When fertilization occurs, there is life - Catholic Courier

When fertilization occurs, there is life

Recent news reports along with conversations with friends have encouraged me to reflect on the reasons underlying my pro-life convictions. I’d like to summarize them here.

A short sentence in a Nov. 24, 2008, Associated Press report on issues in the then-upcoming policy debate over whether or not the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research should be lifted, accurately portrays the argument against the use of embryonic stem cells as saying "that life begins at conception — that once fertilization occurred in the lab, so did a human being." Hence no embryo should be destroyed in order to facilitate stem-cell research.

I subscribe to that argument, and I admire the verbal precision.

The reference, of course, is to in-vitro fertilization. But whether in the womb or in the lab, when fertilization occurs, there is life. This is undeniable. A being exists that did not exist before.

Because it is human life — on its way to becoming fully human — it is, the argument goes, a human being. To assert that it is not human because it is not yet fully human is to deny the reality that a continuum of existence has begun.

This is not to say that the embryo is a human person; it may well be, but that is not the claim. The claim is simply that a being exists that is on its way to becoming fully human.

To terminate, for purposes of research, what would otherwise be an inevitable biological development to full human personhood is morally wrong.

That conclusion can be drawn from human reason without the guidance of divine revelation or the rulings of organized religion. Reason sees in the fertilized egg an incipient human person and concludes that this is a life worthy of respect and protection.

Those who disagree and see no human life in this living being at the moment of conception are, in my view, not to be dismissed as having no respect at all for human life and dignity. They are, however, to be confronted on the issues of:

(1) When human life begins.

(2) Why any human life should not be regarded as a human being (if something exists, how can it not be?).

(3) Why a developing human being has no claim on the possession of actual or potential personhood.

To engage in a verbally imprecise policy debate about embryonic- vs. adult stem-cell research would be to walk mindlessly past the possibility of widespread violation of human life, rights and dignity. I would compare this to firing a rifle shot through a closed door when there is a possibility that a person is there on the other side.

Americans, as a nation, are not very good at engaging in verbally precise, reasoned argument on the life issues. The chances of that happening will improve, I think, if we show more respect for one another and permit ourselves to engage in respectful moral argument.

New forums may have to be found to facilitate this exchange. Whether the forum is a two-way conversation, a legislative debate, a group discussion or a university seminar, the human hearts and human minds that shape the arguments and debate them will, I would hope, recognize that they share one thing in common: They all possess a human life that began at the moment of conception.


Jesuit Father Byron is a columnist for Catholic News Service.

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