The beginning of a person

You may remember that on my posting of 31 May (The Control of Life) I included “But one theory, albeit controversial, may have strength. In the very early days, it is argued, the conceptus does not yet constitute an individual. At that stage it can still develop into two individuals, who would be identical twins. If so, the moral issues concerning methods of preventing womb implantation would be different.” And we had some discussion to try to understand this further.

Interestingly a new study which is relevant to this question, has just been published. Until now, it was believed that the male and female genes blended at fertilization – producing the whole genome of the conceptus. But now it is understood that this does not appear to be the case: the male and female genes do not blend until after the first cell division – some 24 hours later.

If this discovery is confirmed it is clear that we are not talking about an individual human being until this stage. Here is one secular issue, noted in the study.

“Furthermore, the knowledge from this paper might impact legislation. In some countries, the law states that human life begins — and is thus protected — when the maternal and paternal nuclei fuse after fertilisation. If it turns out that the dual spindle process works the same in humans, this definition is not fully accurate, as the union in one nucleus happens slightly later, after the first cell division”.

There are theological consequences too. The Church argues that we are talking about a human being, with its consequential rights, ab initio (Evangelium Vitae, para 60), nevertheless we may think that our moral duties to a conceptus which is not yet an independent human being vary from those which apply to one who is.

You can find the report at

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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9 Responses to The beginning of a person

  1. John Thomas says:

    A few years ago, I read a book by a Christian embryologist claiming that bearing the Image of God (as in Genesis) was what bestowed personhood/value to a developing embryo, and that, at the stage before that happened (he had a technical scientific term for the stage in question) “it” was not a person, and so valueless, (and abortable). After that stage, the person bore the Image of God, and so was valuable and worthy of (legal) rights. Does anyone else connect the bearing of the Imago Dei with this issue that Quentin has raised? (Actually, I’ve just written a piece about these matters for the end-of-July post on my website, Affirming the Faith.)

    • galerimo says:

      Thank you John Thomas. The wonderful gift of the process of being made in the image of God (Jesus) even preseeds our biology, continues in our social history and then glorifies us when we die.

      We get a starting flag raised for our attention by mother nature.

      The flag raising is when the sperm fuses with the egg.

      It may not yet be possible to clearly define this stage of life in terms such as person, individual or human being.

      Our wonderful scientific age will struggle to accommodate the generosity of God in the collaborative process going on here, even “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you”(as he says to the Prophet Jer.1:5).

      Here in this early stage we find the poor. This most vulnerable of beings is the object of our preferential option. This is clothing the naked. The human love that supports and nourishes this life, at every stage, whether connected biologically or through human kindness is also the story of our redemption.

      This presence of human life in what clinicians refer to as ‘the products of conception’ will develop and be transformed not only within the first 24 hours of being but even after the term of its biological life when, according to Christian faith it will be immortalised in the same way as Jesus and still recognisable as a human being.

      • Quentin says:

        It is of course true that (using human language) God knows which sperm and which ovum will unite even before sexual intercourse. And he will know how the fusing will create an individual and unique genetic outcome. But, if the study I have reported is correct, that will not occur until after the first cell division. Until then we are not talking about an individual human person. In theory at least we can trace our personal genetic ancestry back to the point when this fusion of the parents’ genes has taken place, but not before. We may take the view that we must unconditionally respect the process from the beginning but we must also be aware of the moral difference between a conceptus which has not yet achieved its genetic identity and one which has.

  2. Nektarios says:

    The cosmos along with the earth and galaxies we know about, were created by God by His Word – the Son of God.
    Scripture then goes on to tell us, man was not created in the same way. The triune God made man in His own image. If we can fathom and fully understand that, then we will know as opposed to thinking, guessing or presuming we know anything fully when we speak of man. We will come to see the wonder what a human is being made in the image of God and something of his eternal destiny. That is, a spirit with a human body. So small are our minds, we can only think of the body.

    Those engaged with placing human beings on Mars know the complexities and wonder of conception that takes place.
    Use all the super computers together, they will not have sufficient power to deal with the Billions of communications that are being conveyed simultaneously at conception.
    Ah Divine!

    I am also suspicious of this line of study by geneticists and the political issues that surround it.

    • John Thomas says:

      “I am also suspicious …” – yes, I know what you mean. I think we ALWAYS have to ask what might be the ideological stance, or value system and motivation, of the peope doing any research (it needn’t be scientific – could be History); “There is no knowledge without value” – it has been said. And, of course, what the stance of their paymasters is. I was told, recently, of the vast proportion of climate scientists who supported the truth of global warming. My first thought was: “They’re clever chaps, they know which side THEIR bread is buttered on!”, meaning that their science, and any scientific research, depends on hefty funding. Where do they get it from? Ultimately, from politicians. They’re not going to get anything if the results of their work even hint that the account preferred by the politicians may not be correct …

  3. Iona says:

    This discovery (if indeed it is confirmed in human beings) doesn’t seem to have any practical implications, however. The time lapse between sperm meeting ovum and maternal/paternal chromosomes combining is presumably a few hours at most. Unless the woman had her “emergency contraceptive” pills close at hand, any conceptus would have developed beyond the “not yet a person” point, and the “contraceptive” hormones in the pill would prevent the implantation of an embryo which already had its full complement of DNA.

    • Barrie Machin says:

      Isn’t science a wonderful thing and what advancing science can tell us about a whole host of things?
      Although I appreciate the basis of Quentin piece and the implications I have to confess that my deeper interest and feelings around this topic are centred more on the feelings of the mother and of the child – no matter what happened first second or whenever – following the conjoining of the two composite parts.
      Men can never ever full comprehend the deep feelings that women have built into their DNA surrounding the whole question of children – pregnancy, the birth, IVF, and the whole issue
      of abortion or it’s complex medical and legal outworkings.
      Having had the experience of both still birth and loss of young siblings and witnessed the effect these events had on my close female family members I wish more scientific research and resources could be deployed to further help understand the whole emotional impact of children upon them in all its aspects that women grapple with rather than minute points of scientific discovery surrounding it.

  4. galerimo says:

    Sincere sympathy for your losses Barrie, you and all your family. We do have more ways of acknowledging and supporting such early pregnancy and neo-natal losses today. Still there remains a grief for managing through life.

    I am not persuaded by this reduction thinking which is proper to the scientific method Quentin is espousing. I don’t really think he is either. The conception of human life is so multi dimensional that it cannot be confined to the molecular.

    We often have to come to the defence of the unprotected life when we take the cold clinical standpoint where birthing is concerned. In this case it is the parents whose love making is dishonoured and diminished in my view. Even their risk taking can have the dignity of human agency.

  5. pnyikos says:

    The leading human embryologist Ronan O’Rahilly developed the Carnegie Stages of human embryology, and they are still “the gold standard of human embryology.” Stage 1 in the developing human begins with (1a) “penetrated oocyte,” while “zygote” is only (1c):

    A perfect time for pinpointing (1a) is when the zona pellucida becomes impervious to entry by additional sperm. If anything deserves to be called “the moment of conception,” this is it.

    The Carnegie Stages are now more than half a century old. O’Rahilly was perfectly aware that fusion of the genetic information only takes place after the first cell division has begun. And that full fledged diploid chromosomes are only present after this division is complete.

    The only new features of this study are some technical minutiae of this process, and an undocumented claim:

    the law states that human life begins — and is thus protected —
    when the maternal and paternal nuclei fuse after fertilisation.

    This doesn’t sound like any law that has not been struck down by the US Supreme Court.
    Be that as it may, I am reminded of the words of Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist :

    “If the law supposes that, then the law is a ass, a idiot.”

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