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PONTIFICIA ACADEMIA PRO VITA
XII GENERAL ASSEMBLY
"THE HUMAN EMBRYO IN THE PRE-IMPLANTATION PHASE
March 23 rd, 2006
On the occasion of its 12th General Assembly, the PontificalAcademy for Life celebrated an
international Congress on the theme: “The human embryo in the pre-implantation
phase: Scientific aspects and bioethical considerations”. At the conclusion of
the Congress, the Academy offered to the Ecclesial Community and to the general
public, certain considerations on the theme of its reflection.
1. It can escape no one that the contemporary bioethical debate,
especially in recent years, has focused mainly on the reality of the human
embryo, considered in itself or in relation to how
other human beings behave towards it. This is only natural since the multiple
implications (scientific, philosophical, ethical, religious, legislative,
financial, ideological, etc.) connected to these areas inevitably catalyze
different interests, as well as attract the attention of those in search of
authentic ethical action.
The need to ask the basic question: “Who or what is the human
embryo”, has therefore become unavoidable, in order to draw from a relevant,
consistent answer to it criteria for action that fully respect the integral
truth of the embryo itself.
To this end, in accordance with a correct bioethical methodology, it is
necessary first of all to look at the data that the most up-to-date knowledge
puts at our disposal today, enabling us to know in great detail about the
different processes through which a new human being begins its existence. These
data must then be subjected to an anthropological interpretation in order to
highlight their significance and the emerging values to which to refer in the
last place, to derive the moral norms for practical action and standard
Human life begins at conception
2. Consequently, in light of the most recent discoveries of embryology,
it is possible to establish certain universally recognized points:
a) The moment the sperm penetrates the oocyte
is when the existence of a new “human being” begins. Fertilization induces a
whole series of consecutive events and transforms the egg cell into a “zygote”.
In the human species, the nucleus of the spermatozoid (contained in the head)
and a centriole (which will play a determining role
in the formation of the mitotic fusus in the act of
the first cellular division) enter the oocyte; the
plasmatic membrane remains on the outside. The male nucleus undergoes profound
biochemical and structural changes that depend on the ovular cytoplasm in
preparation for the role that the male genome will immediately begin to play.
Here we are witnessing the decondensation of the
chromatin (induced by factors synthesized in the final phases of ovogenesis) that makes transcription of the paternal genes
After the sperm penetrates the oocyte, it
completes its second meiotic division and expels the second polar body,
reducing its genome to a haploid number of chromosomes in order to associate
with the chromosomes brought by the male nucleus the karyotype
characteristic of the species. At the same time, it encounters
an “activation” from the metabolic viewpoint, with a view to the first
It is always the cytoplasmatic environment of
the oocyte that induces the centriole
of the spermatozoon to duplicate itself, thereby constituting the centrosome of the zygote. This centrosome
duplicates itself with a view to constituting the microtubule that will make up
the mitotic fusus.
The two sets of chromosomes find the mitotic fusus
already formed and arrange themselves at the equator in a position of
metaphase. The other phases of mitosis follow, and finally the cytoplasm
divides and the zygote gives life to the first two blastomeres.
The activation of the embryonic genome is probably a gradual process. In
the single-cell human embryo seven genes are already active; others are
expressed during the passage from the zygote stage to that of two cells.
b) Biology, and more particularly embryology, provides the documentation
of a definite direction of development: this means that the process is
“oriented” — in time — to the direction of a progressive differentiation and
acquisition of complexity and cannot regress from the stages it has already
c) A further point acquired with the earliest phases of development is
the “autonomy” of the new being in the process of the auto-duplication of
d) The characteristics of “gradualness” (the time needed for the
passage from a less differentiated stage to a more differentiated stage) and of
the “coordination” of development (the existence of mechanisms that
regulate the developmental process in a unitary whole) are also strictly linked
to the property of “continuity”.
These properties — virtually ignored at the beginning of the bioethical
debate — are considered more and more important in recent times because of the
successive discoveries that research offers on the dynamic of embryonic
development also at the “morula” stage, which precedes
the formation of blastocytes.
All together, these trends already form the basis for interpreting the
zygote as being a primordial “organism” (monocellular
organism) that consistently expresses its potentials for development through a
continuous integration, first, among the various internal components and then,
among the cells to which it progressively gives rise. Their integration is both
morphological and biochemical. The research that has been underway for several
years now only yields further “proofs” of this reality.
3. These breakthroughs of modern embryology must be submitted to the
scrutiny of philosophical and anthropological interpretation in order to
understand the precious value inherent in and expressed by every human being,
also at the embryonic stage. Thus, the basic question of the moral status
of the embryo must be faced squarely.
It is well-known that, among the different hermeneutical proposals
present in the current bioethical debate, various moments in the embryonic
development of the human being have been indicated to which a moral status can
be attributed to the embryo, and claims are put forward based on “extrinsic”
criteria (that is, starting with factors external to the embryo itself).
However, this approach has not proved suitable for truly identifying the
moral status of the embryo, since any possible judgment ends by being
based on factors that are wholly conventional and arbitrary.
To be able to formulate a more objective opinion on the reality of the
human embryo and therefore to deduce ethical indications from it, it is
necessary instead to take into consideration criteria that are “intrinsic” to
the embryo itself, starting precisely with the data that scientific knowledge
puts at our disposal.
Is the embryo already a person?
It can be concluded from this data that the human embryo in the phase of
pre-implantation is already: a) a being of the human species; b) an individual
being; c) a being that possesses in itself the finality to develop as a human
person together with the intrinsic capacity to achieve such development.
From all this may one conclude that the human embryo in the
pre-implantation stage is really already a “person”? It is obvious that since
this is a philosophical interpretation, the answer to this question cannot be
of a “definite kind”, but must remain open, in any case, to further
Yet, on the precise basis of the available biological data, we maintain
that there is no significant reason to deny that the embryo is already a person
in this phase.
Of course, this presupposes an interpretation of the concept of the
person of a substantial type, referring, that is, to human nature itself as
such, rich in potential that will be expressed during the embryo's development
and also after birth. To support this position, it should be noted that the
theory of immediate animation, applied to every human being who comes into
existence, is shown to be fully consistent with his biological reality (in
addition to being in “substantial” continuity with the thought of Tradition).
The Psalm states: “For you did form my inward parts, you did knit me
together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for you are fearful and wonderful.
Wonderful are your works! You know me right well” (Ps 139:13-14),
referring to God's direct intervention in the creation of every new human
From the moral viewpoint, moreover, over and above any consideration of
the human embryo's personality, the mere fact of being in the presence of a
human being (and even the doubt of this would suffice) would demand full
respect for the embryo's integrity and dignity: any conduct that might in some
way constitute a threat or an offence to its fundamental rights, and first and
foremost the right to life, must be considered as seriously immoral.
To conclude, we would like to make our own the words that the Holy
Father Benedict XVI spoke in his Address to our Congress: “God's love does not
differentiate between the newly conceived infant still in his or her mother's
womb and the child or young person, or the adult and the elderly person. God
does not distinguish between them because he sees an impression of his own
image and likeness (Gn) in each one.
“He makes no distinctions because he perceives in all of them a
reflection of the face of his Only-begotten Son, whom ‘he chose... before the
foundation of the world.... He pre-destined us in love to be his sons...
according to the purpose of his will’ (Eph 1:4-6)” (Address, 27 February
2006; L’Osservatore Romano English
edition, 8 March, p. 7).
(Published in "L'Osservatore Romano"
Weekly Edition in English April 26 rd, 2006, p.6)
Ser contra o abortamento provocado de bebês no
ventre materno é uma questão ética, já que todos os seres humanos,
independentemente da sua idade, ou de qualquer outra condição, têm a mesma
dignidade de pessoa humana. É também uma questão científica, visto
que há décadas a Ciência afirma que a vida humana começa no momento da
concepção, com a primeira célula, o zigoto. É, ainda, uma questão jurídica, uma vez que todo ser humano tem, como o primeiro dos
direitos, o direito natural à vida, da concepção até a morte natural.
Finalmente, é uma questão também religiosa porque cada um de nós
tem, acima de tudo, a dignidade sobrenatural de filho ou filha de Deus.