The Gift and Rights of Being Conceived, Part 2

Even if, as we have seen in Part I of this essay, there are unresolved questions concerning the definition of the moment of conception, an irreversible moment involving the action of God, each one of us is nevertheless evidence of an actual beginning; and, what is more, with the pressing advances that are made upon the most vulnerable among us, there is an urgent need to go on seeking that truth that will illuminate and recover, as only the truth can, the rights of the unborn.

Part II: The Gift of Being Conceived and the Plight of the Frozen Human Embryo1

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.2

Conception in the Mysteries of Mary and Jesus and Each of Us (III)
In the following two sections it is necessary to establish what can be known, both naturally and supernaturally, concerning the beginning of each of us.

The fact of human conception
What can be reasonably established about human conception is that there is an obvious start to the new entity of the human embryo: the formation of the embryonic wall on the penetration of the ovum by the sperm. Delayed animation of the embryo is more “interpretative” of the facts than the more self-evident reality of there being a radically new beginning for a new human being; indeed, it could almost be argued, for relationships to be real there has to be a point at which a child radically exists as “present” to the parents. What better moment, then, than the first instant of “love’s” manifestation of the coming together of husband and wife!

The reciprocal relationship between natural and revealed truth
On the basis of a real, outward sign of the origin of human personhood in the “sperm-inclusive-enclosing” of the embryonic wall, there is a natural “sign” capable of expressing an “inner mystery”: the natural outward sign of the enclosing embryonic wall expressing the inner moment in which God determines there to be an animating human soul. Thus we can argue that God acts in a way which gives witness to His action, not because He needs it, but because it is a part of the Creator’s communication to us of the nature of human being, and the mystery of God. Thus creation is a witness to the act of the Creator who brought it about; and, similarly, pouring water over the head of an infant, together with the Trinitarian words of the minister, is an outward sign of the gift of baptism. Just as a sacrament is an “outward sign” of an inward action of God, so the formation of the “embryonic wall” is an outward sign of the inward action of God that brings a person to exist.3 In other words, God reveals Himself through “deeds and words” (Dei verbum, 2)4 which, taken together, are like a hermeneutical principle: a principle through which to understand God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Therefore, even in the instance of a natural sacrament, like the first instant of fertilization, God acts in a visible way to communicate the invisible reality of bringing the person to exist—the whole person, one in body and soul (Gaudium et spes, 14).

Secondly, there is a kind of “Patristic Principle” based on a number of texts of the Fathers of the Church which, in effect, lead to the conclusion that whatever is true of human conception is redeemed by the coming of Christ; and, therefore, as the nature of human conception becomes better understood, so it is clearer that redemption begins with the beginning of the Conception of Mary and the Incarnation of Christ.5

While, then, God generally acts in a way that communicates His mystery to the creatures He has created, this particularly applies in the conception of Mary. God’s conception of Mary is an ensouling action of God which takes up the wholly natural contribution of her parents into the history of salvation. Thus the conception of Mary was, in effect, an act of God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier; and, therefore, it could be said that although human conception is a “deed and word” which would not normally be directly implicated as an act of saving love, on reflection we see that in fact as human conception entails an act of God it is almost intrinsically ordered to salvation history.

There are acts of God in the Old and New Testaments which express, more directly, conception as ordered to salvation history, particularly the conceptions of Isaac, Samuel and John the Baptist. More widely, then, expressing the truth that each person comes to exist in relationship to Christ is indeed to realise that the action of God at conception is in the heart of salvation history; as it says in Gaudium et spes: ‘For, by his incarnation, he, the son of God, has in a certain way united himself with each man’ (22). If, then, it is true of human conception in general that this is an integral expression of how we are “begotten” in salvation history, then how much “more” true is this of the mystery of the Incarnation in which, uniquely, the Son of God is expressed in the flesh of human being: God from God and man from Mary! Just as man is hypostatically united to God in Jesus Christ, and each one of us is ‘in a certain way united’ with Christ, so each one of us is, as it were, “in potentia” to the possibility of participating in that hypostatic union. Perhaps, in one sense, baptism and the other sacraments more generally, are an “actuation” of this mystery of our participation in the hypostatic union between God and man in Jesus Christ.

Thirdly, what can be recognized as true of human conception will apply to Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which was to be humanly conceived in a state of original grace; and, moreover, what follows from her graced conception assists us to understand the first instant of her conception and, therefore, the first instant of our conception. In the mystery of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, the radical gift of God’s grace brings forth the integrity of the woman who is to bear the Christ-child: the mystery of Mary’s graced-nature informs our understanding of the conception of each of us. In other words, if Mary is to be free of the “taint” of original sin, the original deprivation of graced-nature which Adam and Eve both lost themselves and passed that “loss” on to us, then it follows that there cannot be an instant that her flesh existed that it was not conceived without original sin.

Moreover, given that a personal grace requires a personal subject,6 it would follow that Mary was “present” from the first instant of her conception; and, in view of what we know of human conception, the first instant of human conception is the formation of the embryonic wall following the sperm’s penetration of the ovum. The dogma of the Immaculate Conception, it could be argued, while advancing an extraordinary grace for Mary in terms of being conceived without original sin builds on nature to do so;7 and, in building on nature to do so, the dogma of the Immaculate Conception is an implicit confirmation of there being a first instant of human conception from which her redemption follows. While Mary’s redemption is different from ours in that it is from the first instant of human conception, Mary’s human nature is common to ours in that it is from the first instant of human conception.8

Mary, then, after Adam and Eve, is the pre-eminent case of the human person united to the Son of God; and, in so being, it makes radical sense that she is wholly without sin and completely human, one in soul and body, from the first instant of her conception. In other words, the redemptive mystery that the Son of God, ‘has in a certain way united himself with each man’, takes on a particularly transparent “completeness” in view of Mary being sinless from conception; and, on that basis, radically unites her to the salvific work of her Son, Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man. Just, however, as the Blessed Trinity is at work in the creation of man, male and female, so the Blessed Trinity is present in the re-creation of the human race through the Incarnation of Christ.9

Fourthly, in the case of the Incarnation of the Son of God there is the “originality” of the gift of the second Person of the Blessed Trinity being enfleshed in the womb of Mary. While the eternal Son of God becoming man is a truly extraordinary event, the very “conception” of Christ entails a first moment of the fertilization of the human ovum as it is animated by Christ’s human soul and, therefore, begins an unfolding development which expresses the personhood of the Christ-child. In other words, just as the conception of the Virgin Mary entailed a first instant from which “she” was conceived, one in body and soul, so there is a first instant from which Christ was miraculously conceived, one in body and soul; and, if a first instant, then the very first instant of human conception if Christ’s soul was not to be united to flesh “tainted” with the “loss” of original sin. On the one hand, then, the Son of God is God from God and eternally “of” the Father; but, on the other hand, being “of” Mary in the very nature of human temporality, it follows that He was conceived in a way which united Him to the very depths of human conception: depths from which our redemption proceeded as from the deepest origin of each one of us.

Fifthly, our understanding of the Eucharistic “presence” of Christ is of an instantaneous change of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ; and, therefore, there is the principle of an “instantaneous” change existing, manifesting itself and being an expression of the action of God. An action of God at conception, then, is no less complete and instantaneous than in the “moment” of changing the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. In other words, just as the universe did not always exist but was given existence, so a human person did not exist and is given existence. Therefore the gift of each human person is in the context of God giving, from all eternity, the gift of existing from the moment of His action. Just as having spoken is an irrevocable act, so is the beginning of existence an irrevocable change which conditions the development of what unfolds from it. A human being constitutes a relational whole which is both immersed in the whole history of the human race and, at the same time, is a new beginning of the matrix of relationships in which each one of us is both immersed and expressed.

It is clear, then, from the aforementioned natural and supernatural arguments that there is a “congruence” between natural and supernatural truth in determining the first instant of human conception. The implication of this conclusion is that there is a vital necessity, then, to an action which seeks to save a child conceived—if conception is from the first instant of fertilization. Is there, then, a similar congruence in determining the help necessary to the “homeless” human embryo? “Homeless,” not because of being “un-housed,” but “homeless” because of being conceived without the nurturing home of the mother’s womb.

The Morality of Embryonic Transfer (IV)
There are two sections to this part of the article: the first section concerns a brief exposition of the natural arguments for Embryonic Transfer and Adoption, and the second section concerns the supernatural arguments for Embryonic Adoption.

Natural Arguments for Embryonic Transfer and Adoption
At its simplest, a child conceived outside of the womb is without the immediate possibility of benefitting from the mother’s nurturing contribution to the completion of embryological development; and, therefore, there is a natural injustice to the child who, in his own way, cries out for redress: a voiceless cry which appeals to us the more it is almost inaudible in being submerged in freezing temperatures. This is the unnatural drama of the ordinarily “invisible” reality that has been brought into existence by others, and is an on-going “rupture” in the universality of the human right to the completing of nurturing necessary to human beings at the beginning of life; indeed, this human right belongs, inexorably, to the human right of the gift of life once given: the gift of life is an irrevocable gift, and entails the whole manifestation of the person conceived. In other words, the child is, first and foremost, a gift: a gift each one of us is given to be; and, in the case of a frozen human embryo or other abuse of the recipient of this gift, there is an injustice done to the very being of the child. At the same time, there is obviously a problem in perceiving the humanity of the child in storage; and, indeed, perhaps the sophistication of the methods of preserving the child in storage is an indication of the lengths to which we will go to hide the humanity of the frozen child.

Secondly, then having been conceived in a way contrary to the very humanity of natural relationships, this child is dependent on being given hospitality in the womb of a woman; and, in order to make this possible, the child must be transferred to her womb from a glass dish or a place of storage. The transference of the frozen child to the womb of the mother confronts the reality of the event of freezing a child: that this is another human being, equally gifted with existence as much as you and I are.

This procedure of transferring the embryo is radically different from the artificial methods of conception and transportation used up to this point. The reason that the transfer of a child to the womb of a woman is not to be confused or assimilated to in vitro fertilization, and its methods, is that this child now exists; and, intrinsic to his or her existence, is the natural right to completing human development which, in the case of the embryonic stage of a child’s development, requires the nurturing presence of a woman willing to be an adopting mother. The natural object of the act of embryonic transfer, then, is that of taking the embryonic child and placing it in the womb of a woman; and, as an integral part of this process, following through on the adoption procedure which would help the maturing identity of the child. Embryonic transfer is therefore helping to rectify the relational deficit that was incurred in the very nature of the mechanical method that was employed to conceive the child.

The adopting woman and, by implication, her husband and their family, are giving the humanitarian aid that this child needs to live; and, in this essential respect, they are fulfilling the natural gift of womanhood, parental care, and family experience that is indispensible to this child’s growth and maturation.10

The Supernatural Arguments for Embryonic Adoption
Just as in the case of understanding human conception, the question arises as to the help we may derive from considering the nature of the Christian mysteries particularly, in this case, the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God; clearly, however, there is an important and irrevocable distinction: the Christian mysteries are acts of God for our salvation, whereas conceiving a child outside the spousal embrace is already abandoning the implicit requirements of relational conception and development. The possible help to us of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God is recognizing that a humanitarian act that is different to the natural order is not necessarily contrary to it. The Church has already indicated that embryo transfer is acceptable when it is for the good of the embryo and, therefore, the possibility that embryo adoption is also acceptable for the same reason: it is necessary for the good of the homeless embryonic child.11

It has already been stated that there is an injustice to the child conceived without the natural possibility of completing his or her course of mothering nurture. God, however, even in view of this injustice, has given the gift of personal life; and, therefore, it could be argued, God is not responsible for the injustice to the child conceived but is, as it were, responsible for the life He has given. God, in His salvific acts, is constantly communicating salvation to the human race; and, in one respect, God’s saving acts are always in the context of man’s prior sin. Thus, man’s prior sin is not an obstacle to God’s saving acts, but rather the “occasion” of God showing a love greater than the death of sin. In general, therefore, God acts for the life and salvation of each one of us, even amidst the tragedies of sin and disorder which arise out of immoral and unnatural human action. In the particular case, then, of the frozen embryonic child, a child whom God “has in a certain way united [to] himself,”12

It is argued that the very adopting love of the rescuing husband and wife are a concrete expression of redeeming human love: a redeeming human love that is what it is because of the action of God within it that reaches to the needs of the child that was frozen.

God commands us to love the least of our brethren; and, in this situation of an orphaned embryonic child, the requirement of love is expressed in meeting the needs of a radically homeless child: a child conceived with the right to the completing natural development of the manifestation of his or her personhood. The focus of God’s salvific act, then, as always, is not the evil or injustice committed by human beings, but what is necessary to remedy the harm that they entail. Thus, in this instance, it could be argued that the natural law expresses the will of God in that we do what we are able to help the orphaned child. At the same time, however, the adopting husband and wife express the gratuitous nature of redeeming love: that just as there is a gratuitous act of giving life – so there is a gratuitous act of saving life.

Steering free of all commercial and quality control entanglements, therefore, is essential to the adopting husband and wife’s involvement in the rescue of this child; indeed, doing so, purifies the relationship between adopting parents and child and “returns” the child to the gratuitous love from which being conceived artificially removed him or her.

The Incarnation of the Son of God is an act according to the nature of God the Father’s eternal generation of the Son and, through the action of the Holy Spirit, is also according to the relational nature of human conception; it is certainly an extraordinary act in terms of it occurring within the marriage of Mary and Joseph, without entailing their marital embrace, and indeed implying the preservation of their virginal love of God, and each other. In the case, then, of the adoption of the embryonic homeless child, aided as it is by transferring the child to the woman’s womb, it is an act of life-giving charity which delivers an innocent child from the possibility of the indeterminate frustration of normal human development, disablement or death by deterioration; and, while this act of adoption occurs, of its nature, outside the context of an original act of spousal love, in providing for a homeless embryonic orphan this adoption begins to communicate the very nature of “redeeming” love as the gift to the child of the good necessary to his or her life.

In a word, just as God’s gift of life is completely gratuitous, so an act of redemption is completely gratuitous; and, just as God gives human life according to the covenant of the flesh He founded, so His saving acts are according to the needs of human life conceived. Nevertheless, even the gratuitous nature of redeeming love acts in accordance with the natural law that expresses our human participation in the divine law; and, therefore, what is done to rescue an illicitly conceived child is completely different to the action which caused the child’s embryological, developmental, and relational “homelessness”: the injustice expressed in the conception of a “maternally homeless” child is addressed by the justice of an indispensably generously gratuitous adopting love. In a word, just as redemption goes beyond original sin without endorsing it, so an adopting love goes beyond the injustice of a child conceived “maternally homeless” without endorsing the method through which the injustice was perpetrated.

The Adoption of the Embryonic Human Child
Conception, then, begins a biologically inscribed, psychological development that unfolds inseparably, socially and spiritually. Just as God acts at the beginning of each one of us, so His action begets the beginning of the spiritual relationship which unfolds in terms of the whole of life, and is lived, intensely, in prayer and communion with others. From the beginning, the whole “bio-physiological psychological dialogue” between mother and child is, as it were, a personal communication between the mother and child;13 and, in being a personal relationship, reveals the personal relationship at the root of human being: the expression of an interpenetrating parental and divine love.

In a sense, then, one of the most challenging tasks of our time is to recover the reality of human conception as an expression of love; and, at the same time, to recover the reality of the person conceived as gift from gift: the gift of the child from the reciprocal gift of human love—the reciprocal gift of human-divine love. It seems all too possible to traverse the myriad paths to an ancient truth, and yet, never to arrive at it so vividly as Eve did: “I have begotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gn 4: 1). It is true that there are many wonderful developments in the world around us, and in the culture that permeates our everyday world; but, in one sense, there is a failure of reason and imagination—an inability to recognize that each one of us is a living witness to an astounding fact: that the frail temporality of our beginning belies an immutability of “who” comes into existence: that God “recognizes” a person, in and through, by “ensouling” whatever constitutes the real beginning of a human life: that a human person is begotten unto the possibility of eternal life. Perhaps what we need is the contemplative complement14 to the analytical approach: to pause in front of our own identity, the wonder of our children, and, indeed, the mystery of the Christ-child; in terms of the modern roots of our thinking it may be necessary to revisit the question of the whole of human being:15 an understanding of the mystery of human being as proceeding, as it were, as a whole from the contemplative gaze of God from all eternity. It may even be that we are facing a failure of faith, too, in grasping that if God gazed from all eternity on man, “male and female” (Gn 1: 27) contemplating, as it were, the creation of human beings in the light of His own mystery, that He saw a perfectly whole human personhood, completely integrated from the first instant of fertilization, relational, and wondrously manifesting the nature of personal being! Just as we need to enliven our perception of each existing person, and the first “moment” of his or her existence, so we need to fall again in prayer in front of the mystery of our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.

In conclusion
There is a congruence of reason and faith in both understanding the original moment of human conception and what, therefore, constitutes the good action which expresses the “redeeming” love of an orphaned embryonic child. In a word, the adoption of a radically “homeless” embryonic child, conceived from the first instant of fertilization, is an act of redeeming love: an act that participates in the mystery of God’s adopting love of the human race (cf. Eph 1: 5).

Progress in the Church’s teaching, then, not only proceeds in terms of the relatively recent discoveries concerning the nature of human conception; but, in addition, can be further enabled by the “organic” dialogue between the dogmas of the Christian Faith, and their “implied” foundation in the mysterious fact of human existence. Thus, this essay argues for a more coherent exposition of the dogma of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, and the nature of every human conception: the action of God from the first instant of fertilization.

Just as creation and redemption require a radically original moment of human conception, so do human and divinely redeeming adoption reciprocally illuminate each other as gratuitous gifts of love; and, if adoption is the work of the redeemer, and grace builds on nature, then the radical adoption of a “homeless” embryonic person is yet a further expression of the lengths to which love goes in the “homing” of the homeless. Thus, this essay argues for the clarification of the teaching of the Church on the right to embryo adoption: the reciprocal right of offering, and being offered, the possibility of embryo adoption.

In a word, then, if there is progress in understanding the irrevocable moment of human conception, then it beholds the human community to articulate this truth in a newly formulated charter of human rights; indeed, from what begins as a whole, comes the unfolding of what began from the first instant of that beginning. As truth and goodness are inherently ordered to one another, then the whole gift of human personhood entails the immutable right of the full unfolding of what has begun. ‘If we are all equal in the receipt of the gift of human life’16 then the unfolding of that gift is a common good. Thus, the human person, the human being-in-relation, the child, has the right to an integrally human conception, development, and manifestation of the human person. This essay argues for a new instrument of human rights to be debated and clarified for the benefit of the whole human race.

  1. The sections are numbered according to the whole essay; and, therefore, Part II runs continuously with Part I.
  2. 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 in late Summer or early Autumn, 2018.
  3. Cf. Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word, Chapter 12.
  4. Dei verbum does not apply, specifically, to the beginning of human life; however, in so far as it applies to the action of God generally, it applies specifically to the action of God at conception
  5. Cf. Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word, Chapter 12.
  6. Cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: III, 5, 4: “it is through the mind that man sins and receives grace …”
  7. “Grace builds on nature” (St. Thomas Aquinas)
  8. Cf. Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word, Chapter 12.
  9. Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Mary for Today, Middlegreen: St. Paul Publications, 1987, translated from the original German, p. 35: ‘The angel announced to her not just the incarnation but fundamentally the entire mystery of the Blessed Trinity … .’
  10. Cf. Etheredge, various parts in The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, particularly Chapter 7, Parts IV-V.
  11. Cf. Dr. Elizabeth Rex, “IVF, Embryo Transfer and Embryo Adoption”, NCBQ, Summer 2014; and cf. Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, Chapter 7: Parts IV-V.
  12. Slightly adapting Gaudium et spes, 22.
  13. Cf. Foreword and Biography to Chapter Five by Kathleen Sweeney, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, pp. 226-233.
  14. On the back cover of The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, Rev. Dr. Nicanor Austriaco says that Etheredge’s set of Essays “emerge from a contemplative reflection upon what it means to say that the person is a ‘created word.’”
  15. This emphasis on the “whole” of human being arose, in a way, from considering various insights in the work of Edith Stein, “A Gift from Edith Stein (1891-1942): ; but now a part of the forthcoming book, The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends:
  16. Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, p. 347.
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), Human Nature: Moral Norm, Lord, Do You Mean Me? A Father-Catechist! (2023), A Word in your Heart: Youth, Mental Health, and the Word of God (2023), and An Unlikely Gardener: Prose and Poems.

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.