DIGNITY AND RIGHTS OF THE HUMAN EMBRYO (1) – Nature and dignity of the embryo

The Human Foetus in the Womb by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)


In two columns, I shall reflect on “Dignity and Rights of the Human Embryo.” In this first piece, I try to answer this question:  Who is the human embryo and what is his/her dignity? 


From a biological and anthropological perspective, who is the human embryo? The human being is called a human embryo through his/her initial stages of development – during the first eight weeks. His/her life starts at fertilization, or conception: the fusion of the nucleus of the sperm cell (with 23 chromosomes) and of the ovum cell (also with 23 chromosomes) to form the zygote (one cell with 46 chromosomes) with a unique genetic patrimony, a unique human genome, which is different from the mother’s and the father’s. Thus, as Fr Kevin O’Rourke put it, “the zygote at the time of fertilization is not a potential human being; rather it is a human being with active potential.” In a very real sense, Bishop Jacques Berthelet says, “the embryo is one of us.” The zygote, therefore, is not something but someone. In his/her biological dimension, the human embryo is not just a cluster of cells, but a new living organism of the human species, a human being from his/her stages of development – and onward.

The human embryo is the union of body and soul, or body-soul. The body is the corporeal component while the soul, the spiritual. Does the human embryo – the zygote – have a soul at his/her initial stage? The origin of the soul cannot be positively documented scientifically, neither can it be denied. As Christians we think we can affirm that God directly, immediately creates the spiritual soul of the human embryo at the moment of conception. Although this is not a doctrine of faith, there is today a growing consensus on immediate animation. This is fully consistent with the biological reality of the embryo. 

The human embryo is an individual human being from conception: “Every embryo – and therefore also the human embryo – constantly maintains his proper identity, individuality and uniqueness. He remains the same individual without interruption, throughout the process, which begins with the fusion of the gametes [sperm and egg], even while becoming more complex in his totality.” (A. Serra). The human embryo is an individual with a unique identity, different from all others, and unrepeatable: he or she – like every other human being – has a unique genetic make-up or code, his/her DNA. He or she is a subject with the same identity through his/her life. Some authors, who deny individuality until after impossibility of twinning (division into twins), speak of these living human beings as pre-embryos. Pre-embryo, however, is a term without biological or philosophical foundations: “In the embryo, there is no antecedent or consequent biological phase. What precedes the embryo are the gametes, what follows is the born child” (R. Lucas Lucas). Embryologists Ronan O’ Rahilly and Fabiola Muller say: the term pre-embryo is “scientifically inaccurate and erroneous.” The term “pre-embryo is often used ideologically to favor abortion.


The human embryo is not merely an individual (indivisible), but an individual person, (rational), that is, an individual of a rational nature with intelligence, will and freedom. St. Thomas Aquinas says: “Every individual of rational nature is a person” (Omne individuum rationalis naturae dicitur persona). Following the famous dictum of Tertullian – “A man who will be a man is already a man” -, John Paul II asked: “How could a human individual not be a human person?”

Some philosophers and bioethicists distinguish, with Tristam Engelhardt, between persons and non-persons. Non-persons for them, such as embryos and fetuses, infants, the profoundly mentally retarded and the hopelessly comatose are members of the human species without standing in the moral community: they cannot warrant blame or praise, or are not capable of self-consciousness or rationality. We are convinced that the human embryo – like the infant and the mentally disabled – is a person because he or she possesses a rational nature and not necessarily because he/she is able to carry out certain functions or activities, or able to perform some acts that indicate self-consciousness and self-possession. After all, there is a difference between being a rational being and manifesting rationality. All human beings have rationality (ad esse), but not all manifest it (ad agere). “The status of the person does not come after passing a test” (Eduardo Ortiz). Writes R. Spaemann: “An embryo is the child of his or her parents from the first moment of existence. As a member of the human community he or she is a member of the community of persons, and as a member of the community of persons he or she is person, quite independently of any properties.” Benedict XVI says: “As one created in the image of God, each individual human being has the dignity of a person.” To speak of the human embryo as a non-person is often used to open the door to abortion of the fetus or embryo.

From a theological perspective, how do we describe the human embryo? In Christian perspective, the human embryo is a creature and a child of God. As a human person, the human embryo is the natural image of God by creation (Gen 1:26), and God’s graced image by the redemption of Jesus Christ in the Spirit (Eph 1:10; I Tim 2:4-6). Thus, the human embryo is not only a creature of God but also God’s son or daughter, and – in Christ – a brother/sister of all other children of God. A lovely text from Pope John Paul II: “when they are still in their mothers’ womb – as many passages of the Bible bear witness – they (the unborn) are the personal objects of God’s loving and fatherly providence.” The Psalmist prays: “For it was you who formed my inward parts: you knit me together in my mother’s womb” (Ps 139:13). 


The human embryo then is an embodied spirit, an individual person with an immortal soul, a creature and child of God destined to eternal life. Human dignity refers to the excellence, nobility, goodness, and perfection of the human person. It may be described, with Paul Conner, O. P., as “an objective excellence that indicates superior meaning and value in comparison to all other created things.”

All living beings possessing human nature – including those who cannot exercise their intelligence, freedom – are equal in constitutive dignity. The equal dignity of the human embryo should be reflected therefore in appropriate, non-discriminatory laws. All humans, are equal in dignity, and have to be treated as such, including in particular the defenseless. In faith perspective, the human embryos, the weak, the disable and the poor are to be treated with preferential love.

All human individuals belonging to the human species, all human persons, men and women alike, possess human dignity, which is an absolute value. Pope Benedict XVI says: “God does not differentiate between the newly conceived infant still in his or her mother’s womb and the child or young person, or the adult and the elderly person. God does not distinguish between them because he sees an impression of his own image and likeness.” (See Pope Francis, Amoris Laetitia, 54).

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