Saturday, November 15, 2008

When Does Life Begin

Guest Opinion: When Does Life Begin?
By Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D
Inside Catholic (

The idea that an unborn child is "dependent" on the mother and, therefore, not a human life ignores the fact that even grown-ups are dependent.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Inside Catholic) - I have believed life begins at conception long before I became Catholic at age 34 and even before I started practicing the Christian faith at the age of 19. The common sense of the matter has always held up to scrutiny, as far as I am concerned. Sperm and egg come together, and the life of a human person begins.

All of what Aristotle called the "first nature" of a person is contained at the moment after conception -- the "second nature" is what is actualized out of first nature by the influence of nurture and experience. Human beings have a common first nature, but each individual has a completely unique second nature.

Other notions of when personhood, or "life," begins don't hold up under scrutiny. The idea that an unborn child is "dependent" on the mother and, therefore, not a human life ignores the fact that even grown-ups are dependent on others for their lives and well-being. A newborn will be just as dependent on his mother, or someone, after being born as she or he was in the womb. Without care, the newborn will die. This does not make the newborn less human, rather it is indicative of what being human means, or requires; that solidarity is necessary for survival (Remember "It Takes a Village"?)

Some argue that the unborn are not yet human because they lack rational intelligence, the distinctive difference of the human species. Rationality is certainly not missing in the arsenal of an unborn child's potentialities. If the child lives, he or she will certainly exercise that potentiality in a recognizable way.

The "first nature" of any living being contains a bundle of potencies which are actualized according to the growth cycle of individual being. Just because the actualization of the capacity for human reasoning cannot be detected in a child's prenatal existence is no reason to assume the child lacks that capacity. There are many things a child won't do right away, such as forming words, sentences, and grasping concepts. But as any mother will tell you, children learn these things far sooner than you would expect.

Both of the arguments above suffer from another defect -- they focus on certain aspects or qualities of a human life and not the life itself. When you talk to parents about the birth of a child they will often tell you about the sudden recognition that a new life has been thrust into their hands. A human being who did not exist now exists and has come forth from you. The contrast between existence and non-existence that is experienced at childbirth points back to the existence that came into being at the moment of conception. Sperm and egg joined together, and a new being, a third being, was created out of the union. That third being, the child, has never been before, except, perhaps, in the mind of God.

There is nothing that we experience or participate in as human beings that can come even close to the creation of a new, unique human life. All the rest is a shaping of that life, a grooming of his or her second nature. But the shaping of a being that exists cannot compete in metaphysical grandeur with creation. It's hard to think of an unborn child as a "clump of cells" when you focus on the coming-to-be of a human being and all that will inevitably come forth from that life, if is not taken away.

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