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Fetal Life and Abortion:
Human Personhood at Conception
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Section 3: Human Beings Mature; They do not Develop from "Potential Human Beings"

 

HUMAN BEINGS MATURE; THEY DO NOT DEVELOP FROM "POTENTIAL HUMAN BEINGS."

Some people claim that what is conceived by human parents, the "conceptus," is not immediately human, but becomes human after some length of time, variously determined by different people. Some of these speak of the early conceptus as a "potential" human being. They say that the conceptus, prior to some stage of its development, is not a human being, but that it is in the process of becoming one.

The expression "potentially human" is sometimes applied to the pair of gametes before conception, since they are material from which the body of the new organism is formed. However, their potentiality is not sufficient to explain the new individual which results from their fusion. The new individual is qualitatively more than the sum of its material components. It is a "whole" which is organized by its own life-principle, which now vitalizes that matter. The gametes are highly specialized cells, but they are not organisms. The sperm, for example, is quantatively individualized and motile, but it has no inherent tendency to serve itself; it is ordained solely to fusion with the ovum. Its potentiality is actualized in doing "its material part" in the production of the zygote.

The two gametes are the means whereby sexual reproduction accomplishes its unique purpose, that of producing an offspring which is genetically enriched with the inheritable characteristics of two parents instead of one, thereby enriching the species with variety. A gamete, of itself, can never result in a human being, whereas a zygote either is a human being or, for those who speak of it as a "potential" human being, is in the process of becoming a human being. THE QUESTION, THEN, IS WHETHER THE ZYGOTE IS AN END IN ITSELF OR WHETHER IT IS, LIKE THE GAMETES, A MEANS TO SOMETHING ELSE SPECIFICALLY DIFFERENT FROM ITSELF?

If the zygote is only a "potential" human being, then it is not an actual human being. But if it is not actually human, what kind of thing is it? Is the so-called "potential human being" an organism and, if so, of what biological species? Biologists use the word "species" to classify those organisms which, when mature, interbreed in their natural environment. Maturity is not required for membership in a species, since the species status of an organism is determined by heredity in the zygote stage of the organism, the most immature stage of its existence.

DEFINITION: Conception is the uniting of the two reproductive cells, called "gametes," to form the one-cell stage of the conceptus, called "zygote," the first stage of the offspring's existence. It is an instantaneous event, taking place at the moment when the gametes lose their specific identity and when the offspring begins to exist.

DEFINITION: An organism is a living, natural, individual being, whose parts are coordinated among themselves and subordinated to the independent and self serving functions of the whole.

What does "potential" human being mean when applied to the conceptus? Does it deny that the conceptus is an organism, as well as deny that it is human? Those who justify abortion as the killing of something less than a human being, do not use "potential" to signify a mere lack of maturity. Even after birth, a human person is still not physically, psychologically or legally mature. Possibly their position is based on a faulty concept of "human person." By common usage, every human being, even an immature one, is a person. Occasionally someone uses the word "person" to express a degree of maturity, whether of character or of social relationships, but there is no justification for such usage, SINCE THERE ARE NO DEGREES OF BEING A PERSON. "Personality," of course, is another thing and should not be confused with "person."

Those who consider the conceptus to be only a "potential organism" might be assuming that the conceptus in only a blob of cells or a part of its mother. But, as seen in Section 2, even at the zygote stage it is an actual organism in its own right, therefore neither a "potential" organism nor a part of any other organism.

Biologists agree that, even from the zygote stage, the conceptus behaves as an independent, though immature, organism, developing itself from within, needing the mother, now, only by way of environment. They make no distinction among zygotes of any species, turnip or man, when they state that the one-cell stage is already a new organism, the offspring of its two parents, and is of the same species as they are. Philosophers come to the same conclusion by reasoning from the natural purpose of reproduction: to bring into existence new individuals of the same species as the parents. To this the biologists add their observation that the zygote, because it is an essentially independent organism, is already the offspring intended by that natural process of reproduction.

 To the philosopher and biologist, the period of gestation and consequent birth add nothing specific to the offspring, maturity being a difference of degree, not of kind. Modern scientists find no valid reason for applying the term "potential human" to the conceptus, if the expression is used to imply that the conceptus is not a human being. With the help of the geneticist, they find the conceptus, at all stages of its existence, to be the very same organism which the parents conceived and which, after birth, continues to mature until adulthood.

AFTER HAVING CREATED THE "POTENTIAL HUMAN BEING" ROE V. WADE WOULD NOT VENTURE TO TELL US WHEN THEY THOUGHT THE POTENTIALITY BECOMES ACTUALIZED. Those who attribute only "potential humanity" to the conceptus are hard pressed to specify the point in time or stage of development at which the potentiality is finally actualized and the human being begins to exist. A number of such points have been offered: quickening, the local movements of the fetus felt by the mother; viability, the ability of the fetus to live in an extra-uterine environment; the first breathing of air; birth and, for some few, various points of development after birth.

All such landmarks might be suitable criteria for legally establishing the existence of the conceptus, but they have no specifying significance in the biological and philosophical sciences. Whether a human being gets his oxygen indirectly, by diffusion in the placenta, or directly, in the lungs, is of little consequence to the biologist who is accustomed to observing the metamorphosis of the tadpole from its marine environment to the considerably different structures needed for its frog-life on land.

Quickening was sometimes claimed to be evidence for the beginning of human life, in confusion with its use as a legal landmark, despite the fact that identical motions were known to take place in pregnant sheep, horses, etc. In the case of humans, obviously, the human nature of personhood must have been taken for granted and the quickening was used only as evidence for the fact that the human individual, as yet unborn, was "alive and kicking."

Viability is also a non-specifying quality of the conceptus, despite its medical and legal significance. There is no evidence to indicate that the conceptus is not numerically and specifically the same organism, before and after viability. In fact, with modern advances in neo-natal technology, the precise time of viability is highly relative. The "test-tube baby," in the Petrie dish before implantation into a uterus, is obviously living apart from its mother.

To put it simply, there is no demonstrable point after conception, including the implantation of the embryo in the uterine wall, the development of the placenta, or any structural or functional change in the conceptus itself, which warrants the claim that it is the point at which the conceptus becomes a human being. Even the absence of the more evidently human structures, such as facial and digital characteristics in the early conceptus, is not a problem to the biologist who is accustomed to seeing one and the same organism, in one stage of its development, to be a commonplace, crawling caterpillar and, in another stage, a beautiful, flying moth.

Those who use the expression "potential human being" might examine whether they are confusing "potential" with "immature" or are attributing to the zygote the organism-deficient status of the gametes. Similar errors have been seen, for example, in those who identify non-viability of a fetus with the denial of its autonomy as an independent organism.

SOME DIFFICULTIES TO PONDER: There are several highly specialized difficulties which must be indicated in this consideration of human conception.

Historically, Aristotle's theory of successive animation should be mentioned. His reasoning: "Matter should be suitably predisposed before it can become vitalized by any specific principle of life." Detecting in man the threefold characteristics of vegetative, animal and intellective life, Aristotle taught that the human individual develops through three successive stages, the preceding stage preparing the matter for the next higher form of life. In light of modern biology, it need no longer be thought that these stages occupy time intervals after conception, but that the first two, vegetal and animal, are completed in the gametes and that the final stage begins with their complete fusion, at conception.

The theory of identical twins, based on the supposed separation of what is said to be a single conceptus in one of its early cleavages, giving rise to two separate individuals, need not be construed as contradictory to the position that human life begins at conception. There is not yet sufficient knowledge available for any sound application of this phenomenon to human conception. Present information comes predominantly from studies on organisms far less complex than man. It would be interesting to speculate whether, in the case of humans, identical twins are no less fraternal than any other twins, contrary to what is generally supposed. With several million sperms involved, it is not impossible that two ova which are considerably alike genetically might be fertilized by two sperms of almost identical genetic make up.

The more recently proposed converse of identical twinning, the case of two highly immature organisms becoming one, is even more obscure.

It would not be unscientific to hold that the above phenomena, should they be true, are exceptions to the normal process of the human beginning. To fully understand them, the biologist would need the help of the philosopher. In the case of identical twins, the philosopher would hold that a human conceptus, in an early cleavage, could die and its matter remain sufficiently organized in both parts of the cleavage to be revitalized by two other principles of life, each part being more suitably organized as the matter of an individual than the whole had been immediately prior to the moment of cleavage.

On a smaller scale, the natural process of cell division is explained by showing that a certain increase of volume prompts a cell to divide. It must do so to survive, since the cell membrane through which the cell contents are served, no longer has sufficient surface area. (Volume increases by the 3rd power, whereas the surface increases only by the 2nd power.)

Difficulties of this kind, however significant in themselves, should not be invoked by those who favor abortion, because abortions are generally sought and procured long after the conceptus has passed through the stages wherein such phenomena are possible.

BECAUSE OF THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE OF ARISTOTLE'S THEORY OF HUMAN REPRODUCTION, A BRIEF EXAMINATION OF HIS POSITION IS PRESENTED HERE: In his philosophical demonstration, every natural body is composed of an active and a passive principle. The passive constitutive principle, called "prime matter," is actualized in its concrete state of existence by the active principle which he called the "substantial form" of the body.

The active characteristics of any natural body, its various energies and resulting activity, are attributed to the body's substantial form. The substantial form of any organism has a special name. It is called the "soul" (psyche, Gk.) of that organism.

The souls of organisms which manifest activity only with regard to material objects (plants, and animals inferior to man) exist only as long as the organism exists. The soul of such an organism has no independent existence and, for practical purposes, could be said to be furnished by the reproductive action of the parents. The parents do not supply the soul, however, since each has only one of its own, but rather occasion the circumstances whereby suitably predisposed matter, by a natural process, becomes the new individual.

This would be analogues to the formation of a molecule from the matter of previously disposed atoms, as required by the conditions of chemical change. The new substantial form which organizes the matter of sodium and chlorine in the sodium chloride molecule could not have been possessed by either of the atoms. In fact, it cannot exist except in the molecule of sodium chloride, since this specific organization of matter is what makes the molecule to be what it is.

In the case of asexual reproduction of one-celled organisms, it is easy to assume that the life of the dividing cell is continuous with the lives of the two new cells. In the general sense that "Life comes only from life." there is a continuity of life, which seems to validate the assumption. But, since there are two individuals after division, at least one of them, if not both, must possess a new life and, therefore, a new active principle of its organized individuality. The mysterious origin of the soul of the new organism is to be attributed to the potential which Nature's Author has implanted in living matter, enabling simple organisms to reproduce new individuals of their own kind. The production of chemical compounds is no less mysterious under this aspect. Yet, new molecules and new organisms do come into being.

In sexual reproduction, the gametes, by analogy, fill the role of ions which, when chemically combined, lose their specific identities in favor of the compound's identity. The new organizing principle, or substantial form, except in the case of human reproduction, takes its rise proximately in the potency of the living matter of the two gametes and, more remotely, but primarily, in the living matter of the parents who produced the gametes.

THE VITALIZATION OF MATTER BY A HUMAN SOUL PRESENTS A SPECIAL PROBLEM, NOT EXPERIENCED IN CHEMISTRY OR IN THE BIOLOGY OF ORGANISMS INFERIOR TO MAN. In the case of human reproduction two factors are demanded: adequately predisposed matter and a human soul directed to organize and vitalize that matter as its principle of life. A human soul, the substantial form of a human being, is a non-material substance, which cannot be attributed to the potency of living matter as its origin.

To examine this briefly: Through his activity, the human being manifests a non-material principle of life. By a process of intellectual abstraction he can know non-material objects, such abstract realities as beauty and truth, and can be motivated in his free choice by ends which are non-material, such as honesty and patriotism. Some activity, furthermore, shows the principle of a human person's life to be substantial, that is, capable of existence independent of the body. An example of this is intellective reflection, which requires of the body only the initial presentation of something to think about.

Because it is a non-material substance, the soul of the human being cannot be attributed to the potency of matter. It has to be created, directly, by God. Unlike other substantial forms, a human soul, equipped with non-material faculties of intellect and free will, is unique to each human individual. It is the foundation of his or her personal individuality and, because of its non-material makeup, is the reason for his or her continuation in existence as a person throughout eternity.

Getting back to human reproduction, there arises a question concerning the time at which a human soul uniquely vitalizes the predisposed matter furnished by the parents. Is it immediately upon the fusion of the two gametes, so that the zygote is at once the new human individual? Or is some further development of that matter needed before it is sufficiently capable of being vitalized by the human soul?

IN THE OPINION OF ARISTOTLE, the fusion of the two parental gametes does not immediately produce a human being, the resulting matter not yet having been sufficiently predisposed to become vitalized by a human soul. He postulated a delay of forty days for males and eighty days for females to accomplish the necessary predisposition of the matter. It is likely that his choice of time was based upon the need that each individual be of a certain gender. By gross observation of spontaneously aborted fetuses he could detect the presence of external genitalia at those times. In our day, gender can be known by the cytologist even at the zygote stage, through the examination of chromosome structure. In terms of modern embryology there is no evidence to uphold Aristotle's selection of these two dates, nor is there any scientific evidence which points to any other probable date, after conception, when hominization should occur.

Aristotle believed that the adequate predisposition of matter to be vitalized by a human soul required that it had to have had a vegetative existence first, and then an animal existence. In practice, this would mean that the matter which is the passive constitutive principle of any human body had at one time been vitalized by a vegetative soul. Then, under the influence of that vegetative soul, the vegetable became sufficiently developed, in its proper environment, so that its matter could now become vitalized by an animal soul. The animal, in turn, developed sufficiently so that its matter became suitable for being vitalized by a human soul. It is difficult to see why this would not necessitate three individual organisms, rather than one-and-the-same individual from conception through hominization.

Aristotle's reason for the triple successive animations seems to be an attempt to explain the three-fold capability of man: his vegetative, sentient and human characteristics. By analogy, his reasoning may be similar to that of the organic evolutionist who sees in the development of the human embryo a recapitulation of phylogenic history.

It should be noted that there are possible explanations for human embryonic development, other than that of traditional evolutionary theory. It might well be that the human body passes through stages at which more-primitive organisms stopped. This would not indicate that man is a descendent of those lesser organisms, but that, in the economy of nature, the same "blueprint" might serve for the development of homologus "sub-structures" of the more complex organisms. Inheritance of such "sub-structures" would not be required in the theory of creationism; they would be part of the equipment given the individuals of a species at creation.

With due deference to the philosophical principle of Aristotle (that matter must be suitably predisposed before being "informed" by any given substantial form) exception may be taken to his application in reference to human reproduction. Although he is frequently called the Father of Biology, it is no discredit to him to recall that he lived some five hundred years before Christ and was lacking the instrumentation and consequent knowledge which present day embryologists enjoy.

To vindicate Aristotle's philosophical principle, a modern biologist can show that a human being does indeed result from the fusion of highly predisposed material, the ovum and spermatozoon of two human parents. He can demonstrate the fact that the ovum is greatly vegetative in structure and that the sperm is apparently sentient. But he would be at a loss to see any need for a time delay, after conception, for any further development of that highly specialized matter before it should be vitalized by a human soul.

In the spirit of Aristotle's principle the biologist could point to the fact that, although the gametes are in some sense living matter, they never had been complete organisms, since they have no other destiny than to become matter for the new individual. But the matter which they provide, however incomplete it is in itself, is already sufficiently predisposed with vegetative and sentient characteristics to be ready for vitalization by a human soul, at the moment of conception.

REVIEW AND ADDITIONAL READING, #2.

In Roe v. Wade, without definition and without precedent, the Court introduces such terms as "potential life" and "potential human life" and "potentiality of human life."  They are found in U.S. SUPREME COURT REPORTS, 35 L Ed 2nd.  Emphasis is ours.  Examples:

[410 US 158] "As we have intimated above, it is reasonable and appropriate for a State to decide that at some point in time another interest, that of health of the mother or that of POTENTIAL HUMAN LIFE, becomes significantly involved."

[410 US 162] "Such an action, however, would appear to be one to vindicate the parents' interest and is thus consistent with the view that the fetus, at most, represents only the POTENTIALITY OF LIFE."

ibid. "...the State.....has still another important and legitimate interest in protecting the POTENTIALITY OF HUMAN LIFE."

[410 US 163] "With respect to the States' important and legitimate interest in POTENTIAL LIFE, the compelling point is at viability."

    It is conceivable that the expression "potentiality of human life" could be synonymous with "the possibility that a human being is present."  But the totality of the expressions quoted above, when seen in their context, strongly suggests that the Court is speaking about something which is not human, yet has the capability of becoming human at some later time.  That "something" is the offspring of human parentage in early stages of its existence.  We must respectfully reject the validity of this concept of the Court.  Simply put, there is no counterpart in the world of nature to match that concept.  In fact, it is a contradiction of terms.

In our everyday speech, the word "life" is used in many senses, one of them the primary meaning, the others only by way of analogy. In its primary sense, life is had only by organisms. You might ask yourself "Is my thumb alive, or is it I who am alive?" To speak of the thumb as being alive, you do not mean that it is alive in the same sense that you are alive. In a multi-cellular organism the cells do not have a life of their own. It is the organism's life which they share. If this were not so, the organism would not be an individual but rather a colony of individuals.

The old axiom in Biology, "Life comes only from life." needs to be understood in the sense that there are analogous forms of life, some of which are necessary for bringing about the others. In no instance, however, does any member of one form become a member of the other. It does not have the potentiality to do so. The reproductive cells of human beings, for example, do not have the capability of becoming human beings. Nor do any other cells of a human being. Cells, whether within a living human's body or removed and exposed to tissue culture, never turn into human beings. Although they might sometimes be called "human cells" they are not the possessors of human life. In some sense they may be necessary for human life and, in some sense, participate in human life, but only the person whose cells they are has the human life.

ANYTHING SHORT OF PRECISE ACCURACY IN THE USE OF WORDS MAY CONFUSE THOSE INVOLVED IN A DISCUSSION. Not only the words "life" and "potential," but even the word "human," may easily be misused. After a man's death we might speak of "his" body, or speak of the body as "a human body." Strictly speaking, a body can be human only while it is being vitalized by a human soul, that is, during a person's lifetime. After death, it is the disorganized residue of what had been a human body. As for its being his body, if it were indeed his body, he would still be a living person and not one who had died. Keeping this in mind, let us examine the claim for "potential human life."

As an extreme example, is there "potential life" in the food you eat? Does it have the capability of becoming alive? After digestion and assimilation, the food is no longer existing as anything in its own right, therefore it could not be the possessor of life. The only living thing in this example is the eater of the food. The case of the two reproductive cells (gametes) is not much different. If they are said to be alive, before fusion, it is no longer their life which exists after fusion. That which is present now is the life of the new organism. The life of the cells is only analogous with the life of the organism. The cells did not have the potential to become the kind of thing which the organism is, even though they were instrumental in the process.

The case in point, is whether the offspring of human parents, at any stage of its existence, could be only a "potential human being".

POTENTIALITIES (CAPABILITIES) ARE LIMITED TO THE KIND OF THING TO WHICH THEY BELONG. A turnip could never have the capability of reasoning, simply because its parents are never able to bestow such an ability upon their offspring. And they can't bestow it, because they don't possess it themselves. The only abilities possessed by turnips is to do turnip-things. The capability to perform uniquely human actions, such as reasoning, whether at this moment, or only years from now, demands a human subject as its possessor. If the offspring of human parentage, at any time, even in the zygote-stage, possesses the "potentiality to act as a human being," he or she is already a human being. Nothing else could possess that capability. As for the "potentiality to be a human" it would be a contradiction of terms, since the potential and the actual cannot exist simultaneously in anything.

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