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Ted Furton | author
May 01, 2012
Filed under Culture of Life
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Odd things said about embryos

Ted Furton writes that about 50% of children conceived do not implant and thus die . . .

Ted Furton

One of our failures as human beings is the inability to conceive of God in his full greatness. This is not really surprising, given that we have finite minds. But one would hope that we might at least imitate the wisdom of Socrates who said, “All I know is that I know nothing.”

When it comes to theology, we apparently know a lot more than we should. God has arranged the world as it is, but we sometimes put ourselves in the position of telling God how we might improve upon his work. We ought, instead, to appreciate the mysteries that nature poses to our minds.

Complaints against God concerning bioethics cover a wide range of topics, but one of the areas that is regularly troublesome concerns the apparently ruthless way in which nature treats the embryo. It’s well known in scientific circles that an extraordinary number of embryos perish shortly after conception. According to studies, as many as 50% or more of human embryos do not implant in the uterus or otherwise die. This is often perceived as a horrible “blotch” on the face of God, and yet, those are the facts.

Some see this as proof that there cannot be a Divine Being. Others say that, if we Catholics were serious about human life, we would see this loss as one of the greatest tragedies of our time and work tirelessly to prevent it from happening. I’ve heard some say, in so many words, that “until you can explain how God could allow this to happen, I will never be a Christian.”

Apparently God is not living up to our standards. And yet, is it all that surprising that the Supreme Being would show his power in terrible and frightening ways? We like to think of God as a purely benevolent being whom we hope will one day judge us lightly, but that benevolence also has a fearsome side. The world is filled with enormous suffering. Compared against that backdrop, the high loss rate among embryos is but another and rather minor example.

As Catholics, we hold that at death the soul continues to exist in the presence of God. The body, perfected by God’s grace, will eventually rejoin the soul at the final judgment. With confidence in God’s great mercy and love of innocence, we rightly hope that these tiny embryos, who barely have any experience of earthly life at all, will join the ranks of those who stand in eternal chorus praising God.

Although some might find God’s decision to allow this loss of life incomprehensible, to be a person is an inestimable blessing — even if we live for only a moment. In view of our final destination, where is the harm? Let’s suppose that these embryos are minimally aware and so experience some measure of suffering at death. To be brought into being out of nothingness, and to exist as a person, is to be given a supreme gift. Given our eternal destiny, where is death’s sting?

Where life can be saved, it falls to us to try. But the high rate of loss among embryos reminds us that the things of this world, including our own earthly lives, are passing. These embryos, in a sense, have been given a great gift at little cost. It is as if they have been specifically made for heaven.

Still, some say that it’s more reasonable to suppose that what exists at this early stage is a “pre-embryo” or a “potential person.” Such a hypothesis thereby resolves the “moral alarm” that embryo-loss causes because these are simply not “persons.” Others say there cannot be a person from conception because of the possibility of twinning. How could one person become two people? Until the possibility of twinning has passed (somewhere around 14 days post-conception), we shouldn’t talk about an embryo as a person.

This view, however, doesn’t conform to the empirical data. Late-stage twinning (after 12 days) typically results in conjoined twins. Here the bodies of two individuals have not yet managed to fully separate, yet no one doubts that they are two unique persons. If personhood were impossible before the possibility of twinning had passed, how could these be two persons when their bodies have not successfully completed the process?

The more plausible view is to say that there is indeed a person from the moment of conception, but that when twinning occurs, a second soul is infused. The bodily matter, at that point, is shared temporarily between the two persons. One person does not become two people, but one set of bodily materials houses two souls until the separation of twinning is complete. Thus a person does exist from conception, and a second person appears later as a twin.

So it appears … but I wouldn’t want to tell God how to conduct his business.

Edward J. Furton, PH.D., is the director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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