Wednesday, May 20, 2009

When Does Human Life Begin? A Question Not Above Anyone's Paygrade

The proponents of embryonic stem cell research and abortion would have us believe that the question of when human life begins is an unanswerable question. They maintain that any certainty on the subject reveals a bias not based on science. One of President Obama's most infamous statements occurred when Rick Warren asked him when life begins at last years Saddleback Forum. Obama's reply: "That's above my pay grade." Last October, The Westchester Institute For Ethics & The Human Person issued a White Paper entitled "When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective." Its author is Dr. Maureen L. Condic, one of the Institutes Senior Fellows. While some of the science contained in this publication is above some minds such as my own, it is understandable to the average non-scientist. (A glossary of scientific terms is provided.) And its conclusions can be accepted by anyone no matter what values guide their views, provided they are honest seekers of the truth.

Dr. Condic is Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine. She is also Adjunct Professor in that University's Department of Pediatrics. An acquaintance of mine, knowing I was reading this publication, asserted to me that her views stem from the fact that she is employed by a state school in Mormon country. Well, Dr. Condic does not state her religious affiliation. In fact, her conclusions are drawn from scientific data, not a particular religious world view. Her field of study is the development and regeneration of the nervous system, for which she has received awards for her work. She also participates in graduate and medical training. She directs the University's School of Medicine's course in Human Embryology. So no matter what her value system, her expertise that she brings to the question of when human life begins demands unbiased consideration. (Background Information for this paragraph can be viewed at the above link to Dr. Condic's Westchester Institute profile or on p. 13 of the White paper.)

As Dr. Condic explains, Modern Science is in agreement that life occurs after the fertilization of an ovum, or egg, by a sperm cell. Yet fertilization is difficult to arbitrarily define. It varies in closely related species and among many individuals among the same species. Fertilization is part of a continuum; new life is being produced by living cells. However, due to the ethical questions surrounding embryonic stem cell research (and abortion), it is necessary that an arbitrary time be determined as to when human life begins.

Dr. Condic states that the process that determines this arbitrary time be rooted in science and not in religion or ideology. She lists two criteria in determining when a new life has been formed. The first: is the composition of the cell different from the cells that produced it? Second: does the behavioral pattern of the created cell differ significantly from the cells that produced it?

In humans, fertilization of an ovum by a sperm cell immediately produces a human zygote. The zygote immediately initiates a complex sequence of events that establish the molecular conditions for further embryonic development. Once an egg has been fertilized in this process, it ceases to be an egg. So, immediately sperm/egg fusion produces a human zygote, a new cell distinct from both sperm and egg in composition and developmental pathway (pattern of behavior). In fact, immediately after the creation of the zygote, the zygote works to prevent further binding of sperm and egg. The components of the zygote interact to generate a coordinated pattern of development even in a one celled stage.

Some scientists prefer to determine the origin of life later, such as when the process of syngamy begins 20-25 hours after zygote formation. Syngamy occurs when the pronuclei move together and their nuclear membranes break down. The chromosomes align and mitosis (the formation of two new nuclei each possessing the same number of chromosomes as the parent nuclei) begins. Dr. Condic points out that even at this stage, the zygote's composition and function are not changed.

No one disputes that the zygote is produced immediately upon sperm/egg fusion. But is the human zygote just a human cell, or is it a human organism? How does one distinguish between the two? In a human organism, all its different parts interact in the context of a created whole. What does Dr. Condic mean by a created whole? "...for developing humans, the behavior and structure associated with adult stages of life are not fully manifest (embryos neither look like nor act like mature human beings.) However, developing human beings are composed of characteristic human parts and exhibit a human pattern of developmental behavior. The key feature of a human pattern of development is its organization towards the production of a mature human body." (p. 6. Part of this passage was italicized for emphasis, but Blogger will not allow me to italicize unless the surrounding passage is italicized as well.) Human cells are alive but do not act toward the establishment of higher level organization beyond that behavior that cells engage in in isolation. The zygote is not merely a cell, but a cell containing all the properties of a complete but not yet mature human organism. To quote from the white paper, the zygote is " 'an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a living being.' " (p. 7)

Does cloning change the scientific answer to the question of when life begins? Not according to Dr. Condic. In cloning, a new organism is produced from fusion. Cloning reveals that there is just one more way to produce a zygote. And it is the zygote that carries on the production of a living being, not some force external to it.

From a scientific perspective then, we can conclude, as Dr. Condic does, that an embryo is not just a cell, or a collection of cells, but the product of the zygote's power to generate and organize human cells into a human being. And this process begins immediately upon fusion, in a seconds time. This answers in the affirmative the question "Does human life begin at conception?" It is an answer above no one's pay grade.

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