At the risk of disagreeing with FF UP Diliman Senior Faculty Adviser Dr. Sylvia Estrada-Claudio, I do think that the issue of when life begins is not only answerable by science, it has already been answered.
Microbe-like fossil records show that the oldest organisms appeared on earth about 3.5 billion years ago1. One of the most compelling theories on the origin of life is that the first things that could be called “lifeforms” were RNA molecules2. They are like DNA, except that they are single stranded and that their molecular constituents are slightly different. These RNA molecules were composed of sequences of the letters A, U, C, and G in chemical alphabet. These patterns of letters could make copies of themselves and the pattern that was most able to produce “offspring” dominated the primordial soup.
Throughout the eons, there has been an uninterrupted passing of genetic code from our microscopic antecedents to our piscine forebears to our simian ancestors. Each step of this chain of life from microbial cell to ape embryo involved something alive and this fact implicates the sperms and the eggs, which must also be alive in order to be viable for fertilization.
The claim that life begins at fertilization is not only provably false, it cheapens the breathtaking reality of nature. Without exception, we are all from lineages of winners—entirely composed of successful parents, none of whom died young. They all were able to copulate and produce offspring who themselves became successful parents. Whatever the first replicating unit was, we know that 3.5 billion years ago was the beginning of life… and life hasn’t stopped since.
I must admit at this point that I wasn’t really disagreeing with Dr. Claudio. But what I really wanted to show was that this whole debate about when life begins is a shameless distraction set up by social conservatives to derail any real productive argument about policies.
So, are embryos alive? Yes. But so are sperm cells and egg cells. Are we going to prosecute masturbators for genocide now? The point is, this distinction of life/non-life is useless. What the anti-choice advocates seem to mean when they say that “life begins at fertilization” is that our moral duty to them also begins there. But what they try to sweep under the rug is that moral concern is not based on “life” but on the capacity of brains for consciousness and cognition (which, incidentally, concerns also non-human animals). Even the Church itself allows for the harvesting of the organs of brain dead people3. If the Church really cared about being consistent with its moral prescriptions, they should either reserve their concerns for organisms that possess functioning brains that are able to suffer or deny that consciousness and brains have any factor in the moral calculus of actions.
This “life begins at fertilization” argument is arbitrary and based on no science whatsoever. There’s not even a single moment of fertilization. From the chemical transformation of the egg coat upon sperm contact to the fusion of chromosomal payloads, fertilization is a complex interplay of molecules that involves a series of chemical interactions4, none of which can simply be declared as the beginning of life or personhood. Neither does the possession of 46 chromosomes mean that one is a person since human genetic diseases such as Down and Turner syndromes involve additional or missing chromosomes. And even if fertilization were instantaneous, what about chimeras, which are two (or more) fertilized embryos that have fused? Was there a loss of life? Or, once the chimeric child is born, is he actually two individual living beings in one body? The fact of the matter is, personhood, organismal development, and molecular biology, are complex bodies of knowledge that have never been improved by dogma or religion.
Conservative Catholics need a cut and dry beginning of personhood because they have to insert the soul at some convenient and poetic point (the Church has changed its position on this throughout history, see: Ensoulment), preferably one that prevents others from enjoying themselves. Lacking the facts to back their claims up, they are left with nothing but to resort to claims about spirits, gods, and the speciesist superiority of human beings, and they do, as they invariably fall back to their dubious “moral” arguments.
1 Schopf, J. W., Kudryavtsev, A. B., Agresti, D. G., Wdowiak, T. J. & Czaja, A. D. Laser–Raman imagery of Earth’s earliest fossils. Nature 416, 73-76 (2002).
2 Dawkins, R. The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. (Free Press, 2009).
3 Wojtyła, K. J. Address of the Holy Father John Paul II to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society, <http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2000/jul-sep/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20000829_transplants_en.html> (2000).
4 Gilbert, S. F. Developmental Biology. (Sinauer Associates, 2000).