A.C. Rouco on the Status of the Embryo and IVF

"How Could a Human Individual Not Be a Human Person?"

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VATICAN CITY, MARCH 17, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Assaults against the human embryo are linked to faulty notions in the realm of philosophy as well as medicine.



Here, ZENIT publishes an adapted text of an address by Alfonso Carrasco Rouco, dean of the School of Theology of San Dámaso in Madrid, Spain.

He delivered it during a theological videoconference on bioethics. The Feb. 28 videoconference was organized by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy.

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"The Status of the Embryo and IVF"
By Alfonso Carrasco Rouco

Among the characteristic traits of our culture one must count the rapid progress of the technological capability to intervene at the origins of human life, a capability that has been accepted and even protected by the law in our societies.

This fact has placed at the center of attention the issue of the embryo's own status and the fundamental question of when a human being begins existing. In the current debate, however, there appears to be a lack of clarity regards to this subject.

An answer is possible, if one accepts to honestly acknowledge the increasingly abundant amount of data about experimental science and one immediately interprets it correctly within the framework of human science.

This interdisciplinary effort is necessary; biological science in fact is capable of determining at what moment a specific human being starts its life cycle, but does not include the person among the formal objects of investigation, hence the importance of the new human being's dignity and rights require the exercising of philosophical, ethical reasoning, etc.

In any case, the issue concerning the status of the embryo cannot avoid assuming first of all the fundamental biological data that is present, however in an extremely summarized form.

There exists a biological use of the words: "life" (also applicable to the cell, the organism, the population and the species); "organism" (multi-cellular living beings with forms of individual life); "life cycle" (the real form of the existence of an organism in the morphological and functional variations that programmatically belong to it). There is also a precise meaning in biology for "individual human organism."

Science teaches us that, after the fusion of the gametes, a new human cell starts to operate as a unit, the zygote, provided with a new and exclusive structure of information that creates the basis for its further development. Studying this cell, it is clear that this embryo, in its initial stage, is not "only a mass of cells," but a real individual, in which the cells are closely integrated in a process guided by the genome, in which a certain organism develops.

The zygote therefore is a new organism at the beginning of its life cycle, in which the human individual evolves autonomously according to an increasingly complex rigorously defined plan. The final shape is achieved gradually, according to an intrinsic regulation, written in the genome that guides the development of the embryo.

Biologically speaking, starting with the fusion of the gametes the embryo is a real human being, not simply a "potential" one: It is in the zygote that the biological identity of a new human being is written.

Most of the objections made against this statement have no consistency from a scientific point of view, and therefore do not deserve a detailed discussion on this occasion.

One could instead say that one objection derives from the existence of homozygotic twins, which according to some proves that one zygote can turn into two human beings, and that consequently there might be a period of development of the zygote that might be preliminary to the existence of the human being. Biological data does not appear to confirm this thesis.

Observations do show instead that, in this case, which is also quite rare, there is first one human being from which another immediately originates, and not an undefined system that soon forms two defined systems.

The experimental manipulation of embryos has on the other hand shown that embryonic cells, over a period of time, are provided with multiple-power or "total-power": meaning that, they can differentiate in different ways in various environments and even become complete individuals.

This possibility of these cells, which exists only when they are artificially separated from the developing embryo, would deny the individuality of the initial embryo, which would rather be an aggregate of, to say the least, potential individuals.

Now, the total-power present in the zygote does not mean indefiniteness. This is an individual who is creating himself according to a precise self-regulating mechanism. The embryo's cells are provided with necessary potential for this process, as the precise parts of an individual organism that will develop, if this is not prevented by external intervention. In this manner, therefore, the totally-powerful cells are part of an organism the individuality of which they do not destroy.

It is mainly the philosophers and the theologians who object that no embryo can be considered a human being until the central nervous system is sufficiently developed (sixth to eighth week of pregnancy).

One must remember, however, the particularity of the embryonic status, meaning an organic process involving the gradual organization of the body, in which unity and individuality are organized by the laws written in the genome. For biologists, this explanation is not an objection. Whether the embryo, during the various stages of its corporal development, is suitable material for receiving the "soul," whether it can be considered a "person," is not an issue that can influence the conclusions reached by experimental science, nor can it be solved by it.

From a biological point of view, one can recognize the various stages of development. It is only a quantitative observation that evaluates the degree of complexity achieved at a given moment; for example, when the so-called embryonic disk is formed.

In all events, from a scientific point of view it is undoubtedly the conclusion according to which, from the moment of conception, a new unitary human organism develops according to a coordinated, continuous and gradual modality; that it is always the same identical individual, led through an increasingly complicated process by an intrinsic law written in its very own genome.

In a few words, with the fusion of the two gametes, a new human cell, characterized by a new and exclusive informative structure, starts to behave as an individual unit.

In the famous Warnock Commission's final report one reads: "Because the timing of the various stages of development appear to be critical, once the development process has begun there is no particular time at which one stage is more important than the other; they all form a part of a continuous process, and if each of these stages does not occur normally at the right time and following a precise sequence, further development ceases. For this reason, from a biological point of view, one cannot identify one single stage in the development of the embryo, beyond which the in vitro embryo should not be kept alive."

However, that same commission introduced the word "pre-embryonic" for reasons that were openly neither scientific nor biological, but socially induced, so as to facilitate the acceptance of the embryos' manipulation by society's ethically sensitive side.

This shows us clearly how biology is intrinsically open to surpassing mere experimental analysis, to achieve more concise perceptions, to categories and concepts that are in continuity with philosophical meditations. These, on the other hand, must develop respecting the data of the living reality they intend to refer to, without manipulating this data with passions or interest extraneous to the authentic dynamics of reason.

Modern sciences, biology, also provide important information for determining the status of the human embryo: the affirmation of the individuality of the biological organism, present after conception. This corresponds to the philosophical affirmation concerning the existence of a unitary subject of the corporeal organism, identical and the same during the entire course of his life cycle, amid the biological changes.

This subject is inevitably of a human nature, it is a human being. Once again this makes manifest an important philosophical truth: It is impossible to separate the biological dimension from the human one, or from the corporeity.

Mankind's corporeity is not an appendix added to the human essence, but rather an expression of the human being, one and indivisible; hence the existence of mankind is corporeal from the very beginning, it has a corporeal beginning. The initial absence of complete external shapes in the embryo does not question the authentically human characteristics of the becoming corporeal organism. The body too is therefore human and cannot be reduced to a mere object or simply a thing.

From the philosophical point of view it is in particular emphasized that the human being is not reduced to its biological dimension, to the material dimension or to its belonging to the animal species, because it consists in the substantial union of the corporeal dimension and the spiritual one, and because, in a unique and unrepeatable manner, open and in relation with all the Creation, with the Absolute.

Of course, the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be deduced from the observation of any experimental data. In spite of this the very conclusions reached by science in regards to the human embryo offer precious indications for being able to rationally acknowledge a personal presence in that very beginning of human life: How could a human individual not be a human person?

The presence of the embryo of a human person cannot be observed using the methods followed by experimental science and does not therefore constitute a strictly biological affirmation. It does, however, have important consequences since it may prove insufficient to speak only of the unborn child's "human nature," which might then be considered only as one more specimen of the human species, which could be subordinated to the general good of the species -- for example, through scientific experimentation.

The concept of person instead affirms first of all the individual subject (the existence) of a rational nature; in fact it is not human nature as such that is born, but always a human being, a single human subject.

But it is in this very way that the human being expresses the incommunicable uniqueness, the unrepeatability of the human individual; this means the expression of the singular and eminent dignity, since each person is unique and unrepeatable.

The person has a dignity and a value per se, not only depending on mankind in general or on some accidental quality; therefore the human being can never be used as a means, but is an end to itself, with its own dignity.

This also applies to the embryo, and first of all one must remember that it is a human individual, and therefore cannot not be a human person.

If the signs of a personal presence are weak and hidden, it is all the more necessary that this embryo should be provided with the credit that all human beings need so that it may manifest what it is, as is easy to understand when dealing with children: "The typical way in which a boy grows into a man implies that he must be considered from the very beginning as a human being and not as a thing. Should the educator treat him as a thing until the first signs of rationality appear, these first signs would never appear. Mankind has the right to make use in advance of the credit of humanity."

Summarizing, the truth on the status of the human embryo is accessible to mankind's intelligence if he is not closed to the truth, uniting the biological perspective to the philosophical meditation: It is an individual being belonging to the species called homo sapiens, in one word, it is a human individual and therefore a human person. This status belongs to the embryo from the very first moment, hence after fecundation. Therefore in every moment one must acknowledge the embryo's dignity and value as an individual human being.

Theology makes the unique personal dignity of the human embryo definitely manifest, acknowledging that its origin and its full destiny are in God, that it is loved in its creation and even more in its redemption through Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man.

This is implied in the traditional affirmation of the immediate creation of the human soul by God. Hence one understands it starting from its unique and personal relationship with the Creator, and in a manner that cannot be reduced to the dynamics of matter, from which it cannot come, or to the spiritual strength of its parents, which even they cannot provide.

In addition to the discussion regarding the moment in which the soul enters the body -- if one can imagine the existence of a human body without a union with its soul, at any time during its organic development -- one thereby affirms the absolute irreducibility and dignity of each person, whose origin must be identified in a unique and specific relationship with the eternal God.

Every human conception forms part of God's particular plan, God who eternally loves the child whatever the circumstances of its conception may be, perhaps sinful or violent. Every man, from the very beginning of life, is the object of divine predilection: God contemplates in the child all that it is called upon to be, knowing the child and loving it from when it is in the mother's womb, opening the child to its Destiny, united to that of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

The encounter between the two children, Jesus and John the Baptist, which takes place in the scene of the Virgin Mary's Visit to her cousin, St. Elizabeth, is a splendid testimony of this paternal loving Providence and the personal meaning of the embryo in the mother's womb.

The acknowledgment of the embryo as an individual human being, one in body and in soul, avoiding its reduction to a merely physically reality, a mere biological product, will be the starting point in moral behavior.

This means the axiological status of the human embryo follows the ontological status and is depicted by the same fundamental elements for every living human person; this moral requirement derives for each being from the principle of justice: from the acknowledgment of another person who is the same as myself.

Hence the embryos' physical and moral well-being must be respected and encouraged, as well as their own rights; with reference to the embryo one could also list: the irreducibility, the integrity, care and health, the life habitat, procreation within marriage, and birth.

The debate concerning the moment in which the soul enters the body or the infusion of the spiritual soul, regards to which the teaching of the Church have not spoken, is not decisive for this moral judgment. The unborn child must be respected as an innocent human being.

In fact, if from the moment of conception a human life exists, the presence of the soul cannot be excluded; hence damaging the embryo means assuming responsibility for seriously damaging the dignity and the rights of an innocent human being, an act that is always immoral.

Well, respect for the human embryo begins with the modalities and the conditions in which conception takes place. This aspect of the problem came to light especially through the development of techniques for artificial procreation.

One must first of all remember that these techniques for in vitro fertilization are characterized by a very elevated cost in terms of embryonic lives. There is a high percentage of failure and, effectively, the embryos are exposed to the risk of death over a short period.

These risks have in no way been overcome by progress in scientific research, nor can they be avoided with the current techniques that envisage an enormous loss of embryos (for example, the percentage of success in ETIVF according to the ratio of fertilized eggs/children born alive, is no higher than 5%) and cause seriously problematic situations due to many "surpluses," "numbers in excess," which remain frozen -- which is a clear aggression against their most elementary rights.

The generalization and development of these techniques, in which the number of abortions caused, and other immoral acts concerning married life -- the indispensable masturbations, for example -- is very high and is inducing people to lose sight of their immoral and criminal characteristics.

This has created reasons for a serious ethical crisis of fundamental dimensions for our society, also when there are attempts to hide this by using words such as "pre-embryonic," "clinically assisted procreation," "embryonic reduction," etc.

These techniques for IVF would continue to be morally evil even if the problem of the excessive number of embryos was eliminated as well as the serious risks they run; in fact, "they separate procreation from the totally human context of the conjugal act" and create "a dissociation between the gestures destined to human fecundation and the conjugal act," and do not correspond to the full truth of conjugal life and the generation of a child.

Nuptial communion between a man and a woman is the only place that is suitable for the life of a new human being. A person born to a new life can be suitably understood only as the result of that uniting and procreational indivisible love, which, on the other hand, is the symbol of God the Creator's eternal love. Only nuptial communion is provided with the personal characteristics that are needed so that a child that is born from the very beginning as a human person and not as an object that anyone can use.

Being generated as the fruit of embryo producing techniques does not correspond to the dignity of the embryo. It then ceases to exist within the context of a gift and of love, remaining within the field of production, of the effects and results of human power attempting to satisfy its own needs.

Effectively, very often a logic of "domination" over the unborn embryo follows the acceptance of these techniques for procreation, attempting to decide in advance over its life and its other qualities.

The fact that its embryonic life is subject to subjective will and the power of techniques does not respect the dignity of a human person. This becomes even more and more obvious the further the techniques introduced distance conception from the environment of nuptial love, introducing third parties, the absence of a father, the prospect of cloning etc. This aggression against married life and the fundamental relationships of fatherhood and motherhood then questions the fundamental good and the rights of the human person.

Procreation at all costs is incompatible with the dignity of the human embryo, whose personal existence establishes clear borders for the expectations of human, scientific and technological power, and clearly manifests the inevitable presence of freedom and therefore of the moral value at the heart of all human actions.

This responsibility, especially clear when facing a weak and undefended human life, is also the signal of human dignity, present from conception due to the particular relationship mankind has with God, who bestowed the gift of life and to whom he wished to give an immeasurable dignity offering for love definite redemption.