When does human life begin?


According to the drafters of the 1987 Constitution, conception happens at fertilization. In the floor discussion of the provision, “The State shall equally protect the life of the mother and the life of the unborn from the moment of conception”, Commissioner Cirilo Rigos asked Commissioner Bernardo Villegas, a sponsor of the provision, “When is the moment of conception? Commissioner Villegas replied, “…it is when the ovum is fertilized by the sperm that there is human life.” No one in the Commission argued against the reply of Commissioner Villegas. The provision was passed, practically unchanged, except to shorten it for stylistic reasons from “from the moment of conception” to ‘from conception.’

With this understanding, all contraceptive drugs and devices that prevent not only fertilization of the ovum by the sperm but also the implantation of the fertilized ovum must be said to be banned under our present constitution. It would be unconstitutional for our Congress to provide, as House Bill 5043 does, “That the full range of family planning methods, both natural and modern shall be promoted,” because among available modern birth control methods some (like the IUD, pills and injectables) prevent the implantation of the fertilized ovum.

Should such a provision and others like it also be struck out not only on grounds of constitutionality but also on grounds of morality? Should the prevention of the implantation of the fertilized ovum be considered the termination of a human life and should therefore be called abortion?

According to Catholic theology and doctrine, the unborn becomes human when it begins to be animated by a human soul. The infusion of the human soul into the unborn is called “ensoulment”. Question: When does ensoulment happen? Does it happen at fertilization or later? Catholics may be surprised to know that the great theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, was of the opinion that ensoulment happened only after the fertilized ovum had attained a certain stage of development. Before that, the fertilized ovum had only a vegetative and later animal life. The time of animation by the spiritual soul was estimated to be at approximately six weeks after conception. This was also the common opinion for a long time.

The tide of opinion shifted, however, in the 18th century, and in the 19th century, the opinion that ensoulment took place at fertilization became more common. Up to now there is no agreement on the theoretical question of the moment of ensoulment. The Church has not made any authoritative pronouncement on the matter either. A textbook (Christian Ethics, vol. 2 by Fr. Karl H. Peschke, SVD) used in many seminaries for teaching moral theology, while reporting these developments, says this:

There is no official pronouncement of the Church which approves or condemns either theory. However since both opinions are probable and since we deal with the great good of human life, theologians commonly hold that in the practical order one must follow the safer course of action and always treat a living fertilized ovum as a human person, whatever its stage of development, with all the rights of a human being”.

The Vatican’s Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in its “Declaration on Procured Abortion”, stated authoritatively:

In reality, respect for human life is called for from the time that the process of generation begins. From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a life is begun which is neither that of the father nor the mother, it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.

The Congregation later adds, “From a moral point of view this is certain: even if a doubt existed whether the fruit of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a grave sin to dare to risk murder.”

The time of ensoulment or beginning of animation of the fertilized ovum by a spiritual soul may be impossible to determine. The factual question may never be answered because we cannot observe the infusion of a spiritual soul into a body by God to make a living being a human person. But the practical course of action is clear: no one is allowed to directly kill what may probably be already a human person. To do so would be to risk committing homicide or murder. If you are hunting, for example, and hear a movement in the bushes, you may suspect it is a wild boar. But then you also think it may be a man, maybe a companion of yours, even. You are not morally allowed to shoot at whatever is moving in the bushes until you ascertain that it is not a human being. If you do shoot before you find out for certain that it is not a man, and then find out later that you have wounded or killed a man, it would not do to say that you were not sure it was a man and so you shot it.

Hence, from the moral point of view, Catholics must object against the promotion of drugs and devices that prevent the implantation of the fertilized ovum. Thus, you can understand the militancy of the Catholic bishops and faithful against the pending HB 5043. They are waging a fight in defense of human life.