When does a human being begin to exist? That is a terribly important question, particularly in terms of moral theology and the sanctity of human life.
The Catholic Church believes and teaches that human life begins with conception, that is, when an ovum is impregnated by a spermatozoan. We know by science that at that moment, the entire genetic make-up of that resulting fertilized ovum is different from the genetic make-up of the mother and the father, and has an identity of its own. It is at that moment that a human being, distinct from the father and the mother, begins to exist, and must be given the same respect that a 40-year-old man or woman deserves.
From this principle of the beginning of human life, all sorts of corollaries flow. It is gravely wrong, immoral, and sinful to cause the death and destruction of that fertilized ovum, or the embryo or the fetus which develop from that tiny beginning of human life. This is why abortion is a grave sin and a crime. It deliberately destroys a new human being, and therefore is murder. And this is the same reason why we are unalterably opposed to what is called embryonic stem-cell research. In this case, an ovum is fertilized or impregnated in a laboratory environment, and then destroyed to obtain its genetic material for research purposes. It is the deliberate taking of a human life, usually one that has been illicitly brought into being, not that a child might be born of a legitimate marriage, but just to be used for laboratory experimental purposes. Human beings simply MAY NOT be produced for that purpose. We are not guinea pigs; we are human persons made in the image and likeness of God, who says to us: THOU SHALT NOT KILL. The Church is all for research so as to improve the health and well-being of the human race and its members, but to kill a human being for that purpose is gravely evil. And to kill a human being simply to avoid the burden of a normal pregnancy, or the shame of a pregnancy outside of marriage, or to prevent the birth of a child which is thought to have defects which would affect its later life—all these things are gravely wrong.
There are those who are misled by foolish criteria which have no bearing upon the essence of the case. Just because an embryo is very small and not recognizable to the naked eye as a man or woman is irrelevant. Just because a baby is still in the womb rather than outside the mother’s body is irrelevant. In both those cases, the embryo or fetus is a human being and has his or her right to life. To destroy that life is a gross violation of the fifth commandment.
Recently, when we celebrated the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, we read the words of God to Jeremiah the prophet: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” Notice: BEFORE I FORMED YOU IN THE WOMB. Even though the gestation of a human child takes place in the mother’s womb by the marvelous processes of nature, it is God who designed those processes and brings them to fruition. A young woman who knows absolutely nothing about biology, anatomy, bio-chemistry, or bio-physics, can conceive and form a baby in her womb. Whose is the design behind that? Certainly not hers. God says to each of us as he said to Jeremiah: I FORMED YOU IN THE WOMB. Not your mother, nor your father, nor the blind forces of nature, but I, WHO AM GOD. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown. O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago