Is an Embryo a Child?
Is an embryo a child? The answer to this question ought to be simple. “Yes, my embryo is my child! We were all embryos once.”
Some people hesitate though. “No, not really. An embryo is just a clump of cells. An embryo may not even be a human being.” And—as anyone familiar with the bioethical debates knows—that little hesitation leads to a line of reasoning that affects the very soul of our society. “Is an embryo a human being? Is an embryo human? Is an embryo even alive?”
It goes like this. If an embryo is not a human being, then it is not a person. If it is not a person, then embryonic stem cell research is not the killing of innocent humans. It is like killing bacteria cultures in petri dishes. If an embryo is not a human, then it certainly is not a child, and if the embryo is not a child, then freezing embryos in tanks until parents want to raise them is as justifiable as storing ground turkey in the freezer until it gets into the dinner menu. If the embryo is not a child, then birth control methods that cause the death of embryos do not cause abortions. Why stop there? If the embryo is not a child, then maybe the fetus is not either, and abortion-on-demand is no more serious than a haircut, and the sale of fetal body parts for research is a responsible use of resources.
Although there are active bioethical debates around the world that use all sorts of sophisticated language, this denial of childhood to the youngest among us is at the heart of the arguments. Don’t fall for the sophistry. The academic, medical, and political debates in the international community go awry on this very simple question. Is an embryo a child? They say it is not, which swings open a door to many other questions about when exactly a living human becomes a living person.
The debates are limited to unwanted human children though. Look in any developmental biology textbook, and you’ll see that no scientist questions whether any other embryo is the living offspring of the same species as the parents. Dogs beget dogs. Cats beget cats. And humans, well, they beget humans. When we call them puppies, kittens, and children, we are not referring to different types of beings but only to different ages of the same kind of beings.
The Church teaches that the human person is body and rational soul united. Humans are created in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:27). We have the Trinitarian spiritual powers of intellect and will, though not perfectly, which instill in us the natural reciprocal desires to know and be known, to love and be loved. This desire for communion means we are made to learn, think, and make choices, to seek what is good and abhor what is evil. We also naturally desire to belong to our families and communities—many persons united as one.
If the human person is body and soul, then the moment when body and soul are joined is the beginning of human personhood, the point when a child begins to exist. This question too has been debated for millennia.
In ancient pagan Greece, Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) taught the concept of delayed ensoulment. The conceptus, he thought, grew through the stages; first the vegetative soul, then the sensitive soul, and then the rational soul. This view placed ensoulment around forty days past conception for male fetuses and ninety days for female.
In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas accepted the Aristotelian view of ensoulment. St. Thomas did what a good scholar does. He incorporated as much of the ancient philosophy (especially Aristotle) as he could, only rejecting and clarifying that which contradicted Catholic doctrine. Just as the early Christians did, St. Thomas Christianized existing philosophy.
However, St. Thomas did not have the benefit of modern technology, such as microscopes and ultrasounds. These instruments have helped us understand prenatal human development better than medieval or ancient people did. Fertilization is universally taken in the scientific community as the beginning of a new individual organism for all plants and animals that reproduce by the fusion of gamete cells, except (as I noted above) when it comes to unwanted children. This is where the medical terminology comes in.
Some say that a new individual does not begin to exist until around two weeks after fertilization, at a point called gastrulation, after which the embryo cannot multiply into twins. If the embryo could become twins, the logic goes, it is not an individual. But the ability to twin does not mean that a living embryo did not exist in the first place. It either means that there were two all along or that by some natural (though incompletely understood) process, one became two.
Others put the beginning of human life around eight weeks when brain waves can be measured by an electroencephalograph (EEG). The end of life is marked by the cessation of brain waves, so this argument tries to find a symmetrical beginning of life when brain waves appear. Others move the beginning out to viability, the time when the fetus can survive outside the mother’s womb. Yet others say a child does not exist until birth or even past birth. All these markers amount to saying, “A child is whatever we say it is.” Alas, this is relativism.
The Church, in its wisdom, gives the definitive, objective answer, relying on faith and reason. Biologically, a human life begins with the fusion of the sperm and the egg. Theologically, a human person is body and soul united. Regardless of all speculation about when ensoulment occurs, the simple fact is that the moment of ensoulment is impossible to know scientifically. We cannot identify the atomic-level states that correspond to the endowment of a soul. There is no way to measure ensoulment.
Many people still think the Church’s position is that of St. Thomas’s, but it is not. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person—among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life” (CCC 2270).
Note the careful wording. Nothing is overstated nor understated or left to relativistic guesswork. “From the first moment of his existence,” whatever that may be and even if it is undetectable, “a human being must be recognized,” meaning that we always assume that if there is a living human body then there is a human soul, “as having the rights of a person.” We are instructed to reason as far as possible in the light of faith and acknowledge that the youngest humans among us have “the inviolable right of every innocent being to life.” Period.
In 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an instruction titled Donum Vitae in response to current ethical questions regarding human life. In the opening, then-prefect Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed, “How could a human individual not be a human person?” (1). Indeed, for Catholics there is no ambiguity, no compromise. There is only sound logic and love.
The tiniest of humans are persons, made in the image and likeness of God, and they have the right to life. Embryos may not have arms and legs, or peach-fuzz hair and dimpled cheeks. Like all children, they deserve to be loved unconditionally. If we do not start bioethics, sociology, and politics there, then we are not seeking the truth. So, don’t shy away from proclaiming it. Yes, embryos are our children.