Human life: Science backs the bishops

by Joe Bollig
joe.bollig@theleaven.org

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Do you want to know when human life begins? John Haas has a suggestion.

“In this country, we have Supreme Court justices [and] we have politicians scratching their heads saying, ‘Gee, we don’t know when human life begins,’” said Haas, president of The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.

“Well,” he continued, “why don’t you go ask the Germans?”

The Germans? Yes, the Germans.

“Germany has an embryo protection law,” said Haas. “Germany is a secular state. It’s not driven by religious considerations when it passes laws. And the embryo protection law affords the protection of the law to human beings — and I’ll quote the law — ‘from the moment of the fusion of the nuclei of the two gametes.’”

The Germans have figured out how to have a national discussion that acknowledges the basic facts of science and then base public and ethical decisions on those facts, said Haas.

And Americans? Not so much. We tend to get religion, science, philosophy and ethics completely tangled up, he said.

Proof of this was demonstrated in August and September, when U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and vice presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Biden misrepresented the church’s teaching about abortion.

Pelosi confused the church’s teaching about abortion with medieval theological speculation about ensoulment, offered a nonexistent citation from St. Augustine, and dated the church’s teaching about human life to only 50 years.

Biden said when human life begins was a “personal and private” matter of religious faith that could not be imposed.

Recognizing this as a “teachable moment,” the U.S. bishops quickly responded with additional material on the USCCB Web site at: www.usccb.org/prolife/issues/bioethic/fact298. shtml.

On a page entitled “What is an Embryo,” the bishops’ conference provides a scientific context for the discussion; on another, called “Respect for Unborn Human Life: The Church’s Constant Teaching” (www.usccb.org/prolife/constantchurchteaching.shtml, the bishops noted that “the obsolete distinction between the ‘ensouled’ and ‘unensouled’ fetus was permanently removed from canon law on abortion” in 1869.

The bishops also noted that the church’s teaching on abortion dates back to  the earliest days of the church, as evidenced by catechetical documents from the first and second centuries like the Didache and the Letter of Barnabas.

“Now, this is the way of life,” states the Didache. “The second commandment of the Teaching: . . . do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant.”

“The only difference [in the history of church teaching] was in the question of canonical sanctions or penalties imposed,” said Haas.

“[Abortion] was always considered a mortal sin,” Haas continued. The only variable was the penalty imposed.

“If it occurred after ‘quickening,’” said Haas, “it was regarded as murder rather than a different kind of destructive act.”

Today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. . . . Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law” (nos. 2270-2271).

Modern science does not contradict the church, but rather supports it, wrote Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann in a column published on Sept. 12 in The Leaven.

“Technological advancements and modern biology provide overwhelming scientific evidence that a unique human life begins at the moment of conception or fertilization,” wrote the archbishop. “Modern science supports the church’s teaching regarding the dignity and sanctity of human life from its earliest moment — conception.”

In a USCCB press release issued in early September, U.S. bishops said the question of when human life begins is not a personal and private matter of religious faith to be imposed on others.

Rather, the obligation to protect unborn humans “rests on two questions, neither of which is private or specifically religious,” the bishops said. The first is biological, and the second is moral.

“Protection of innocent human life is not an imposition of personal religious conviction but a demand of justice,” the bishops said.

So, is there consensus of when human life begins?

Yes, said Haas.

“There is absolute consensus when a new human being exists,” he said. “A new, genetically unique human being comes into existence at the moment of the fusion of the nuclei of the two gametes.”

If you were to ask a scientist, said Haas, whether “after the fusion of the genetic material of the two nuclei of the gametes, do we or do we not have a new human being . . . they’d have to say yes. It’s an independent, existing being, and it can’t be called anything other than human.”

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