The Facts of When Human Life Begins

Interview With Maureen Condic of the Westchester Institute

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By Karna Swanson

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, NOV. 7, 2008 (Zenit.org).- The conclusion of scientist Maureen Condic that human life begins at a defined moment of conception isn't an opinion based on a belief, but rather a "reflection of the way the world is."

Condic, a senior fellow of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, published her conclusions in a white paper titled "When Does Human Life Begin?" In the report she addresses the topic using current scientific data in human embryology.

An associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, Condic received her doctorate in neurobiology from the University of California, Berkely. Her teaching focuses primarily on embryonic development, and she directs the University of Utah School of Medicine's course in human embryology.

In the interview with ZENIT, Condic explains why the question of when human life begins is important to address, and what scientific criteria she used to define a "moment of conception."

Q: This is the first white paper for the Westchester Institute. Why this topic? Why now?

Condic: This is an important question, with significant biological, ethical and philosophical dimensions. As I note in the paper, resolving when human life begins has important implications for a number of controversial political topics, including abortion and human embryonic stem cell research.

As a scientist and as director of a medical school course in human embryology, I have been considering the general question of when human life begins for quite a few years. The argument put forward in the white paper has grown out of discussions with philosophers, scientists and ethicists, as well as out of my own research in this area.

Yet this topic has come to the fore in the lead-up to the presidential election. While the topic of when life begins has generally been avoided by politicians and government officials, recently a number of prominent figures have offered their interpretations, making this a timely subject to consider with scientific rigor and neutrality.

Q: You define the moment of conception as the second it takes for the sperm and egg to fuse and form a zygote. What were the scientific principles you used to arrive at this conclusion?

Condic: The central question of "when does human life begin" can be stated in a somewhat different way: When do sperm and egg cease to be, and what kind of thing takes their place once they cease to be?

To address this question scientifically, we need to rely on sound scientific argument and on the factual evidence. Scientists make distinctions between different cell types (for example, sperm, egg and the cell they produce at fertilization) based on two simple criteria: Cells are known to be different because they are made of different components and because they behave in distinct ways.

These two criteria are used throughout the scientific enterprise to distinguish one cell type from another, and they are the basis of all scientific (as opposed to arbitrary, faith-based or political) distinctions. I have applied these two criteria to the scientific data concerning fertilization, and they are the basis for the conclusion that a new human organism comes into existence at the moment of sperm-egg fusion.

Q: Many in the scientific world would say that fertilization doesn't happen in a moment, but rather that it is a process that comes to an end at the end of the first cell cycle, which is 24 hours later. Why is it important to define a "moment of conception," as opposed to a "process of fertilization"?

Condic: It is not important to somehow define a "moment" or a "process" of fertilization in the abstract. It is important to base conclusions and judgments about human embryos on sound scientific reasoning and on the best available scientific evidence.

Had this analysis led to a different conclusion -- for example, that fertilization is a "process" -- I would have accepted this conclusion as scientifically valid. However, a scientific analysis of the best available data does not support the conclusion that fertilization is a "process"; it supports the conclusion that fertilization is an event that takes less than a second to complete.

The events of the first 24 hours following sperm-egg fusion are clearly unique, but they are also clearly acts of a human organism, not acts of a mere human cell.

Q: Do opinion, belief and politics have a place in defining the beginning of a new life? How is it that the topic has become an issue of debate?

Condic: The topic of when human life begins is an issue of debate because it has strong implications for public policy on matters that concern many people; abortion, in-vitro fertilization and human embryo research. How "opinion, belief and politics" have assumed such a large role in deciding when life begins is a question for a sociologist or a psychologist, not a biologist!

It is important to appreciate that the scientific facts are themselves entirely neutral; they are simply a reflection of the way the world is, as opposed to how we may wish or imagine it to be.

That is not to say that the scientific facts lend equal support to any and all views of when human life begins. While people are free to formulate their opinion on when human life begins in any manner they choose (including belief and politics), not all opinions are equally consistent with factual reality. Those who choose to ignore the facts cannot expect their opinions to garner as much respect or to be given as much credibility as those who base their opinions in sound scientific observation and analysis.

The opinions of members of the flat-Earth society should not carry as much weight as those of astrophysicists in formulating national aerospace policy. The opinions of those who reject the scientific evidence concerning when life begins should not be the basis of public policy on embryo-related topics, either.

Q: Who needs to read this paper and why?

Condic: I think every person who is concerned about the important "life-issues" of health care, abortion, assisted reproduction and stem-cell research should read this article, because understanding when life begins is the basis of a sound political, ethical and moral debate on these complex and difficult topics. Certainly, all those charged with the formation of public policy on these matters should read this argument and think seriously about its implications. If we cannot know what a human embryo is and when it comes into existence, we cannot make sound judgments regarding any of the issues surrounding the human embryo.

Q: What reactions have you received to the conclusions of your paper? What do you hope will result from its publication?

Condic: Thus far, reactions have been thoughtful and considered. I hope this will continue and that a clear understanding of the relevant scientific evidence will help ground future public policy debates over embryo-related issues in sound scientific fact -- rather than in mere "opinion, belief and politics."

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On the Net:

"When Does Human Life Begin?": http://www.westchesterinstitute.net/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=351:white-paper&catid=64:white-papers&Itemid=113