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When Does Human Life Begin?

Feet of a newborn baby

Invariably, in election years, there are Catholic politicians on the ballot who’s public stance on abortion is contrary to Church teaching. To be clear, the Church’s position, from the beginning, has always been that abortion is gravely wrong. Many of these Catholic politicians base their position on the very weak logic that the Church has never made a definitive statement. The argument is that since the Church hasn’t said anything specific, they’re free to form their own conclusions. Unfortunately, the Church has made such a delineation, and rather plainly.

While it’s very easy to cast the first stone, I think that it’s important to remember two things. First, the catechesis that we received as children and young adults has a profound impact on our positions as adults. Many of these politicians, like so many of us, regrettably did not have the benefit of a solid foundation in theology and philosophy. This is why it is so important for the parents of today to pass on the faith and truths to our own children. Second, this issue is about so much more than the legality of abortion. Contraceptives are by their very nature abortifacient, and we know that a large number of Catholics, practicing and non-practicing, use them. Abortion is not an issue that emits of degrees: either you are against all forms and methods of abortion or you are for them. There is no grey area.

Bioethical Consideration
I’d like to consider more deeply this issue of when life begins. As Catholics, we benefit from the best scientific knowledge available as well as nearly two millennium of Church thinking. This treasury of both faith and reason position us to find truth.

The Catholic intellectual tradition insists on a marriage of faith and reason when working through the most challenging and complex of questions in life. Faith gives us a code of morality and informs our conscience. Faith teaches us that we are to respect the dignity that all persons have within them. Science gives us, in this case, biological facts. It gives no guidance on morality or ethics. That is why it’s not duplicitous for science to both explain how life begins and at the same time use that knowledge to give us the tools to end that life. Science is amoral. We need faith and reason to give us truth as neither faith nor reason alone paint the whole picture.

The Human Person is Complete
A human is a complete being. With the sole exception of the reproductive system, every other system within the human body has all of the elements that it needs to complete its biologically stated purpose. The cardiovascular, digestive, endocrine, integumentary, lymphatic, muscular, nervous, renal, and respiratory systems have the code that they need at a molecular level in order to generate and repair cells, tissues, and organs, as well as the instructions to complete their specific task. The reproductive system has all of the code, cells, tissues, and organs required to complete its half of the reproductive system, needing only a complimentary body in order to complete human reproduction.

This biological code is created at the moment of conception, when the egg and sperm unite to form a single totipotent cell with a wholly unique DNA. This blueprint directs the division of cells, the creation of cells, tissues, and organs, and the instructions that will be needed by the body until cardiac death.

The 2 Things A Human Needs to Survive
At all stages of life, the human person needs two things in order to survive and thrive: a suitable environment and nutrition. A deficiency in either of these areas pose a direct threat to life. 

It must be understood that "life is a fluid, continuous process." Human development only ends at the point of cardiac death.

A human being requires a suitable environment. At the beginning stages of life, that suitable environment is the maternal womb. This is where we truly see the genius of the human body. The womb is the perfect incubator for this complete, developing human embryo. The parameters of what constitutes a suitable environment change as the human progresses through life. Nevertheless, without protection from the elements or natural predators, the life of a human person is threatened. 

A human being requires nutrition. A human in-utero gets its nutrition through the umbilical cord. A newborn gets its nutrition through the mother’s breastmilk or formulated nutrition. Gradually, the human digestive system is able to take on solid foods. As a human person reaches the later stages of life they may require nutrition through a feeding tube. At each stage, though the nutritional sources and delivery methods change, the basic requirement remains. 

No Other Moments of Fundamental Change
Dr. Patrick Lee, a noted bioethicist, recently gave testimony to Congress on this question. In his testimony, he made several observations that ring true when considering this question in light of faith and reason. In his argument for the legal protection of life from the moment of conception, he made this statement:

Moreover, at no stage after fertilization does there occur a fundamental change in its direction of growth. None of the changes that occur to this being after the sperm-egg fusion— as long as this being stays alive — qualify as producing a fundamental change in its interiorly directed growth, so as to involve the coming to be of a new organism. Rather, everything that happens after fertilization either assists or retards its interiorly directed self-development.Thus, given its genetic constitution and epigenetic structure, all this organism needs to develop to the mature stage is what human beings at any stage need, namely, a suitable environment, nutrition, and the absence of injury or disease. So it is a whole human organism—a new human individual—at the earliest stage of his or her development.

The human person grows, matures, and develops new sets of requirements, but no other moment, event, or stage drastically changes the direction of growth more so than the change from nonexistance to growth and development as a human being.

A Person’s A Person, No Matter How Small
It’s often said that everything that a person needs in life is learned in kindergarten. The words of Dr. Seuss, though a bit trite in such an intensive intellectual exercise, ring true: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

The single totipotent cell formed at the moment of conception possesses a unique DNA and all of the organizational plans that are found within human beings at all stages of life. Human beings come in all different shapes and sizes, with different disorders, variations, and capacities, but at their essence, they are all human beings, worthy of dignity and respect.

If we truly want to build a great society where all are loved and cared for, we must start from the beginning. We must protect the most vulnerable among us from the intrinsically selfish act of abortion and giving every life the suitable environment and nutrition that it needs in order to thrive.