The Gift and Rights of Being Conceived, Part 1

Unborn child in utero; photo by Lennart Nilsson

In the first of this two-part essay there is an examination of the wholeness of human being, the complementarity of faith and reason, and what human conception is, and what is said about it in the teaching of the Church (Part I). In the second part of this essay, there is the help of the Christian mysteries, of the Immaculate Conception, the Incarnation and the Eucharist, to understanding conception; and, finally, how this enables us to see more clearly the right of the frozen human embryo to the completion of his or her development (Part II)1.

Part I: “The Gift of Being Conceived and the Teaching of the Church”


We live between where we were, and where we are going to be; and, in a sense, that defines our whole reality: a person is what I was at conception, who I am and what I am becoming. In the biblical sense, I am an unfinished work between being conceived and being resurrected from the dead; and, therefore, the whole nature of being a person encompasses both everything to do with beginning, and everything expressed in the mystery of rising, God willing, with Christ. A biblical conception of person, therefore, takes account of a trans-temporal understanding of the human person and, in a word, takes me into the realm of the spiritual transformation of all that I am, and all that we are: a radical transfiguration of human being.

At the same time, however, we live and work out our salvation in the present; and, in that respect, the being we are to become is also expressed in all its on-going trans-temporality. There are many ways of perceiving the human person, and it is possible to view ourselves “fractionally”, according to the lens of one discipline or another. However, it is necessary to strive for an adequate account of the whole human being, even amidst the kaleidoscoping fragmentation which is so often what becomes of our self-perception. This fragmentation shows itself most tragically in the reductionism which renders one person the “object” of another person’s intrusive investigation, manipulation, or destruction. And, therefore, there is an urgency in seeking to recover an account of the “whole” that we are which includes our relationship to God, to others and to each other.

This essay seeks to advance an integral account of the beginning of our whole human nature. At the same time, it offers reasons, both religious and realistic, to recover the perception of the humanity of the frozen human embryo, and to advance the possibility of housing the “homeless being” in the hospitality of a mother’s nurturing womb, and the relationships which stem from that beautiful fact. As a whole, while it is both urgent and timely to act for the good of another, it also is necessary to widen the debate, and to call for a new global ethic which defines the integral individual, and social requirements of human development, from the first instant of conception onwards.


The complementarity of faith and reason derives, ultimately, from their origin in the being of the Blessed Trinity and the “act of gift” which brought the universe and, in particular, the human race into existence. This is not a discussion, however, of the vast subject of our original beginning and development; rather, it is a specific exploration of the “moment” of human conception (cf. Gn 4: 1) and, in the light of more recent challenges, of the help a “homeless” human embryo needs.

As we shall see, natural and divine truths are both complementary and ordered to one another. While, however, there remains a certain difficulty in proving that conception is the first intimately instant moment that a human being begins to exist, there nevertheless remains the assistance of Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium. On the one hand, there are those who hold the view of delayed ensoulment: that God gives the gift of a human soul at a point subsequent to the first instant of fertilization. On the other hand, there are those who see that the evidence “itself” is advocating an increasingly convincing position of a first instant of human conception: a “moment” in which God gives the integral gift of human personhood; indeed, the moment in which the divine-human giving of life is expressed in the whole gift of human personhood: of a being-in-relation. In other words, although there is, as it were, body and soul, and the possibility of a “two-fold” giving of human life, it is argued here that the very nature of human wholeness entails an inseparable act of human existence in which God gives there to be “one” being in the first instant of coming to exist as a bodily-expressed-soul. Thus, there is the first task of establishing a coherent account of the beginning of each one of us. This author will then advance the position of an “immediately” enfleshed and animating human ensoulment of the human being; and, in addition, that this originating beginning of a particular human person is simultaneously the commencement of all social and spiritual relationships.

On the basis of this brief exposition, it will then be considered what light it is possible that the divine mysteries of the Immaculate Conception, Incarnation, and Eucharist can contribute to understanding how to help the “homeless” human embryo. This is not primarily, then, a discussion of the immorality of in vitro fertilization, or any other procedure which brings about the conception of a human being outside of the marital embrace; rather, the focus of this part of the discussion is on the very existence of a “homeless” human embryo requiring the completing nurture of mothering, and the dynamic of human parenting. Thus, this author will advance the position that the very deficit of a mothering embrace, which ordinarily begins when a man’s wife becomes pregnant, already implies a “need” to rectify the injustice to the child of being “homelessly” conceived. In other words, it is not that this child does not have the parents who contributed to the existence of the child; but, in the very nature of being “instrumentally” conceived, the child is “relationally impoverished” in terms of the very dynamic characteristic of human development: the participation of the “whole” of human parenthood. The “frozen human embryo” expresses, poignantly, the completely incomplete reality of being conceived without the ensuing completion of development—epitomized in the triple tragedy of the freezing of a human embryo: of being conceived outside the natural complementarity of the womb; of being conceived in a way that obscures the reality of the person-as-gift; of “freezing”, as it were, the inherently progressive developmental goal of manifesting the whole of human personhood.

There are a number of parts, then, to this article; however, there are the following main divisions: What is Conception? (I); Conception in the Teaching of the Church (II); Conception in the Mysteries of Mary, Jesus and Each of Us (III); the Morality of Embryonic Transfer and Adoption (IV); and the Adoption of the Embryonic Human Child (V)2.

What is Conception? (I)

Conception, ordinarily, is a beginning. The beginning of a beginning is, as it were, the first instant of that beginning. Therefore, the conception of a human being is from the first instant of fertilization. In view, however, of the natural “uncertainty” that “surrounds” the possibility of human conception, it is clear that there is a complementary psychological disposition to the act of being open to the gift of human life: of an integrally grateful giving which both belongs to the marital embrace and “opens” upon the possibility of a child. In other words, even in an account of the “moment” of conception, it is necessary to recognize that this belongs to the intimacy of marriage, and the language of love’s giving. Indeed, it is possible that a reason for the very “objectification” of the conception of the human person is the tendency to separate what belongs together: to divorce human conception from the marital act. The popular expression, “making love”, bears the intuitive insight that belongs to a wealth of human experience: that love entails the good of the lover and the loved. The integral fruit of the reciprocal good of the love that becomes husband and wife is the good, nascent but begotten in the love of each other, that unfolds and develops in the “passing” from the possibility to the actuality of conceiving a child.

Furthermore, almost as a kind of natural theological outcome of philosophical speculation on the beginning of human personhood, there is a threefold argument for the action of God at the first instant of conception. What is beyond the nature of the contributing factors must come from an agent more capable than they are: therefore, a soul is created and ensouled by God. Secondly, the very nature of an instant beginning of an everlasting human person implies a uniquely inner determination of what constitutes the ripe moment of the whole beginning of personhood. Thus, an ensouling instant that begets a beginning is expressive of the power of God. Thirdly, God so perfects human cooperation in that inward moment of ensoulment being manifest in an outward beginning of embryonic human life that it evidences His completely intimate “involvement” in the mystery of human conception: a truly human-divine act of begetting a child of man, male and female, and a child of God.

The objection that the human embryo is not ready to be “ensouled” at the first instant of fertilization presupposes an ancient account of the human soul as actually bringing about changes in the “matter”: as if the changes in the matter were “dependent” on a threefold process of ensoulment. Thus, the plant-like level of life required a vegetative soul. Vegetative development matured and was then followed by the requirement of an animal-like soul stimulating sensitive development. Following the maturing of animal-like development, the process culminated in a readiness for the reception of a rational soul, and the wholeness of a human being3. In other words, implicit in this understanding is the view that rational ensoulment requires a specific developmental stage of “bodily” being. However, the human body is not defined by the absence of the human soul, but by its presence; and, therefore, delayed ensoulment points to the need for a more integral understanding of the “whole” of human being.

The reality of the first instant of the sperm’s animation of the ovum is expressed by the enclosure of the sperm head “in” the embryonic wall. In other words, up until the penetration of the ovum by the sperm, there are two entities that are nevertheless ordered to each other in the transmission of human life; but, on contact, the inert ovum is animated by the active sperm, and becomes, in that instant, a human embryo. The inertia of the ovum is evidenced in the inactivity of the mitochondria: the energy centers of the ovum-as-cell. The formation of the embryonic wall, then, constitutes an outward sign of the new reality of the child conceived4.

In answer to the main objection to delayed animation, modern embryology makes it very clear that the whole embryo is marvellously coordinated from the beginning, developmentally independent of both parents, while naturally dependent on the mother for psychologically embracing embryonic nurture and, thirdly, the child is an integrated whole whose goal is the progressive manifestation of being the person he or she is. Thus, there is no obstacle to ensoulment from conception, by God, which is also a kind of “incarnation” in that the soul constitutes the person, one in body and soul (cf. Familiaris Consortio, 11); indeed, if the soul is understood as the “life” of the person, not only does the soul constitute the integrating principle of personhood but it is, too, the new “life” of the person who comes to exist through the union of the gift of parenthood. Not only is the soul the integrating principle of human life, evidenced by the disintegration which follows death—the human soul is also inseparably one with the matter which constitutes the human being: man is one in soul and body (Gaudium et Spes, 14). In other words, there is an indescribable intimacy to the union of soul and matter which brings the human person to exist just as surely as the musician’s breath brings forth a note from a musical instrument. Just as the saxophone is life-less without the breath of a musician, so “matter” needs the personalizing presence of the human soul; however, just as a saxophone is a particular musical instrument, so is the first instant of human fertilization “apt” for ensoulment. In other words, it is abundantly clear that the “matter” involved in the transmission of human life is uniquely derived from the man and the woman and is, therefore, intrinsically apt to the reception and expression of the animating human soul. The human inheritance is, therefore, a deeply rooted reality which is totally taken up in the transmission of human life, and the procreation of a child. There is not, then, the “imposition” of a “form” on matter; rather, there is an inward change which manifests the personally humanized inheritability of the human race. On the one hand, then, there is an act of ensouling animation in the moment that the bodily expression of the person comes to exist; and, on the other hand, there is an ensouling animation of what constitutes the bodily expression of the human soul. The “matter” of the body is not, therefore, some kind of “indifferent” substance; rather, in the words of St. John Paul II, the matter of the body is “the genealogy of the person … inscribed in the very biology of generation” (Letter to Families, 9).

Conception in the Teaching of the Church (II)

We need to begin by recognizing that although the Church has not committed herself to an affirmation of a philosophical nature concerning the moment of ensoulment, there is, nevertheless, a tendency in her documents to refer to conception as the beginning of the presence of the human person. A careful consideration, however, of the wording of these documents, particularly Donum vitae, The Gift of Life, raises a twofold possibility.

The first possibility is that conception is assimilated to the unification of what were the separate nuclei of sperm and ovum. In the English translation of Donum vitae, there are two points to note: the first is a reference to a beginning, and the second defines that beginning to be when the nuclei of sperm and egg have fused. Thus, we read in the main text of Donum vitae: “the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his [or her] bodily and spiritual totality” (Donum Vitae, I, 1). In the English text, then, there is the following defining note which goes on to say: “The zygote is the cell produced when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused”5. Therefore, Donum vitae could mean that the first instant of personal individuality is the first instant of the unification of the nuclei of the sperm and the egg6.

The Latin text, however, does not include the defining note which says, “The zygote is the cell produced when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused”; rather, the Latin text of Donum vitae simply says that the zygote comes to exist ‘‘orta a fusion” (arising from a fusion)’7. Thus, the Latin text could mean that the zygote comes into existence from the first instant of the fusion of the sperm and the egg which, as we know, developmentally unfolds uninterruptedly from then on; but, taking the sense of “arising from a fusion,” it could be argued that the English was simply making more explicit what was, in fact, the sense of the Latin, namely, that “fusio” is more of a “step” in the process rather than just a first instant. Therefore, it could be taken that the English note explicates the Latin phrase, ‘‘orta a fusion” (arising from a fusion). In other words, in the English translation of Donum vitae, conception of the person is assimilated to the first instant of the fusion of the nuclei; but, in the case of the Latin, which is the traditionally more authoritative text, the meaning is more open and could include the very first instant of fertilization.

Therefore, the second possible meaning of conception is the prior, first instant of fertilization referred to earlier, namely, the sperm’s animating penetration of the ovum, and the formation of the embryonic wall. In other words, the “delayed animation” type of understanding of conception is that of a “moment” subsequent to the embryo’s animation by the sperm’s penetration of the ovum; and, while possibly coherent with Church teaching, has the obvious drawback of presupposing an almost dualistic “combination” of “soul” and “body”. The original meaning of conception, however, is that of referring to a real beginning of an actual entity; and, therefore, there is the possibility that the second meaning of conception, more coherent with its actual meaning, is where the truth is leading. Thus, the integrity of a being formed, whole and entire from the first instant of conception, is both more coherent, consonant with the facts and, it is argued, “falls” within the range of meaning expressed in the Latin text of Donum vitae. In other words, conception “arising from a fusion” can denote, specifically, the ovum’s reception of the sperm, or the sperm’s penetration of the ovum which, together and in the “one” moment, “effect” the formation of the embryonic wall.

Part II will continue with a consideration of the help of the Christian mysteries to both understanding human conception and helping the frozen human embryo.

  1. This essay is a slightly adapted version of Part II of Chapter 5 of the book-in-preparation, We are an Icon of the Beginning to be published by enroutebooksandmedia, either late Summer or early Autumn.
  2. I acknowledge a particular debt to Dr. Elizabeth Rex for her encouraging and stimulating feedback in response to a prior draft of this essay; and, therefore, I am grateful to what has led to the re-crafting or further development of a number of earlier points.
  3. Cf. Chapter Twelve: Life “from” Life: A Reflection on the Moment a Person Comes to Exist, pp. 289-336, particularly page 304 of Scripture: A Unique Word, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).
  4. This summary statement is based on prior research, which can be found in Chapter Twelve: Life “from” Life: A Reflection on the Moment a Person Comes to Exist, pp. 289-336, particularly pages 317-322 of Scripture: A Unique Word).
  5. Donum vitae,
  6. This whole discussion of the different translations of Donum vitae is more extensively carried out in Francis Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, St. Louis, MO 63109: En Route Books and Media, 2017, pp. 361-389: Chapter Five: On the Development of the Church’s Prudential Judgements on Human Conception and the Plight of the Frozen Embryo”, particularly page 369.
  7. Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, p. 369.
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020),
Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), Unfolding a Post-Roe World (2022), Reaching for the Resurrection: A Pastoral Bioethics (2022), and Human Nature: Moral Norm.

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.


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