As we approach the final stages of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, and inevitably find ourselves in conversation with friends who oppose our views, we should prepare ourselves by looking at some of the issues which could be raised.
Several different questions might arise. The first is the claim that the conceptus (the product of conception) consists of no more than a cluster of undifferentiated cells, and so has no basis for special treatment. Another is that it is possible, at least before the formation of the primitive streak (about 14 days), for the conceptus to split into two identical twins, so that one cannot speak of an individual before that point. The third is that to speak of this conceptus as a person, and thus having the rights of a person before it is sufficiently formed to have a nervous system, let alone a brain capable of processing a person’s functions such as intelligence and free will, is plain nonsense.
Unsurprisingly, it is not helpful to respond merely by saying that the Church has held since earliest times that abortion is gravely wrong, and that the Catechism teaches that the human being has the right of a person from the time of conception, and also quote biblical passages to support this. Why should such an authority hold any weight with an unbeliever? It is necessary to answer with a little science and a little philosophy, expressed very simply of course, to show that our belief has a sound basis. And that is what I propose to do here.
The first moment for consideration is when a sperm enters the egg, shutting out its competing brothers. Quite recent research (of which many scientists seem to be unaware) demonstrates that the point of entry is related to the eventual axis of the baby. So we know that a rudimentary unity of organisation is present from the very beginning.
This is followed by a process in which the sperm and the egg, which each carry one of the original two sets of chromosomes, fuse these two sets resulting in daughter cells which carry the chromosomes of both father and mother, so creating unique instructions which form the blueprint for individual development until the day we die.
The conceptus then implants into the womb, using one part to form the placenta, and the other to develop as a human being. (Terms like foetus and embryo are useful for scientific discussion but don’t change the identity of the new individual.)
This human being is dependent on, and interacts with, the environment of the mother just as we continue to interact with different environments throughout our lives. It is in the mother, but not part of her; indeed it is even necessary for substances to be produced in order to control the mother’s immune system to stop the conceptus being rejected as a foreign body. Deliberately ejecting this individual from the only environment in which it can survive is not morally different from refusing it the necessities of life after it is born. However it may be emotionally different – which is why we have to keep clear, rational heads.
We all know that the major characteristics of a person are consciousness of self, intellectual understanding and freedom of will. And it is clear that at the early stages of development these faculties are not present. But they are still not fully present at much later stages. For example, moral responsibility – or the perception that we ought to do the good and avoid the evil – only develops in childhood. The severely mentally disabled may never develop them, and those who have developed them may lose them at some later stage. But we do not deny that a young child or someone who has lost his reason have rights as persons.
Following conception, the child holds these faculties in potential. I mean by this that it is ordered in such a way as to develop these faculties. No outside agent injects them, so they are inherent from the first stage, awaiting the time when gradual biological development gives them the means through which to work. No microscope, however powerful, can detect them because they are essentially spiritual: we only come to know them through their effects. In many hours of debate I have never met anyone who could explain how they could come about through biological evolution or even what form such an explanation could take.
I like to look at this from the other end too. Some 74 years ago I was no more than a conceptus. The cells of my body and brain have replicated over and over again. And yet I am the same person with the same continuing identity. I know that because if someone had snuffed me out at that stage I would have been deprived of a full life (and so would my children and grandchildren). Nor would I be writing this column.
The comparatively rare event of the conceptus splitting into identical twins, at least in the first few days of development, need not delay us long. In the days of Dolly the Sheep we are all familiar with the idea of cloning which can produce two separate individuals with identical DNA. There was one individual before, and two after. End of story.
I promised you a simple explanation, and I hope that I have provided one that could be understood by a child with little adult help. Of course those who are well-read in such matters might want to raise a number of points. But in the end I would claim it comes down to these simple ideas. But I am sure that users of this blog will want to comment, and so fill out some of the points I have not had space to make.