The moment of personhood
Dr. Edward Furton writes that the Catholic Church has always condemned abortion . . .
Has anyone ever told you that the Catholic Church does not teach that the human soul is infused into the body at conception? Would you be shocked to learn that this is pretty much true? The Church holds that a “human being” begins at conception, but you will not find any official Vatican statement asserting that there is a “human person” at conception.
Regardless of whether or not a person is present from conception, the Church has always condemned abortion. The sacredness of human life remains inviolable. But it is easy to see why those who are hostile to Catholic teaching would want to use this “loop hole” to argue that human embryos do not really deserve protection.
Donum Vitae (DV), a 1987 document from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), said that the point at which the soul is infused into the body is not a scientific question but a philosophical one. “No experimental datum can in itself be sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul,” the document notes. But it also says that science confirms that there is a personal presence from the moment of conception. The zygote, or single-celled organism that is formed from the sperm and ovum, is a unique individual, not identifiable with the life of either the mother or father. Donum Vitae then asks: “How could a human individual not be a human person?” (DV I.1)
That rhetorical question strongly implies what the correct answer must be, but that was as far as Donum Vitae was prepared to go. Thus it concludes that:
“The fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence … is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (DV I.1).
To say that the human embryo is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception is not the same thing as saying that the human embryo is a person from the moment of conception. There is, in fact, a very significant difference.
The document issued late last year from the CDF, Dignitas Personae (DP), took a further step toward affirming personhood at conception, though it continues to resist arriving at a definitive conclusion.
DP makes it increasingly difficult to imagine how the Church could affirm that there is any other moment at which the soul is infused.
“In recent decades, medical science has made significant strides in understanding human life in its initial stages” (DP I.4). The document acknowledges that great progress has been made in the field of embryology since Donum Vitae. What is now even more evident than before, according to DP, is that “the embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its proper finality” (DP I.4). At no point during that development do we find any other moment (besides conception) that would qualify as the transitional point at which the soul could be infused. Science shows us that embryological development is a continuous process that admits of no sudden leaps or changes.
These are the scientific facts that would seem to justify a stronger conclusion. Dignitas Personae therefore states: “The reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status. The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person” (DP I.5).
We no longer see here Donum Vitae’s language of “as if,” but instead we see the words “the embryo has.” But DP still has not stated point-blank that “the embryo is a person.” Nonetheless, this is the only conclusion that one could possibly draw, for if it is true that the embryo undergoes no change in nature throughout its development, and if it is true that the embryo, by its very nature, has the dignity of a person, then it must also be true that the embryo is a person — and from the moment of conception.
Dr. Edward J. Furton is director of publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center.