Human beings from conception

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.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Human beings from conception

  1. cordelia says:

    I’m sorry to be one of the first to comment when other people will no doubt have greater scientific knowledge. Thank you for a straightforward statement of the issues which I can use to back up my reasoning and instinct. Over the years I have thought a lot about this. I have friends who have had abortions (I suspect they tell me because they know I will combine a realisation of the emotional seriousness of what has happned combined with I hope, Christian charity). I come back to the same conclusion. Life begins when the sperm hits the egg. It’s the natural order. I see no other way round it.

  2. Iona says:

    In the whole sequence of human development, from sperm/egg onward, there is no single event so dramatic as that of conception. – no event, I mean , which so strongly justifies the view that “before this, there is no human being; after it, there is a human being”. Anyone arguing for abortion at or before a particular stage of development surely needs to be able to demonstrate why the embryo/foetus is not a human being before that stage yet is one after it.

  3. kouin says:

    Corporate detachment

    the idea of ONE

    the idea of one + one equals one.
    Lost in proffessional detatch ment
    from the human condition
    – a priest/nun espousing celibacy
    and chasity for a living for example.
    Social detachment leads to feelings of
    rejection and revenge.
    the oneness of egg /sperm + mum/dad being
    rejected becoming swallowed and packaged and withered.
    Leads with strident authority
    to abortion, contraception et al.
    Give the priest/nun
    a right to marry-again
    one + one equals one.

  4. Trident says:

    Quentin’s account seems to me to be correct. But I think that much of the debate will take place on the question of viability. The issue wiill be about abortion at later stages when no one can deny that the baby is a clear and developing human being. Very worrying is the continuabce of legislation which allows a baby to be aborted right up to term, if it happens to be disabled. This is clear discrimination against disability (which need only be quite minor). I think this could be described as barbarism. In fact the Spartan practice of exposing new borns to the elements so that only the strongest would survive was not only more intelligent but also more excusable.

  5. Blue says:

    Are we aware of the arguments against the position which Quentin defends? I have been checking on the House of Lords Select Committee report on stem cell research. It records that Catholics, Muslims and Hindus teach that personal rights begin at conception. The Church of England favours the idea that the assumption of personhood is gradual. The Jewish view is that personhood only takes on reality at birth. In these two last cases it is argued that though the conceptus does have a special status this is only as ‘potential persons’. Thus the use of pre-14 days potential persons (embryos) may be used to, say, provide opportunities for research which is intended to help those who are undoubtedly persons.
    Those interested may like to look at the relevant part of the report at

  6. phranthie says:

    ‘Following conception the child holds these faculties in potential’, we read later in the article. Couldn’t we also say that from the very beginning the cluster of cells which splits to become identical twins has had the potential of the two individuals? Or could the process be manipulated at that stage to become one or two persons?

    In the matter of the ongoing renewal of all bodily cells — every seven years or so, I believe — with the same person remaining, is it not true that the brain cells don’t renew themselves in this process? Could any reader elucidate on this point.

  7. The cells of the different organs of the body are renewed in cycles of varying length. But the brain is different. The answer here is no and yes. We are born with around a hundred million neurons, making up the cerebral cortex. There is no evidence that these are renewed, and the changes which take place are in the connections they form. But there is evidence that some new neurons appear in the part of the hippocampus at the point where new sensory information is received. The neurons here are susceptible to damage, and so need to be renewed – although they only have short life. And new neurons have been found in the olfactory bulb, which processes smell. It’s possible that this also occurs in other areas, but this is a matter of dispute. All this work is quite recent so no doubt the picture will clarify, or be revised in certain respects. Other areas of no cell renewal are the cells of your eyes’ inner lens and possibly muscle cells of the heart.

    The potential of the development of the faculties of the soul are, so to speak, built in from the beginning. In other words the conceptus is so ordered that, given the natural environment, they will develop. I lean to the view that the potential to form identical twins is of a different kind – more like that it ‘can’ happen rather than that it is so ordered. It’s an interesting question – particularly since if Dolly, and adult, could be cloned so in theory can we.

  8. RBlaber says:

    As Catholics, we have a fundamental theological argument to make in favour of the moment of conception being the moment at which human life begins.
    For us, the Feast of the Annunciation, when we commemorate Our Lady’s ‘yes’ to God’s Word, sent to her through the message of the Archangel Gabriel, is, more importantly, the Feast of Our Lord’s Conception. For the moment Mary uttered the words ‘Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum’, ‘Be it unto me according to thy word’, the Word of God was made flesh within her womb.
    This was the precise moment of the hypostatic union, the incarnation, when the two natures of Christ, divine and human, were united in His one person. The Second Person of the Trinity had a human soul, and a human body – even though that ‘body’ only consisted of a single, fertilised ovum!
    What applies to Jesus Christ as regards His humanity, applies also to us. The moment of ‘ensoulment’ takes place at conception. This is a theological, metaphysical fact. You cannot see, hear, touch, taste or smell souls. They cannot be weighed or measured. They are not material things, they do not have physical energy or occupy space – but they do define us as human beings.
    Ultimately, whether you believe this or not is a matter of faith. For the Christian – the genuine Christian, the genuine Catholic, as opposed to the merely nominal one – it is de fide. For the materialist, it is all nonsense. Non-material things, by definition, do not and cannot exist. What then, of such things as numbers, or justice, or love? Do they exist, or do we only imagine them? And what of the things we imagine, our dreams and our thoughts? What is their ontological status?
    As soon as you start to ask questions like these, it quickly becomes apparent how utterly impoverished a philosophy materialism really is.

  9. There is a useful brief interview on the HFE Bill with a moral theologian in the Malta Independent today. Worth a read.

  10. kouin says:

    A grown woman can decide when she wants or doesn’t want a baby.
    A fingernail size foetus may squirm from the death probe and so will a full grown animal in the abatoir.

    A rabbit caught by my dog dies like a warrior. The soul inhabits the dog’s as long as the material flesh .
    Love creates an entity not a soul.

    Human sperm or egg that gets created to an entity will be inhabited by soul.

    Catholic’s have a corporate soul. It excludes. The corporate soul inhabits only living entities.
    The Real allows people to do what they like.

    If you want to talk to the living Christess you’d better be Christ.

  11. Blue says:

    Everyone seems so smugly happy on this question that I am tempted to look at some contrary issues.
    First. If the provision by God of a soul is purely spiritual, how can be really sure when it takes place? The Church was wrong about this before, why not now?
    Second. The various scriptural quotations were quite happily applied when it was thought that the human soul was not present until 40 days after conception. If they were consistent then, they are consistent now, irrespective of exactly when the soul is infused.
    Third. Everyone seems to be agreed that body and soul are integrated into one person. Surely it makes better sense for God to infuse a soul when the new life is sufficiently developed for a soul to be relevant.
    Fourth. A large proportion of conceptions do not implant, and are carried away at the next menstrual period. God can foresee this. That he should infuse a soul before implantation seems extraordinarily wasteful. Will these rise again as glorified mature human beings or as glorified early embryos? I am not being facetious but making a serious point.
    Fifth. If the conceptus really is a human being from the start, even those Catholics who use contraception cannot use the coil because that is an abortifacient. And I understand that many, if not all, versions of the pill quite possibly work by affecting the ability of the womb to receive implantation.
    Answers, please.

  12. Juliana says:

    Blue has made an interesting point about the large number of conceptions that end in early miscarriage. Do they have souls? We will never know, but to say it is wasteful of God to ensoul these embryos is hardly our business! Nor can we discount this, for God’s ways are not our ways….

    Of relevance on this point is the event of the Visitation. As soon as Mary knew she was pregnant, “she hastened to the hill country” to visit her much older cousin, Elizabeth, who was about six months pregnant with John and that “babe in her womb leapt for joy” in the presence of what must have been (in today’s terms) the embryo of Christ.
    He was His own person….even only a few weeks (or even days) after conception. And so are we.

    On a personal note, today I accompanied my daughter to her 12 week scan and saw this miracle with arms, legs, head ,body and a heart pumping away….so obviously a created being, albeit only 6 cms long, and I thought peversely that if all those tempted to have an abortion could have a scan first
    would they continue with their abortion? They might consider adoption instead…

    And Blue,we all know that the coil is an abortifacient and too the pill, which messes with women’s hormones…so no good Catholic should ever consider one or t’other. And I use the adjective “good” to distinguish from the bad Catholic, just as Jesus had to describe Himself as the Good Shepherd to distinguish Himself from the bad shepherds who did not look after their flocks. And what St Bernadette feared more than anything else in this world were bad Catholics.

    So we must be strong and pro-life and not succumb to the philosophies of materialism and utilitarianism that stalk Britain and the world today.

  13. Juliana’s story of the scan of her grandchild is inspiring. No wonder that the pro-abortionists attack the publication of pictures of babies in the womb. It’s odd that they are happy to make appeals to the emotions themselves, but strongly resent their opponents from doing so.
    In the nature of things it is quite hard to study miscarriages that occur at the first period following conception, but those that have been done show a wide variation (from about 30% to 70%). I suppose 50% makes a good round number. However there may be a number of these in which no true embryo has, per accidens, actually been formed – and this is the reason for the miscarriage.
    Taking her point about ‘messing around’ with women’s hormones, I understand that progesterone only methods, taken at the right dosage, do in fact prevent ovulation, and so the question of miscarriage through thinning of the endometrium does not affect the issue. However women react differently, both psychologically and physically, to different formulations – so it’s a tricky path.

  14. claret says:

    The science of all this , so eloquently made, is surely lost before it begins because there is no arguement, moral or scientific, that will ever persuade those who are determined to treat unborn life as a mere commodity, of the inherent sanctity and value of unborn life at any point in its gestation.
    Hence the taking of life up to the very moment of birth.
    (Indeed the pro-abortion views of the most likely next President of the USA extend to partial birth abortion , and he does not seem to even rule out killing beyond birth for the disabled, which after all , is an obvious extension of partial birth abortion.)
    Sadly, in my experience, abortion is not an issue of that much importance, in the general sense, even for many Catholics.
    True there has been strong leadership from Popes and some Bishops but this does not extend to parish priests, or if it does, they are in a minority when it comes to any kind of pulpit denunciation.
    I distribute the Life magazine and the ‘uptake’ is a mere handful of those attending Mass. Many look at you as though you are weird!
    It depresses me greatly to have to admit it but pro-lifers are fighting a losing battle but it is a battle where there can be ‘no surrender .’
    So , dismiss the science as mere semantics, concentrate on the morality.

  15. Horace says:

    On the whole I agree with Blue, in particular with ‘Third.’ – this was, as I understand, St Thomas’s position.
    With regard to ‘Fourth.”
    When I was a medical student around 1950 I had the job of clearing up after a delivery or miscarriage on the district. (The fourth stage of labour!)
    One day I found a tiny egg-shaped object – a sparkling translucent gel encased in a transparent membrane.
    When I drew the attention of my midwife colleague to it she insisted on cutting it open to baptize the tiny primitive streak.
    For some reason I felt this to be almost a desecration.

  16. Iona says:

    As regards Blue’s Point 4 (on 13th October):

    Somewhere, I think, St Terese of Lisieux considers the question of the salvation of pagans. Seeing heaven as God’s garden, she says God may well want some wild flowers in his garden, – these being the pagans she is concerned about.

    Maybe also He wants whole lawns and hillsides of tiny plants; those many infants who are miscarried early in pregnancy.

    (Though, as Juliana says, we can’t know the mind of God. They might turn out to be a forest of enormous trees)

  17. Daisy says:

    I have a rather different story to the sad one from Horace. A friend of mine had a miscarriage at about 2 months. There had been warning symptoms. She was alone in the house (her husband had taken the other children out for a walk). But in great physical and emotional distress she managed to baptise the baby. My friend continues to mourn that baby, and looks forward to meeting it in Heaven.
    I prefer my story to Horace’s story.

  18. Juliana says:

    I loved Iona’s comment following on from St Therese’s idea of wild flowers, that maybe God wants “whole lawns and hillsides” of tiny plants… an idea for what happens, perhaps, to all the miscarried and aborted babies. It has created a beautiful picture in my head!

    But equally,maybe they all realise their full potential in the Heavenly Kingdom. Whatever happens to them, I’m sure that God would not waste them.

  19. tim says:

    On Blue’s fourth point, I’m afraid God is extraordinarily wasteful. He’s produced an enormous volume of space that seems to be almost completely empty, except for us – and He keeps on enlarging it. Many of the things He does are difficult to understand (I confess to feeling very nervous about doctrines that seem to be supported primarily by the proposition that God ‘must have’ acted in a particular way). Has we been present at Creation, many of us might have been tempted to advise Him to think more carefully about allowing men free will – look at all the problems that’s caused! But perhaps He knows better than us.

    What the glorified bodies of the unborn will look like is a fair question, not beyond all conjecture, but not one to which we need (or look likely to get) a definitive answer in this life.

    I haven’t understood the point about the Church’s view on the start of life. The technical facts weren’t known when St Thomas reached his conclusions. It is now clear that there is a specific living human being from the moment of conception. The Church (I say) teaches that human beings consist of a unity of body and soul, until death separates them, a unity which is restored at the Resurrection.

    As to Blue’s fifth point, yes. In any case, regardless of whether it is abortifacient, many Catholics believe (I would say, correctly) that artificial contraception is forbidden them.

  20. Blue says:

    Let me explain my Fourth Devil’s Advocate point to Tim. We have often quoted evidence from Scripture that the conception of Christ was immediate at the Annunciation. RBlaber refers to this in his 12 October post.
    Aquinas believed that the conceptus had first a vegetable soul which was then transformed into an animal soul (by the action of sperm which he thought, following Aristotle, was the active agent, the contribution of the mother being passive), and then, by God’s fiat into a human soul. We have known, since the 19th century that in fact the development of the conceptus is organically continuous. However the Scriptural quotations were not regarded as sufficient to prove Aquinas wrong before this was known. How can they now be used to prove the Church’s modern understanding?

  21. tim says:

    Blue, thank you for your explanation, and apologies for overlooking it until now.

    As I see it, RBlaber’s text doesn’t constitute a complete and unambiguous proof, but an argument in favour of the position we support – probably one of a number of ‘powerful and concurrent reasons’, to use Newman’s phrase. Counterarguments could no doubt be made: for example, that Our Lord was a special case, in this as in several other respects. But now that we know that there is a unique event when sperm joins ovum, and that development from then on is continuous, St Thomas’s scheme is deprived of plausibility. The text could have been used against St Thomas’s view earlier, no doubt, but would have been less convincing than it is now.

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