Baby in the WombWhen human life begins, whether human life constitutes a human being, and whether human beings have an inherent dignity and worth are the foundational questions of Catholic Social teaching. They compel Catholics to defend each other from unjust aggression, provide for each other in times of need and speak out for each other when fundamental rights are threatened. These questions also form the basis for the discussion of the merits of abortion, embryonic stem cell research, in-vitro fertilization, and the use of abortifacient drugs such as the “Plan-B Pill”. In this series, we will investigate the answers to each of these three questions, starting with the first and most basic question, “When does human life begin?”

When Does Human Life Begin? (The Catholic View)

God created man in His image and likeness. In Genesis 1:26-27, this is revealed to us:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Given the fact that God created us in His image and likeness, we can then use the gift of reason to infer the point at which human life begins. Reason is one attribute of God’s likeness in which we are created, though to an imperfect degree. God has perfect truth and logic. Our grasp of these two things are limited, though sufficient for our needs.

Now in understanding the ways in which we resemble God, we can only rely on what God has revealed to us, the use of our senses and the application of our intellect and reasoning. Knowing that God would not reveal something to us without providing value in the revealed truth, we can deduce that the revelation given in Genesis 1:26-27 is intended for our understanding of our own nature and attributes.

Therefore, we must decide at what point a person assumes the “image and likeness” of God. We know some of the attributes that constitute the “image and likeness”. These include a will and an intellect. Now the will and the intellect can be compromised such as when we are asleep or through disability. These attributes cannot be used reliably as a means of defining a human. The ultimate attribute of God is Being itself, which is the name God conveys to Moses in Exodus 3:14:

God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." And he said, "Say this to the people of Israel, 'I AM has sent me to you.'"

If therefore, God is defined by his existence, then humans are best defined by their very existence, and not by a physical attribute or capability. From a Catholic perspective, we know that our existence is evident before we are born, since we read in the Bible,

For thou didst form my inward parts, thou didst knit me together in my mother's womb. - Psalm 139:13

"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations." Jeremiah 1:5

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace Galatians 1:15

Listen to me, O coastlands, and hearken, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. 2 He made my mouth like a sharp sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me away. 3 And he said to me, "You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified." 4 But I said, "I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the LORD, and my recompense with my God." 5 And now the LORD says, who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him, and that Israel might be gathered to him, for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength – Isaiah 49:1-5

for he will be great before the Lord, and he shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. - Luke 1:15

And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. – Luke 1:41-44

When Does Human Life Begin? (The Scientific View)

It is clear to everyone that a fetus is human tissue. It is living as we know that it meets the 5 criteria for living things:

1. Living things are highly organized.
2. All living things have an ability to acquire materials and energy.
3. All living things have an ability to respond to their environment.
4. All living things have an ability to reproduce.
5. All living things have an ability to adapt.

The question then turns to the point at which this living tissue is organized and differentiated. The answer is clearly at fertilization, the point at which the egg and sperm join. This is the point at which the genetic makeup is determined. It has a unique genetic identity, which it will carry for the rest of its life. The DNA this child has is distinct from the mother’s. The fetus is not simply a growth or a “blob of tissue” in the mother’s body any more than the mother herself is a “blob of tissue”.

In Summary

Human life begins at conception. This is evident from both a Biblical and scientific point of view. Any attempt at minimizing this point by referring to the child in the womb as a “blob of tissue” is intellectually dishonest. Calling something by a different name does not change what it is. In the next articles in this series, we will examine whether every human life constitutes a “human being”, and whether each human being has inherent dignity and worth. These questions will help us understand the validity of abortion as well as many other encroachments on human life such as euthanasia.

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