The Embryo: A Sign of Contradiction
We need only look at the data bank of bioethical and medical writing on the subject to see how this is so. In the years 1970-1974 rather more than five hundred works dealing with the biomedical aspect of the question existed, and there were twenty-seven works of a philosophical-theological character. In the years 1990-1994 there were nearly 4,200 works on the biomedical dimension of the subject and 242 on the philosophical-theological aspect of the debate. The reasons for this are more than evident, and we are not dealing here, as before, with the mere question of abortion, however present, painful and controversial that topic may be.
The subject of abortion has indeed been of major public interest. There was, for example, the special commission of the American Senate which met on 23 April 1981, a commission established by President Reagan and to which Professor Lejeune gave evidence. There have also been a large number of legislative proposals aimed at making abortion lawful in such Latin American coun tries as Peru and Mexico. These proposals have necessarily involved the question of the status of the embryo and the fetus, either directly or indirectly, if only because the life of the fetus and that of the mother have been considered in relation to each other. But at the present day there are two other great questions which have brought bioethics and biolaw to the center of public attention:
a) the question of in vitro procreation which involves the phenomenon of the surplus production of embryos wh ich come to be termed "supernumerary" (a new category of human being) and where a number of abuses take place: freezing, transfers which cause death, experiments, periodic destruction ordered by governments, and the removal of cells;
b) the question of new products, methods and vaccines which are deemed contraceptive, interceptive or anti-pregnancy but which are in reality techniques of abortion because they prevent the implanting or the process of implanting of an ovule which has already been fertiliz ed. Amongst these, reference should be made to the IUD, the day-after pill, the northplant, and vaccines. Evangelium Vitae deals with this whole area at n. 13. It is in relation to these questions, and above all in relation to in vitro procreation, that the highly sophisticated and groundless theories of the pre-embryo (the early embryo of the first fifteen days of life) or the pro-embryo (the embryo of the first eight days of life) have sprung up. The basic biological and philosophical dimensions of these ideas and theories will, I imagine, be examined by those who are to contribute to this round table.
I would like here to draw attention to a quotation from one of the Fathers of the Church, Tertullian: "homo est qui venturus est."
I would like to draw even greater attention to a passage from the instruction Donum Vitae which is in turn quoted by the encyclical Evangelium Vitae: "From the moment when the ovule is fertilized a life begins which is not that of the father or of the mother but of a new human being which develops of its own accord. It can never be human if it is not human from that moment... At the moment of fertilization is begun the adventure of human life, and each of the great capacities of this life needs time to find its balance and to prepare itself to act." (Donum Vitae, I,1; Evangelium Vitae, no. 60).
The proof of this statement is to be found above all else in biological facts:
1. From the moment of fertilization we are in the presence of a new, independent, individualized being which develops in continuous fashion. There is no moment which is less necessary than another (and this is even recognized in the Warnock Report), and each stage is strictly dependent upon the stage which precedes it and which determines it.
2. Objections based upon the fact of gemination, upon the appearance of the primitive streak and of the nervous system bud, and upon the relevance of the implanting as a decisive event for the conti nuation of development, do not bear in the least upon the individuality of the embryo or the continuity of development: in the process of didymous separation the residual part does not lose the individuality of being human and the new part which separates off has its own new individuality; the appearance of the primitive streak and of the nervous system-like the whole process of organogenesis-are the outcome of this active and individualized development.
The two moments of real discontinuity in the lif e of an individual are to be found in the acts of fertilization and of death. Leaving this reality apart, human and philosophical reason must go beyond functionalist or phenomenologist forms of mentality which approach facts in relation to their operative capacities and with reference to the demonstration of such capacities. Human reason-if, that is, it really seeks explanations and gives explanations for facts-cannot but affirm that authentic explanation which is given to us by the recognition of the exis tence of a special and specific energy which informs and animates the whole of the human being; which vitalizes it and individualizes it. This is none other than a self capable of spirituality, a personal self, which bears within itself all that active capacity which fulfills and realizes itself in the person.
R. Colombo, a molecular biologist, observes: "None of the scientific knowledge available to us allows certain support for the objections raised to the rational nature of the human embryo and the human fetus and its individualization."
In order to investigate this subject the Academy for Life has set up a multidisciplinary task force which will study all the aspects of the whole question and then publish a work on the subject.
Most Rev. Elio Sgreccia
Vice President of the Pontifical
Council for Life Council for Life