My belief is 'a child is conceived for eternity'
Each person, from the first moment of conception, is destined for a union with God
Scientific advances have clarified with great precision the process as to how a child comes into being, namely when two incomplete cells (sperm and ovum) fuse to become one cell (zygote), which, with its inbuilt dynamism, reduplicates itself. But is the conceptus one of us?
The crucial question is: is it a human being with potential - or a potential human being? The key term is 'potential'. Aristotle (384-322 BC) developed the notion of potency to explain continuity in change. Potency, he distinguished, can be either passive or active.
- 'Passive potential' refers to material that can be used to produce something. For example, wood can be made into a table at the hands of a carpenter.
- 'Active potential' denotes a capacity inherent in the thing itself.
He further distinguished between two types of active potential. A latent ability, such as an artist's talent, which may or may not be activated. And that inbuilt dynamic potential active in every organism to enable it to develop - provided it is placed in the proper environment and is free from outside interference. It is an organism's 'natural active potential'.
Application to scientific findings
Embryology has given technical terms to the different stages of the development of incipient human life (zygote, blastocyst, embryo, and, finally, foetus). It has also established that there is no moment of discontinuity from fertilisation until birth and beyond.
Sperm and ovum have the 'passive potential' to become a human being, provided something extrinsic to them intervenes. They must meet: the sperm penetrates the ovum and starts the process of fusion (synergy). After this, sperm and ovum no longer exist as separate entities but have become one cell that now begins a development powered from within, thanks to its own 'natural active potential'.
"The ever-increasing studies in embryonic development no longer look on the growing, self-differentiating cell as something that only becomes active through external stimulation. On the contrary, what can be observed at the various significant stages of development is rather an activity of its own which of itself stimulates the environment, so that circulatory processes are initiated which lead to reciprocal regulations" (Sepp Schindler, emphasis added). This can already be observed at nidation, when the early embryo implants itself in the wall of the uterus, a process where both child and mother apparently play a role, but which, it seems, is triggered off by the embryo itself!
According to the embryologist Roberts Rugh: "The new individual is established at the time of fertilisation, and embryonic development simply prepares this individual for the vicissitudes of adult life, and the development of future embryos."
To quote Langman's Medical Embryology, "this is the moment, when your sex, eye colour, potential height, and even personality traits were defined". But what is the nature of that inner dynamism? And in the rare case of monozygotic twinning, when two human beings are present, what is it that makes each one unique, even when their DNA is identical, as in identical twins?
Further philosophical considerations
What we have called the 'natural active potential' of all embryos is its principle of life, that life-force or inbuilt energy which activates their development. Ancient philosophers before the time of Christ coined the term 'soul' for this principle of life, be it vegetable, animal or human.
In humans, the soul, as Socrates perceived, is self-transcending and so immortal, since it is capable of perceiving all reality and of acting freely. The soul is present from the first moment of conception: it is its dynamic principle of life. The embodied rational/volitional principle of human life specifically defines our human nature as such, ie, what is common to all human beings. The soul is our capacity to know, to communicate, to act freely and responsibly in harmony with a moral order written into the fabric of our being as humans. We are, as Aristotle, said, 'rational animals', which is to say 'political animals': ie, social beings as expressed above all in the phenomenon of human language.
The term 'person', however, refers to the particularity or uniqueness of each rational soul, namely its 'I'-ness, its unique, substantial identity that is constant through all the vicissitudes of life. It is identified by the name by which we are known - to ourselves and to others. The term 'person' identifies the subject of human actions. It helps define our human dignity. The notion of person is a philosophical by-product of the Christological disputers of the 4th and 5th Centuries.
Human beings in their particularity only exist as persons, as subjects capable of entering into relationship with other selves. Each one's self is by nature, orientated to inter-subjective relationships, from the most superficial levels to the most profound (intimate love or vicious hate). Our individual body is the visible expression of our very self, our personhood, our uniqueness, our inherent dignity. And, consequently, it follows that an attack on one's body is an attack on one's self.
Newborn children need not only the mother's womb but, after birth, they need the paternal or social womb of the family (and the political community) to bring their natural active potential that began in the womb to its completion - but also to enable them in time to activate their latent talents and engage with others in building up communal life.
The moral imperative vis-a-vis the human embryo is clear. As an embodied soul, it is a human being with the active, inbuilt potential to develop, given the necessary conditions of the maternal and social wombs. As a unique person, it has latent talents that can be activated, given the required cultural conditions. It is not a potential human being, but a human being with potential. From the first moment of its existence up to birth and beyond, it ought to be treated as one would treat any other human being: with absolute respect.
That is the basis of all human rights, as recognised by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, thanks to the Eighth Amendment, by the Constitution of Ireland.
Perhaps the most important thing theology offers to the findings of science and philosophy is a sense of wonder. A purely scientific perspective on the human embryo can blind us to the miracle of a child's very existence. Parents know this instinctively. Theology also evokes a sense of wonder at the fact that each child is destined for eternity. Each child is a universe that will never pass away. "Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed. Each of us is loved. Each of us is necessary" (Pope Benedict XVI).
The dynamic principle of life (the soul) that drives the development of the child forward from conception is created directly by God - as even Socrates surmised. God calls each soul into being from nothing. He calls us by name (cf. Is 48:1; Jer 1:5). Each person has his or her own irreplaceable place in God's plan for humanity. Each one has irreplaceable gifts and talents given by God to enrich humanity and build up society. Each one of us is made in the image and likeness of God (cf Gen 1:27).
A child is conceived for eternity. For this reason, the human being is the moral measure of all laws and moral values.
This is precisely what reason (Greek philosophy) discovered and revelation (Jesus Christ) confirmed. As a result, one of the fathers of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, formulated the fundamental moral principle: a human being is an end in himself or herself, and so can never be used a means to an end. To use a human being as a means to an end is to reduce them to the status of things, inanimate objects, raw material to be used or discarded at will - simply by choice. To so act is to dehumanise one's self. In theological terms, it is what is meant by sin.
Each human person, from the first moment of his or her conception is destined for union with God. Because this is so, to injure another person is to act not only against the image and likeness of God in the other but the image of God in oneself. It deadens the soul, breaks one's relationship with God. But that is not the last word.
The Son of God Himself, conceived in the womb of Mary, was born, lived and died for us, so that our sins can be forgiven, and so that we, too, can be reborn as children of God in the womb of the Church in order to achieve our eternal destiny of union with God for all eternity.
D Vincent Twomey SVD is a Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology