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When does life begin? Vatican official: Embryos human before implantation

By Cindy Wooden
February 24th, 2006
Catholic News Service (

VATICAN CITY While some scientists, legislators and even some parents see the human embryo as material that can be studied, frozen or destroyed, for the Catholic Church an embryo is human and has "a special relationship with God," said Bishop Elio Sgreccia.

The bishop, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, said that before allowing scientists to study the possibilities for manipulating human embryos, wider society should be asking itself when does life begin and when does life begin to have value.

Bishop Sgreccia and other experts from the academy met the press Feb. 24 to introduce a Feb. 27-28 conference titled, "The Human Embryo Before Implantation: Scientific Update and Bioethical Considerations."

"It is a theme that, at first glance, can seem strictly scientific or biological," the bishop said. "But this theme represents, in our opinion, the key question both for anthropology which asks, 'When does life begin?' and for ethics which asks, 'What value should be given to the embryo in its earliest stages?'"

Only when the basic questions are answered, he said, can one really discuss the ethical implications of creating embryos in a laboratory, performing experiments on them, selecting certain embryos for implantation and freezing or destroying the others.

Bishop Sgreccia said that while the speakers on the conference program share the Catholic Church's point of view, the public was invited to the meeting "because we wanted to put all our cards on the table."

Respect for the human embryo from the moment of conception, he said, is an "ethically sustainable position supported by scientific data and philosophical reasoning."

The academy chose to look specifically at embryos before implantation, which begins to occur about seven days after fertilization and is complete by 14 days after fertilization, because some scientists and ethicists insist that pregnancy does not begin until the embryo is implanted in the uterus.

Dr. Adriano Bompiani, an obstetrician-gynecologist at Rome's Sacred Heart University and former president of the Italian National Bioethics Committee, said that from a rational point of view, it is clear that human life begins when the sperm penetrates the egg and "the progressive differentiation and acquisition of complexity" begins.

Dutch Bishop Willem Eijk of Groningen, a physician and bioethicist, said the progressive movement from fertilization to implantation, the beginning of cerebral activity, the ability to feel pain and finally the ability to survive outside the uterus point to the fact that the embryo is a developing human from the very beginning.

"Modern anthropologies that attribute to the embryo the status of a human person only from the moment when there is self-awareness at the end of the pregnancy or even when there is a manifestation of rational consciousness which occurs long after birth are characterized by a profound dualism not able to explain the human being as a substantial unity" of body and mind or spirit, the bishop said.

Jesuit Father Kevin T. FitzGerald, who holds a doctorate in molecular genetics and is a professor at the Center for Clinical Bioethics at Georgetown University in Washington, spoke about pre-implantation diagnosis of human embryos.

Initially, he said, diagnosis and screening was conducted in connection with in vitro fertilization procedures to help doctors choose the embryos most likely to survive.

Then, he said, it was used to identify embryos with genetic malformations and diseases, but "there are already discussions in several countries regarding the use of PGD (Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis) to pursue 'family balancing,'" the preference of the parents to have a boy or a girl.

Father FitzGerald said the risk is a move "from seeing a child as an unconditionally welcomed gift to seeing him as a conditionally acceptable product."

Copyright (c) 2006 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops

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