Catholics Don't "Believe" Life Begins at Conception

*subhead*We KNOW it!*subhead*
I don't know how many times I have heard it. Well-meaning Catholics who say, "As a Catholic, I believe life begins at conception." I have decided that my mission in life is to correct this miscommunication because it is that very line that lets everyone who is not Catholic dismiss everything we have to say about stem cell research, cloning and reproductive technologies. 

We Catholics do not "believe" life begins at conception, also called fertilization. We instead know that it does because it is a cold hard fact of nature that a new, distinct, human organism, identifiable by his or her unique DNA, is created at the completion of fertilization. That is not a belief. That is a fact.

A fact bolstered by embryology:
"Although human life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed." (O'Rahilly, Ronan and Müller, Fabiola. Human Embryology and Teratology, 2nd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996, p. 8 )
Even a secular children's book on human reproduction from my local library is clear:
"But nine months before, when you first began, you were just one little cell, even smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. Half of this cell came from your mother's body, and the other half came from your father's body."
I am not alone in my distaste for that common "I believe that life begins at conception" phrase. The late Dr. Bernard Nathanson also took umbrage with the word "believe" when discussing the facts of life. He wrote in his "Confessions of an Ex-Abortionist":
"Fetology makes it undeniably evident that life begins at conception and requires all the protection and safeguards that any of us enjoy....As a scientist I know, not believe, know that human life begins at conception." [emphasis mine]
[And for you sticklers for nomenclature, in recent years, practitioners of in vitro fertilization (IVF) have redefined conception as the implantation of an embryo in the uterus. This allows them to say that prior to implantation, an embryo has yet to be conceived. This implies that a new human organism begins at implantation instead of fertilization which is scientifically incorrect. The Catholic Church uses conception in its correct and traditional usage, meaning fertilization.]

So why do we debate the question of "when human life begins?"  I believe it is because the debate about when life begins is actually focused on the wrong question or rather questions.  It is not a matter biologically of when a new human organism begins.  That is an established fact. 

The real debate is about whether or not human life has value, whether or not an embryo or fetus has moral worth simply because he (or she) is human. And whether or not every human life, despite it's point of development, deserves respect and protection. 

When people say that life does not begin at conception what they are really saying is that they do not believe that embryonic life has value and that it does not deserve to be protected.

The Catholic Church teaches that the new human life that begins at conception has dignity and worth simply because it is human.  Catholics know that human life is present from the moment of fertilization.  We also hold that all human life is intrinsically valuable.

Even in a increasingly secular world, society understands that the taking of an innocent life is a moral trespass that cannot be allowed.  Hence the prohibition of homicide in secular law.  The basis of this understanding is the reality that human life does indeed have value simply because it is human. (Even France, where creating embryos for research is banned, has a law regulating research on embryos that lists the following core principles as guidelines, "Respect for the dignity of the human embryo" and "Respect for all stages of life.")

There are others who want to qualify and restrict which human lives are considered valuable because of a particular agenda. We know who they are. But the Catholic Church does not make any qualifications.  Regardless of point of development, Catholics acknowledge the inherent dignity in every human organism. To assign value to human life at some developmental point after conception is simply arbitrary.

Lee M. Silver, professor of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, wrote in his book Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family:
“Once fertilization is complete, there are no isolated moments along the way where you can point at an embryo or fetus and say that it is substantially different from the way it was a few minutes, or even hours earlier.” 
Everyone one of us is a continuous organism from the moment we are conceived to the day that we die. It is illogical that we be valued and protected under the law only for a part of that continuous process.

So the next time someone says to you, "Human life does not begin at conception," correct them and tell them that life indeed does begin at conception and what they really mean to say is "I don't believe the life that begins at conception has value." (And then explain to them why that stance is totally illogical.)

And if you must use the word "believe" when discussing the beginnings of life, please do not say, "I believe life begins at conception." Say instead, "I believe the life that begins at conception has moral worth simply because it is human."

Rebecca Taylor blogs at Mary Meets Dolly


  1. Happened to look at the ads on the back of a bulletin of a neighborhood church this weekend and found this link: Go the link and the picture is worth a million-a-year babies. How can the church fight on one hand the HHS mandate and on the other take advertising money from drs. who sterilize, dispense contraception and who knows what else just to have a cool looking bulletin? Seems like more than a conundrum to me.

  2. Elm,

    Mention it to the Pastor. I have done such in a similar case, and the Pastor did his pastorial duty.

  3. Correctly formulated, it would be, "biology and philosophy indicate life begins at conception—and as a Catholic I am not permitted to take innocent human life."

    Pagans, e.g. the Roman ones, had a rather different view—they exposed newborns. Their objection to abortion was actually that it introduced a death-humor into the womb and thus cursed the woman (this was their explanation for the infertility that resulted from their abortion methods even more often than from ours).

  4. "Half of this cell came from your mother's body, and the other half came from your father's body." Roe v. Wade made property of the new human being conceived, and reassigned ownership of the new baby to the mother, to abort, disenfranchising the father of his DNA, his seed, his offspring.

  5. Why do we worry about the unborn more than the born. when have we seen the church open up for the poor and homeless. I have never seen the anti abortion people open up their own homes for the living. First lets take care of the people dying in front of us: then you can be rightgeous and demand what you demand. On the other hand fix whats in front of you everyday and the rest will take care of itself. God will put the problems that we should fix in front of us and when we do this we will glorify him. Do you think God wants us to fight this abortion battle without him.

  6. Arnold, poor Arnold -- all the pro-life people in my community not only do what we can to save the unborn from slaughter, but we also feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter to the homeless, etc.

    It's such a tired old argument that pro-life people care only for the unborn.

    Based upon what I've seen in my 54 years of living, pro-life people care about all people much, much more than pro-abortion people do. In fact, I've too often observed that pro-abortion people care more about trees, spotted owls, and dogs & cats than they do about people.

  7. Don't Catholics believe in ensoulment? Isn't that when an embryo becomes a person?

    I believe that God is in complete charge of the developing embryo, it's not in charge of itself, it has no will of its own. Still it's due respect and we should have laws against experimenting with them and creating them, but I don't believe it is it's own living person with a will and rights until it has a heartbeat.

  8. After we die, we are still due respect and protection in our laws, both our body and spirit. Our heart has stopped and our soul has left our body, but biological processes continue, directed by God as they were before our heartbeat, decomposing instead of composing. If we defined life as a distinct human body with unique DNA, then we'd have to try to bring the dead back to life, which I think is equally horrendous as creating life intentionally, and even pursue immortality like Transhumanists do.

  9. Wait, are you citing Lee Silver approvingly?

  10. Irregardless. is. not. a. word!

  11. "I believe the life that begins at conception has moral worth simply because it is human."

    Why would it have to be a life, then, if all it takes is being human? I agree that embryos have moral worth simply because they are human, and support laws prohibiting experimentation and intentional creation of human embryos simply because they are human, as opposed to animal embryos, which have much less moral worth as human embryos and I don't support laws prohibiting experiments on them.

    But it doesn't need to be alive to have that moral worth. It still has great moral worth because it is a brand new human body being formed by the hand of God to house a soul, but not yet ensouled with a soul or will of consciousness or a life of its own, right?

    There are huge disadvantages to asserting that life begins at conception. It hurts the pro-life cause in elections, it would pressure us to implant a cloned embryo or genetically engineered embryo instead of letting its development abort like millions of naturally fertilized eggs that fail to implant, and it gains nothing that can't be achieved just by recognizing the moral worth of embryos simply because they are human, not alive, but human.

  12. @John Howard: you are plainly very impressed with yourself. Why is that? Because honestly, your ignorance is physically painful to behold.

    "Ensoulment"? No, Catholics don't believe in that. Nobody whose word for "metal" doesn't involve their word for "flint" believes in that.

    The idea in Catholic theology that is called "a soul" in layman's terms, is actually "formal cause". If a thing exists, it has a "soul" proper to what it is—since the formal cause is (solely and exclusively) that which makes it what it is. Rocks partake of rock-ness; a human person has a human personality, AKA their "soul". And the reason that being alive is necessary is, a dead body is no longer human: it is a corpse. "Its soul has left" is, metaphysically, identical with the statement "it no longer has its identity". Corpses are not human. "Human corpse" means "the dead meat of the living thing we call a human", it is not a full-fledged human.

    All of these implications you claim, e.g. that we'd be obligated to try to bring the dead back to life, are, to be blunt, ridiculous. Why does claiming that life begins at conception require us to try to implant cloned embryos?

    And nobody does define life as "a distinct human body with unique DNA"; they define "individual human being" that way (sometimes that thing is referred to as "a life" or "a human life", but that's a truncated idiomatic expression). Even if someone were bizarre enough to define life that way, why would doing so require us to try to bring the dead back to life? I cannot remotely conceive of why that would be so; and frankly I doubt you can explain your reasoning. Because you haven't done any.

    And there are no disadvantages to asserting life begins at conception. Mostly because there are never disadvantages to acknowledging what all science says, and many to contradicting it—and science says life begins at conception.

    I'm having difficulty telling if you are well-meaning but completely wrongheaded, or arguing with a strawman as some kind of strange trolling. Either way, everything you say is completely wrong and both scientifically and metaphysically illiterate. Please stop trying to contribute to a debate you have absolutely no comprehension of.

  13. I'm well meaning. I'm trying to stop genetic engineering of human beings because it would lead to a loss of equality and rights and humanity. In response to your points I suggest reading my comments again.

  14. Really Matt, a premier journalist like you using the non-word "irregardless". Please, have more respect for our beautiful language. Discipline in your writing will further your causes.

  15. I have fixed my careless diction. Thanks for pointing out my error.

  16. The conclusion that human life begins at conception can be arrived at in two ways: by science and by faith. The Magisterium does teach, as a belief of faith, that the human nature of Jesus is like our human nature in all things but sin. When did the human life of Jesus begin? at His conception.

    Similarly, Mary is like us in all things but sin. And it is a dogma of the faith that she was preserved from the effects of original sin (effects on body and soul) from conception. So her human life, like ours, began at conception (body and soul).

    Therefore, it is a belief as well as a scientific fact that human life begins at conception.

  17. Ronconte,
    The catechism of the Council of Trent says that only Christ was immediately ensouled. It's online. Go to the third article of the Introduction...then to the section. "By the Holy Spirit" ...then to the fifth paragraph:
    " Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done unto me according to thy word, the most sacred body of Christ was immediately formed, and to it was united a rational soul enjoying the use of reason; and thus in the same instant of time He was perfect God and perfect man. That this was the astonishing and admirable work of the Holy Ghost cannot be doubted; for according to the order of nature the rational soul is united to the body only after a certain lapse of time."

    Later the Church but not St. Alphonsus in the 18th century moved toward immediate ensoulment but the Church has not definitively passed judgement on it as John Paul II noted in Evangelium Vitae though he said we should act as though there is immediate ensoulment because in doubt one must take the safer course. See Evangelium Vitae section 60:

    "     " Furthermore, what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo. Precisely for this reason, over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself, the Church has always taught and continues to teach that the result of human procreation, from the first moment of its existence, must be guaranteed that unconditional respect which is morally due to the human being in his or her totality and unity as body and spirit: "The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life".

  18. ps...the reason he says that the Church has not expressly committed itself on the scientific and philosophical debate ( on ensoulment ) is because the data is in flux. Example: the chimera phenomenon...two fertlized fraternal twin ova lay too near each other and hours later touch and merge into one cell mass which becomes one not two persons. If ensoulment took place at fertilization, merging by two ensouled beings into one person would be impossible.

  19. To Bill Bannon
    Everything is possible with God; not according to human logic. God can and does change according to His will all the time. It is the stuff of God's miracles and His design for our lives. Also, to conceive means to begin. The beginning is the beginning; nothing else. God gave us a brain to use according to natural law and logic, so important in forming our consciences.


Post a Comment