Identity and Status of the Human Embryo
The Center for Bioethics of the
Catholic University of the Sacred Heart
June 22, 1989
2. Biological and Scientific Considerations
3. Philosophical Considerations
4. Legal Considerations
5. Psychological Observations
6. Ethical considerations regarding the Human Embryo
1. The Board of Directors of the Catholic
University's Centre for Bioethics has already made its position known on
prenatal diagnosis in a previous document (See "Medicina e Morale" - the
Centre's official journal - 1987/6).
During the study sessions of 1988-1989 the Board of Directors focused on the
subject of the identity, status and the moral and legal protection of the human
embryo following a multidisciplinary approach. This subject, which has already
been authoritatively outlined in the first part of the "Instruction on respect for human life in its origin and on the dignity of
procreation" (Donum Vitae) of February 12, 1987, is still the basis of many debates on bioethics which also
go beyond abortion: reproductive technologies, research on the embryo and fetus,
sampling of their cells or tissues for implantation or transplants into other
subjects, prenatal diagnosis and fetal therapy. All these debates raise the
problem of safeguarding the human embryo and therefore require some explanation
on its identity and status, which is the crucial point. Moreover, the cultural
debate taking place in meetings of experts and the legal debate in the
Parliament in many countries and in international organizations confirm that
this subject, on which decisions are about to be taken both in terms of law and
in terms of human rights, is current and also very urgent.
Apart from any contingent context, the topic in itself, questions man's
self-understanding, his responsibility towards the unborn child and the human
rights to equality and non-discrimination, which are internationally recognized
for all individual human beings.
The members of the Centre's Board of Directors have highlighted here
the biological, philosophical, legal, psychological, ethical and theological
Other contributions could be offered by human and historical sciences, but
these were the most relevant points of view raised during the debate.
The Board of Directors has decided that the result of these reflections
should be summarized in the present document, to offer an opportunity for
dialogue and deeper understanding.
2. Every human being can ask the question: when
did I begin? The "body" is an essential component of the human I. Therefore he
or she begins when his or her body begins. So, the first question to answer is:
when did my body begin? Biology can give a fundamental answer to this question.
In fact, if one looks for this moment retrospectively and from an exclusively
phenomenological point of view - covering the biological path from the moment in
which I ask the question until the appearance of my body in this universe - and
if one keeps in mind the inviolable law, acquired today through science, of the
gradual formation of the organism, one consequently says: my body began at
the moment of the fusion of the gametes, one from the father and one from
the mother whose son or daughter I am.
This observation, which may be elementary, has always been accepted in its
essential truth, even when nothing was known about embryology or about the
mechanisms of the formation of a new human being. One can even state that it is
indeed on this common phenomenological observation that the person who carries
out artificial insemination bases his conviction that he is giving a "son" to
the parents who have asked for it, from the very moment he produces the zygote
that will than be transferred, at 4 or 8 cells, into the uterus where the
process of bodily development will continue.
Objections, apparently founded on some data offered by embryology, have been
raised against this common conviction.
However it seems to us that present knowledge in the fields of embryology and
developmental genetics of mammals in general and man in particular - necessarily
partial and always subject to interpretation and verification - offers proof of
the elementary induction from common observation mentioned above.
The brevity of this document allows us to indicate only two series of data.
From a deep analysis of this data our conviction emerges.
The first series of data comes from the study of the zygote and its
formation. From these data it can be seen that, during the process of
fertilization, as soon as the oocyte and the spermatozoon (two cellular systems
teleologically and differently programmed) interact, a new system, which has two
fundamental characteristics, immediately begins.
a) The new system is not simply the sum of the two sub-systems, but
rather a combined system which begins working as a "new unit",
intrinsically determined to reach its specific final form, following the two
sub-systems' loss of individualization and autonomy and given the necessary
conditions. This where the classical and still used "one-cell embryo"
terminology comes from.
b) The biological center or coordinating structure of this new unit is the
"new genome" with which the one-cell embryo is equipped; that is, the
molecular complexes (visibly recognizable at a cytogenetic level in the
chromosomes) which contain and conserve, like a frozen memory, a clearly defined
design-project, with the essential and permanent "information" for the gradual
and autonomous realization of such a project. It is this "genome" that
identifies the one-cell embryo as biologically "human" and that specifies its
individuality. It is this genome that grants the embryo enormous morphogenetic
potential, which the embryo itself will gradually realize during all of its
development, through a continuous interaction with both its cellular and
extra-cellular environment, from which it receives signals and materials.
The second series of data arises from the examination of the development of
the one-cell embryo, an in-depth examination carried out on laboratory mammals,
which is completely extendable to the human embryo, not only by analogy, but
also because of many facts already known. From what is known today, it clearly
emerges that from the one-cell embryo one arrives at the formation of the
complete organism with successive interconnected steps, which lead to the
determination of cell lines and to the differentiation of tissues, accompanied
by and/or followed by morphogenetic activity. It is important to underline three
biological properties that characterize this developmental process.
i. Coordination. In the whole process, from the formation of the zygote
onwards, there is a succession of molecular and cellular activity. This is
guided by the information contained in the genome which is controlled by signals
which come from interactions which continuously multiply at every level, in the
embryo itself and between it and its environment. The rigorously coordinated
expression of thousands of structural genes which involves and gives the
organism, developing in time and space, its close unity, comes from this guide
and from this control.
ii. Continuity. If the required conditions are met, the "new vital cycle"
which begins at fertilization proceeds, without interruption. The single events,
for example, cellular reproduction, cellular determination, the differentiation
of the tissues and the formation of the organs, obviously appear successive. But
the process of the formation of the organism in itself is continuous. It
is still the same individual who is acquiring this definitive form. If this
process were to be interrupted, at any moment, the individual would "die".
iii. Gradualness. In the formation of a pluricellular organism, the fact
that this organism acquires its final form through the passage of simple forms
to more and more complex forms is intrinsic law. This law of the gradual
acquisition of the final form implies that the embryo permanently maintains its
own identity and individuality from the state of one cell onwards, throughout
the whole process.
These two series of data, examined scientifically, lead to one single
conclusion, which, in the logic of biology, it seems impossible to deny. At the
fusion of the gametes, a "new human cell", equipped with a new information
structure, begins operating like an individual unit tending towards the complete
expression of its genome, which manifests itself in a totality, which constantly
and autonomously organizes itself until it forms a complete human organism. This
"new human cell" is therefore a "new human individual" which initiates "its own
vital cycle" and given the sufficient and necessary internal and external
conditions, gradually develops and achieves its immense potential according to
an intrinsic ontogenetic law and unifying plan.
We therefore do not consider in accordance with correct biological logic
establishing - as is sometimes suggested - the moment of the beginning of the
individual human being at the 15th day from fertilization, that is, when the
"primitive streak" is visible and twin separation can no longer occur, or at the
8th week, when, even though only in miniature, the complete form of the organism
is evident, or even later, when the cerebral cortex is sufficiently formed.
Even respecting the effort made in elaborating these opinions, an effort
directed towards the search for the truth about the beginning of an individual
human being, when they are accurately examined the arguments that these opinions
are based on do not result in proving the assumption or in invalidating the
conclusion we propose.
3. The conclusion inferred from the biological data
available today is that from the moment of fertilization the embryo is an
individual human being, who is beginning this life cycle.
Philosophical reflection can provide a deeper understanding. If one accepts
the biological datum in all its entirety, this philosophical reflection must
highlight the relationship of the above mentioned biological conclusion with the
concept of the individual human being in its totality. At the same time it must
explain the relationship between the period of embryonic life and the expansion
of the fully developed personality.
Such reflection allows one to overcome any dissociation between the
"biological" component and the "socio-psychological" component of the person,
and therefore between the "ontological" and "phenomenological" aspects of the
The first conclusion that rational reflection offers us is that the human
embryo is not pure potentiality but a living and individualized substance.
The human embryo is undoubtedly a being in whom, as in all living substances,
the principle of development and change is within the substance itself. It is
really this internal principle that determines the embryo's development, and not
that of an external being, for example, the mother. Thus the expression which
says the embryo is potentially a man is equivocal and misleading. The embryo is
potentially a child, or adult, or potentially an old man, but it is not
potentially a human being. That is what it already actually is. The ovule, like
the spermatozoon, is "potentially" a human being, but the ovule only remains an
ovule and the spermatozoon only remains a spermatozoon if they do not unite. On
the other hand, the zygote is actually already a human being, developing his own
internal program. This program is already complete, sufficient, individualized
and activates itself obviously only when there are the necessary conditions for
Therefore, before fertilization, the spermatozoon and the ovule only possess
a mere possibility of making up a unified system and entity. The zygote,
however, is an individual with his own life, and with his own identity given to
him by a single unifying substantial principle.
It is obvious that, in order to develop physically and culturally, the embryo
needs the external environment, that is, physical and cultural. But the
environmental stimuli are assimilated by him according to his own law of
development, exactly as with the child or with the adult. The essential,
qualitative leap occurs in the step from two substances between which there
exists just an external relationship (gametes), to the one single substance
(zygote). This passage occurs during fertilization, not before and not after.
Only at fertilization or conception does a man actually begin to exist.
In its development the substantial "unity" of the zygote reveals a
substantial "continuity", because the principle of development and of change is
within the substance itself. Therefore one cannot conceive of different and
successive existences in the same living embryo. This completely conforms with
the phenomenological and embryological data. In every phase of the some
subject's development, it maintains its ontological unity with the previous
phase, with no interruption.
If this is true, from a logical and rational point of view, one must conclude
that, ontologically, there is an identity in the whole of the course of the
development of that unique individual who, once born, is recognized by everyone
as having the quality and the dignity of a human being.
The oneness which exists during all of an individual human being's
development, from fertilization to death, is not simply biological continuity.
It is a unity of the whole being, both the body and the spirit, even if the
expansion and the maturation of the individual, both somatically and
spiritually, takes place progressively. No beginning of this maturation and of
the relationship that exists between the unique subject's body and spirit can be
traced different from that which marks the beginning of a biologically
From a psychological and social point of view, the human being
fulfills himself as a personality along a long path of relationships and
cultural contributions. This fact does not exclude, but rather requires, from an
ontological point of view, that the human being should possess whatever will
allow him to fulfil himself as a personality, from the beginning of embryonic
life. Therefore he must obtain the respect due to a human being.
Consequently, from the point of view of ontological reality, the person's
dignity should be recognized and attributed to each individual human being from
the very moment of fertilization. In this sense, one cannot see how an
individual human being can exist, who is not also a person.
When talking generally about a person, one often thinks of a determinate and
intelligent being: a singularity individualized in a body, within a historical
tradition and, as such, unique and unrepeatable; a subjectivity which in its
individuality is at the same time awareness, capable of taking in the universal
and therefore values, the meanings of what exists; the person, that is, as
self-consciousness, as meaning-oriented freedom, as world insight. In this way
one outlines a vision of man which we could define as complete and mature. One
is led to ask oneself what the relationship is between the zygote and the man
who appears in this personal fullness.
The answer requires an explanation of the notion and concept "end". The end
of a being is the reason why the being exists, begins to exist, structures
itself during its development and matures in its completion. The end is what
explains the existence of a determinate being and it reveals its why and its
meaning. However, this also means that the end is not simply at the end but is
at the beginning of a being's development like a direction giver. One might not
recognize this end in its fullness, but that is not a reason for excluding it
from reality from the beginning. If it were not there from the beginning as a
direction giver there would be no chance of completion and that being would not
be what it is either before or later. The some considerations have to be applied
to this being's ontological value and dignity. These are not just a conclusive
event but rather they endow the reality in question from the moment it begins.
They mark it from the beginning because they actually belong to its essential
The study of these two aspects leads to the conclusion that the beginning of
individual life is the beginning of a man's personal life. That study is both
the reasoning founded on the unity of the human being's development from the
moment of fertilization - a unity based on the substantial unifying principle of
the development itself, which excludes any kind of dualistic anthropology - and
the reflection based on the concept of aim or "telos" of direction of the human
4. If one recognizes the human embryo as an individual
human being, with the quality and dignity that belong to a human person, one
must accordingly recognize the duty to legally protect him.
The first principle to apply to the human embryo is that which refers to
every man's fundamental right to life and to physical and genetical integrity.
That is how the protection, already recognized for children, the sick and the
physically and mentally handicapped, has to be extended to the human embryo.
It is not so much a question of forming a special right, as of adapting the
common right to a particular case. Therefore, as for the man who is born, the
unborn child's right to life and health will first have to be ratified, and also
the legal prohibition of any intervention on the embryo that is not carried out
for the overall well-being of the embryo itself. As the life of the man who is
born, that of the human embryo has to be recognized as inviolable and as not
exploitable for any external purpose or for scientific or medical experimental
research, for the supply of cells or tissues for pharmacological or transplant
reasons, or for the production of other human beings (clones and chimeras).
However implicitly they abstractly recognize human dignity in the embryo, the
laws on abortion have actually abdicated in the duty of assuring it of adequate
A second principle, which will have to inspire a law on our subject, is the
principle of the family. One must recognize and ratify the right to come into
existence within the context of an authentic family bond for the conceived or
for him whom one intends to conceive.
5. The same psychology, in particular social
psychology, provides interesting observations to help understand the meanings
with which the human being is interwoven, from the time he was conceived. In
fact the embryo does not only live a life but he is experienced as a subject,
by lives that exist before him, in an interweaving of relationships culturally
marked by values and subjective meanings.
One can thus learn that, before the human embryo is born and thinks and
speaks, he is already thought of and "spoken about", like a significant subject
who belongs to a social group.
In this perspective it seems obvious that culture itself, one of man's own
characteristics, involves the human being from the moment he is conceived.
6. What is the correct behavior with
regard to the human embryo from an ethical point of view? This is the question
to which ethical science is required to give a critically elaborated and
therefore justified answer. In giving its answer, on the one hand ethical
science accepts the results reached by the other human sciences - beginning from
biology - and on the other hand it considers them according to its scientific
"specificity" and therefore with its own criteria of analysis and evaluation.
According to the needs of human rationality (therefore with no reference to
Revelation, to which "moral theology" refers), the correct behavior with regard
to the human embryo can be considered moral only if and in the measure in
which it conforms to the human embryo's nature or to his identity in the
sense that it respects it and never contradicts it. Since the "nature" or the
embryo's own identity is that of a human being, the behavior with regard to the
human embryo is only moral if and in the measure in which it considers and
treats the human embryo like a human being, like any other human
being. Moreover, since the human embryo is a human being from fertilization,
this is the correct behavior from the very moment of the human embryo's
This conclusion is completely justified by the above-mentioned scientific and
Despite the solidity of such a conclusion, some people believe that the human
embryo is not a human being from the moment of fertilization. Yet it is
particularly important to point out why, in insisting on the above-mentioned
behavior (considering and treating the human embryo like a human being, like any
other human being from the moment of fertilization) ethical science does not
need the absolute certainty that the human embryo is a human being from
the moment of fertilization, a certainty that some people might deny or do
actually deny. The doubt alone about the personal identity of the fruit
of conception, is enough for one to be morally obliged to behave in the
safest way, thus avoiding any danger or risk with regard to the human being.
Morality in fact, requires that one abstains not only from an act which is
definitely bad but also from an act which is probably bad.
In reality, acting in doubt as to whether there is a human being in the fruit
of conception or not means exposing oneself to the risk of killing a human
being, which in itself is a moral disorder.
In the light of this ethical principle one can understand why the Catholic
Church, while it has left aside (and still leaves aside) discussions about
spiritual animation (whether immediate or delayed), has always clearly and
strongly supported the moral obligation, to behave with regard to the human
embryo (and from conception), in the some way as with regard to a human being.
The discussion is on a theoretical level not on a practical level. This is why,
the "Declaration on
Procured Abortion" (1974) of the Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith says: "Moreover, it is not up to biological sciences to
make a definitive judgement on questions which are properly philosophical and
moral, such as the moment when a human person is constituted or the legitimacy
of abortion. From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed
concerning whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is
objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder. 'He too is a man who will be a
man' (Tertullian, Apologeticum, IX,8)" (n.13).
This position is confirmed by the recent Instruction,
Donum Vitae: "The Magisterium has not expressly
committed itself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature, but it constantly
reaffirms the moral condemnation of any kind of procured abortion. This teaching
has not been changed and is unchangeable...Thus the fruit of human generation,
from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the
zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the
human being in this bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be
respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception, and therefore
from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in
the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life"
Here we have a fundamental and general principle, from which, following a
rigorous logic, ethical science obtains a series of special principles. Two of
these need to be studied closely. The first concerns therapeutic
intervention, the second experimental intervention.
With identical conditions in any other human being and paying specific
attention to the embryonic and fetal life situation, the intervention directed
towards curing and healing must be considered licit, and even before that
directed towards the individual survival of the human embryo. This morally licit
behavior is not only conditioned by the intended therapy but also by the
concrete modality of the intervention. On the one hand, the intervention has to
respect the embryo's life and integrity and it must not involve disproportionate
risks for him. On the other hand, the intervention has to have the parents' free
and informed consent, according to the deontological rules in the case of
Moreover, if the intervention is experimental (apart from obviously
therapeutic experimentation), one must distinguish the two cases of the embryo
which is still alive
and the embryo which is dead. Experimentation on the living embryo,
whether it is viable or not, is undoubtedly extremely illicit. By its nature it
constitutes an exploitation of the human embryo as an "object". "To use human
embryos or fetuses as the object or instrument of experimentation constitutes a
crime against their dignity as human beings having a right to the same respect
that is due to the child already born and to every human person" (Donum
Vitae, 1,4). On the other hand, the case of the dead embryo or fetus,
whether due to voluntary abortion or not, is the same as that of any other dead
human being: "In particular, they cannot be subjected to mutilation or to
autopsies if their death has not yet been verified and without the consent of
the parents or of the mother. Furthermore, the moral requirements must be
safeguarded that there be no complicity in deliberate abortion and that the risk
of scandal be avoided. Also, in the case of dead fetuses, as for the corpses of
adult persons, all commercial trafficking must be considered illicit and
should be prohibited" (Ibid.).
Ethical considerations can develop, not only in the light of human reason
(natural ethics), as we have shown above, but also in the light of the
Revelation of God and therefore in the light of faith (moral theology). From
a theological point of view there are some "truths" which, in original
terms, illuminate the double question of the human and personal identity of the
embryo and of correct behavior with respect to it.
The first truth is that of the "lordship" of God the Creator and the Father
over human life, a lordship which consists in the "gift" of life. It is not just
a question of the human life of he who is already born but also of the human
life of he who is still in this mother's womb (cf. Jer 1:4-5; 2 Macc
7:22-23; Job 10:8-12; Ps 22:10-11 and 71:6; the whole of the 139th
The second truth is about the origin by creation of every human being: "At
the origin of every human person there is a creative act of God: no man comes
into existence by chance; he is always that result of the creative love of God"
(John Paul II, Address of 17th September 1983). Hence the inevitable question
that everyone (every "believer") can and should ask himself: when did God
create me? There can only be one rationally valid answer: God created me at the
origin of my being, that is, at the very moment of my conception, since no
moment of my being is possible without it being the result of God's creative
act. In this sense, the Christian tradition, proposed once again by the Second
Vatican Council, presents "procreation", that is, the human procreative act, as
a cooperation with the creative love of God (cf. Gaudium et spes, n.50).
The third truth, which constitutes the summit of Revelation, concerns the
Incarnation of the Word. God's eternal Son possesses human nature, our same
human nature (cf. John 1: 14). The inevitable question arises again: from when
did God's eternal Son possess human nature? And again the only rationally valid
answer is the following: from His origin in time, that is, with and from
conception in the womb of the Virgin Mother of God. The following passage in the
Letter to the Hebrews is particularly interesting for theological reflection:
"And this is what He said, on coming into the world: 'You who wanted no
sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me...' " (Heb 10:5 ff).
June 22nd 1989
Note: The original text of this paper is in Italian.
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Magisterium on Abortion