those taking moderate interest were not to be disturbed. That ended Aquinas’ Aristotelian position found in Vix Pervenit by Pope Benedict XIV in 1745 that even a tiny bit of interest was always sinful. Killing heretics was extreme, forbidding all interest on personal loans was extreme, opposing all executions right now is also extreme. Saying a cell mass is a person when it is composed of totipotential cells that can be teased into splitting into two persons days after conception is also extreme.

    • D Hunnell

      I think you are a bit confused about the term infallibility. First of all Exsurge Domine was a Papal Bull–a decree that deals with canon law and legal matters of the Church. An Encyclical like Evangelium Vitae is written with the specific intent of teaching on matters dealing with faith and morals. The two documents addressed different issues and needs of the Church. They should not be compared one to another. One was meant to handle an internal legal issue of the time and the other was meant to be a teaching document for the entire Church. There is no need for the Pope to formally declare he is speaking ex cathedra. When a pope teaches in an encyclical the faithful are bound to regard it seriously. As far as the contradiction on usury, I suggest you read this explanation: http://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?recnum=646 It explains that there was never any change in the teaching about usury, but the definition of usury changed as economic systems evolved. The two CDF documents, Donum Vitae and Dignitas Personae were approved and ordered published by the corresponding Popes of the time. The documents should carry the same teaching authority as an Encyclical. All of these documents support the sanctity of human life from the moment of conception.

      I find it odd that you do not deny that human life exists at conception, but because the human life that exists at conception could undergo an atypical cell division and becomes two genetically identical individuals instead of a single person, you would deny this life intrinsic dignity and protection.

      At this point, perhaps it would be good to contemplate the phrase sentire cum ecclesiae.

    • Elijah fan

      D Hunnell,
      Your source on bulls versus encyclicals is contradicted by the Catholic Encyclopedia at New Advent on “bulls”. The term “bull” encompasses encyclical, decretal, constitutions etc. here:

      ” In official language papal documents have at all times been called by various names, more or less descriptive of their character. For example, there are “constitutions,” i.e., decisions addressed to all the faithful and determining some matter of faith or discipline; “encyclicals,” which are letters sent to all the bishops of Christendom, or at least to all those in one particular country, and intended to guide them in their relations with their flocks; “decrees,” pronouncements on points affecting the general welfare of the Church; “decretals” (epistolae decretales), which are papal replies to some particular difficulty submitted to the Holy See, but having the force of precedents to rule on all analogous cases. “Rescript,” again, is a form applicable to almost any form of Apostolic letter which has been elicited by some previous appeal, while the nature of a “privilege” speaks for itself. But all these, down to the fifteenth century, seem to have been expedited by the papal chancery in the shape of bulls authenticated with leaden seals, and it is common enough to apply the term bull even to those very early papal letters of which we know little more than the substance, independently of the forms under which they were issued.”

      Your source on usury is David Palm, a convert who is going to repeat what every convert internet writer says on usury. Their goal is to harmonize contraditions in order to make the Church look infallible on every topic but the Church does not say she is infallible on every topic. Try a man who actually wrote a tactile book on usury and was published by Harvard Press at one time…Federal Judge John Noonan Jr.

    • Elijah fan

      Part II because disque is not letting me edit above.

      Encyclicals are mainly non infallible but must be obeyed according to Lumen Gentium 25 with “religious submission of mind and will” if they are very insistent. But they are susceptible of struggled prayerful dissent. According to whom?
      According to one of the most conservative moral theolgy tomes written for seminaries by Germain Grisez and a man recently supported by the Vatican in his debate at Theological Studies periodical who edited him too much and Rome stepped in on his side since he was defending the strict line on marriages permanence. His “Way of the Lord Jesus”, vol. 1, page 853-854 will tell you of the right of dissent…exercised by two periti of Vatican II who were never censured by John Paul II afterwards. Get off the net and read physical books by those with 16 years Catholic educations. The net is mostly convert writers who are great at times but not on dogmatics except Jimmy Akin although I fear he too may do the economies evolved bit on usury. Economies did not evolve between 1829 when interest damned you and 1830 when it wasn’t even a venial sin. We accepted what Calvin said in 1545 before any economy changes….moderate interest is ok. The evolving economy theory is what I call cover up apologetics….mostly internet but Leo XIII wrote a bull chastising Catholic authors who were being flatterers toward the Church and he meant the sin of flattery.

    • D Hunnell

      In an attempt to bring this discussion back to the pertinent topic, since because of the possibility the unlikely events of twinning or the formation of a chimeric genetic pattern you reject the position of Donum Vitae, Dignitas Personae, Evangelium Vitae and countless papal homilies, addresses, and speeches that state human life is imbued with intrinsic human dignity and deserving of protection at the moment of conception, when would you draw the line and why?

    • Elijah fan

      D Hunnell,
      Briefly, the rarity of twinning is irrelevant. What it says about the cells being totipotential is the real issue. You could make twinning non rare through science eventually.
      There are not countless papal declarations seen in the context of 266 Popes. Less than 10 have written on sexual issues and one, Sixtus V, was bizarre…wanting execution for contraception but issuing a bull which started 300 years of papal proximate cooperation with the castrati being castrated to sing in the extensive papal territory churches…opera stopped it 78 years before we did ( Leo XIII by bull in 1878). Non Pope saints ruled the issue of sex and thence their thoughts, often rooted in Late Stoicism, entered the decretals and old canon law in the Middle Ages. Love was not mentioned by them at all with rare exception…as neither did the stoics see love as happening during sex. The married Dietrich von Hildebrand did that love connection to sex early in the 20th century and his view enters the papal documents without hat tip.
      I draw the line in private for my family. The Vatican should have an office of top not mediocre Catholic scientists who work on nothing but these issues but with a top scientist salary…easily raised if a Pope would tax each Catholic a dollar a year ( more than a dollar welcomed voluntarily); they would raise over a billion a year which exceeds their total savings in stocks.
      We are not monetizing our numbers and resultantly giving paltry amounts during crises….the Vatican recently giving $40,000 for Iraqi refugees. That would not pay for one meal each on one day. Or it would build two houses for two refugee families. This is my last post because disque here at this site is a nightmare on my ipad as to editing or correcting. It’s like horrible game but I have to answer another thread here too and then I’m done.

    • asmondius

      ‘Human life exists but not ( a ) human life. ‘

      Typical pro-abortion semantic limbo tricks. This one seems to be stillborn.

    • Elijah fan

      I’m against abortion and look at all your posts. Did you ever consider writing haiku.

    • asmondius

      I’m glad – my apology if I misunderstood your thoughts.

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  • Bill S

    The question should not be when life begins or ends. The question should be: under what circumstances is it socially acceptable to take a human life? Social acceptance of abortion and euthanasia should not be based on the beliefs of any religion.

    • D Hunnell

      So you are saying there is no objective standard for the protection of human life and all human life is subject to the whims of the majority at any given time?

    • Bill S

      Yes. There is no objective standard. In the US, the question is when is a person living in this country entitled to the full protection under the Constitution. It has not been judged as being upon conception. I think it is at birth if I’m not mistaken. That’s the law of the land. That is what we all must abide by.

    • D Hunnell

      The law is not consistent. The murder of a pregnant woman can result in two murder charges. However, and perhaps more importantly, legality and morality are two different concepts. Just because something is legal does not make it moral, ethical, and right.

    • Bill S

      So. When is it legal, moral and ethical to take a human life? Once a person is born, it is usually not legal to kill him/her. The ethics and morals depend on who you ask. Religious people look to their religion to determine the morality of an act. Ethics are usually agreed upon by professionals.

    • asmondius

      And , of course, ‘professionals’ and ‘religious people’ are mutually exclusive.

      Right?

    • Bill S

      Professionalism and religious scrupulosity are often mutually exclusive.

    • asmondius

      Judged – by who?

    • Bill S

      Whichever court has jurisdiction. Ultimately the Supreme Court.

    • asmondius

      I was not aware that the Court decided ‘professionalism’ for the country.

    • Bill S

      I never said that. The court rules on legality. Professionalism is agreed upon by the professionals and their associations.

    • asmondius

      Once again, ‘professionals’ and ‘religious people’ are not mutually exclusive. Ethics and morality do not appear out of thin air nor are they arbitrarily created by committee.

    • Bill S

      One thing that professionals should do is not let their religious beliefs impede their ability to do their job. For example, a photographer who refuses to do a gay wedding is not being a true professional.

    • David Peters

      Bill, I don’t normally respond to these arguements but you are way off track here. You know as we all do that laws can change and they do. In many ways they are arbitrary depending who interprets them and when.
      God’s ways do not change. I am so glad for Catholics like the ones on this website because they make darn good sense.
      I will not respond to anything further on this. I know that you tend to disagree with everything so I will not be roped in any further.

    • Bill S

      I respect what you have said and your choice not to discuss it further. There are two separate questions. 1 should abortion be legal. 2 should a woman have an abortion. My answers would be 1 Yes and 2 it depends on the circumstances. There is a laundry list of issues in which I disagree with the Church and I comment on those. So it seems that I am a contrarian because I always seem to be taking the opposing view. I actually think that the Catholic Church is a force for good in the world. There is only a handful of issues on which I vehemently disagree: abortion, contraception, gay marriage, IVF, etc.

  • BillinJax

    This whole issue needs to be viewed from the broad picture
    of what we are and how we came to be. If you are unsure or lack truth of our
    origin and purpose you have little chance of understanding our nature and
    ultimate destiny. This is why we continue to believe any civilized society must
    ask itself these questions.

    Do we ever want to get to the point where all men may
    consider behaving as human gentle men, spouse protectors, family providers and
    not a domesticated form of reproductive animal?

    Do we ever want to see an end to women being treated by men
    as if society had given them a license to use women simply as a depository for
    their male sexual passions?

    Do we ever want all women to someday have enough self pride
    and dignity to understand and admit their bodies were designed to be the very
    sanctuaries of human society and their wombs are and always have been the
    wellsprings of mankind?

    Do we ever want both men and women to understand that within
    this concept and the knowledge they are pro-creators that children are more
    than simply a product of physical activity between lovers?

    Do we ever someday want all children to grow up to realize
    and understand they were begotten out of more than blind passion?

    If and whenever we have answered “yes” to these questions we
    will have begun to know and appreciate the true meaning of human love and life
    and when it begins.

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  • David Peters

    Excellent article Denise! I love the way you pointed out the scientific evidence, and then pointed out how we need to be concerned about human dignity. Thanks!

  • Vernct Thornpakc

    Life does not begin at conception. Sperm and egg cells are clearly alive – they have metabolisms, they are motile (in the case of sperm), they carry DNA. So a foetus is alive, of course, but so are sperm and egg. However, a foetus in its early stages – zygote, blastocyst, etc. – is not conscious by any means. Not more than the individual consciousnesses of sperm and egg.

    • D Hunnell

      Consciousness is not required to be alive. The term responsiveness used in the article does not mean consciousness. It means the ability to detect a change in the environment–either internal or external environment–and respond to this change. This is the standard usage in biology, embryology, anatomy, etc. textbooks. The sperm and ova are living cells but not a total organism. Also, the ova and sperm do not possess the features of differentiation–the different parts do not continue to grow and specialize. However, the zygote is a complete organism with all the genetic information to grow, develop, differentiate, and eventually reproduce in its entirety.