Conception: A Contradiction?

[Cf. Francis Etheredge: Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, St. Louis: En Route Books and Media, 2019: (the publisher’s page includes interviews, reviews, endorsements, Contents and connections to other works e.g. Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration.]

Introduction: Who is My Neighbor?

When I plant a tomato seed, it grows into a tomato plant; and, in time, produces a crop of tomatoes. When a potato starts to shoot, it grows into a potato plant and, as if on umbilical cords, the potatoes grow at the end of a long thin tube. When a runner bean plant is sown, after being nurtured inside for a while in ice-cream tubs on the windowsill, then outside in cut-off milk bottles and then, finally, in boxes in the garden — they grow into runner bean plants and produce runner beans. Why is the human being any different? A tomato plant, a potato or a runner bean do not become anything other than what they are in the course of developing. This, it seems, is the natural order; where what is begun is what it is. If, therefore, a child is conceived, then a child comes into existence and the identity of that person unfolds through the stages of growth and maturity that are part of ordinary development. A child does not become anything other than who she or he is.

Making the same point in terms of the poignant sufferings we know to exist, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said: “Beginning at conception, children suffering from malformation or other pathologies are little patients whom medicine today can always assist and accompany in a manner respectful of life. Their life is sacred, unique, unrepeatable, and inviolable, exactly like that of every adult person” (the Good Samaritan, Samaritanus Bonus, 6).1

Why, however, begin a discussion on the nature of conception with a reference to plants and a document which, generally, attends to the sensitive care and treatment, as well as the accompaniment of, people approaching the end of life and the help that they need: particularly the help that they need to hope in God and to experience the love of neighbour, whether that neighbour is a member of his or her family, a doctor, a nurse or any person with whom they come into contact? Indeed, “neighbor” is a word rich in significance:2 “neighbor” (n.): “one who lives near another,” Middle English neighebor, from Old English: “one who dwells nearby,” from neah “near”; “dweller,” related to bur “dwelling,” from Proto-Germanic,* “to be, exist, grow.” In other words, there are many who live near another, dwell nearby and are, whether literally near or close to the heart of others in need, a neighbor: a concrete help to others. Who, then, can be a closer neighbor to the unborn than God Himself; and, therefore, who better to communicate the truth concerning conception than the Church? As Gaudium et Spes says: “For by His incarnation the Son of God has united Himself in some fashion with every man” (22)3; and, therefore, if this is a union prior to baptism what moment is prior to that of conception and corresponding, as it were, to the moment of the Incarnation?

The following discussion begins with Part I: The Teaching of the Church and the Problem of Uncertainty; Part II: On the Interpretation of Texts: Particularly “Amendment 14”; Part III: An Answer to the Uncertainty of What or Who Exists at Conception; and a Conclusion: Lest we Forget Mother, Child and Father. In all, then, it is hoped that by examining different kinds of teaching on the beginning of human life, the event of human conception, and the translation of what we have come to understand into law — we will better see how each helps the other to be truer to itself; and, therefore, drawing on reason and Revelation enables the whole truth to emerge, justice then compels a universal recognition of what is good for us all and the remembrance that, in the end, we are addressing the reality of real people’s lives out of love.

Part I: The Teaching of the Church and the Problem of Uncertainty

But to go back to the question: Why, however, begin a discussion on conception with reference to plants and a document on hope and compassion for the vulnerable, whether elderly or just conceived? There are two, if not three reasons for beginning in this way. Firstly, the compassion and hope which fills this document is as applicable, as it suggests, to the needs of the unborn, their mothers and fathers, as to the needs of the vulnerable at whatever time and stage of life; indeed, especially where it states, “Beginning at conception, children suffering from malformation or other pathologies are little patients whom medicine today can always assist and accompany in a manner respectful of life’” (Samaritanus Bonus, 6).

Secondly, yet again the Church has used the expression, concerning the beginning of human life: “Beginning at conception, children . . .” (Samaritanus Bonus, 6); and, therefore, the Church is clearly articulating a constant teaching that a child is conceived at conception. In the Gospel of Life, Pope St. John Paul II says: Every person can come to recognize “the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree” (2)4; and, indeed, what does conception ordinarily mean but the “very beginning”? Donum Vitae, on the Gift of life, says in its introductory comments: that “the first part will have as its subject respect for the human being from the first moment of his or her existence”;5 and, therefore, can he or she exist from the first moment of his or her existence without being a person? It is certainly true that a person can exist without being recognized to be present; and, as such, there is a process through which that presence, which is ordinarily hidden, is made increasingly visible and recognizable. Thus, as even the Warnock Report admitted, there is ordinarily a seamless unfolding of each one of us from conception onwards.

Thirdly, again the Church speaks of the child’s life being “sacred, unique, unrepeatable, and inviolable, exactly like that of every adult person” (Samaritanus Bonus, 6); and, as such, echoes Pope Paul VI and Pope John XXIII, who said: ‘“Human life is sacred — all men must recognize that fact,” Our predecessor Pope John XXIII recalled. “From its very inception it reveals the creating hand of God.”6 Thirdly, discussing the ordinary propagation of plants helps us to understand in a simple, concrete way, the natural order by and through which one kind of being reproduces another; and, in this simplistic sense, it anchors the imagination that can envisage a whole plethora of possibilities which, however, need a basis in reality if they are to be relevant. In other words, in view of the multitude of possibilities which an imagination can generate, itself going beyond the evidence speculatively and implying the existence of that which enables this to be possible, namely the soul informing the body and constituting the whole of human personhood — there is a need to think in terms of what actually exists.

What better starting point, then, than concrete and familiar phenomena and from there to go on to what is more difficult to understand but which belongs, as it were, to the same universe of truths?

The Problem of Uncertainty

On the one hand in 1995, in Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, Pope St. John Paul II quotes from the Declaration on Procured Abortion, published in November 1974, which said, “Modern genetic science . . . has demonstrated that from the first instant there is established the programme of what this living being will be: a person, this individual person with his characteristic aspects already well determined” (60).7  The phrase which attracts attention, in this context, is where the declaration speaks of what has been established: “Modern genetic science … has … established … what this living being will be: a person.” In other words, “modern genetic science” has established the possibility that there “will be” a person; and, if there “will be” a person, then when will that person be there? When will the person who will come to exist — come to exist from the existence of “the living being” which does exist? Thus there seems to be a distinction between the “living being” which has come to exist and the person which will come to exist. What has come to exist, then, that is a “living being” and yet is not a person? As a kind of explanation of the possible thinking behind this distinction between a “living being” and the person that that “living being will be” there is a note that was added to the English translation of Donum Vitae, The Gift of Life.

The point of this part of the discussion is to show that, in fact, there was a dimension of meaning that “seemed to be omitted by addition” in the English translation of Donum Vitae, namely, that the zygote comes to exist “when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused.” Thus the additional English expression, “the nuclei of,” is both an additional phrase to what is in the Latin text and, at the same time, it is a phrase that seems to delimit the definition of a zygote to the fusion of the two nuclei. However, as we shall see, the Latin expression, “orta a fusione” (arising from a fusion), does not mention nuclei and, therefore, is a more comprehensive account of the nature of the zygote. Thus the Latin text may include, in its range of meaning, the development of the zygote from the first instant of fertilization; and, therefore, the Latin may well be more inclusive of that first instant than the English expression: “when the nuclei of the two gametes have fused.” The expression, “when the nuclei of the two gametes have formed” tends to make one think that the zygote has not formed until the nuclei have fused; and, as such, could be described as an interpretative translation, referring to a developmental point which is not so clearly evident from the Latin text. For there is a case to advance that the Latin expression, “orta a fusione” (arising from a fusion), could apply from the very first moment that fusion occurs: the first instant of fertilisation.8

On the other hand, “On January 22, the U.S Supreme Court legalizes abortion in Roe v. Wade”; and, without going into the details of the whole judgement, the “State . . . has legitimate interests in protecting both the pregnant woman’s health and the potentiality of human life.”9  Thus, one may ask, what is the woman pregnant with, if she is pregnant with the “potentiality of human life”? In other words, what, concretely, is she pregnant with that has the “potentiality of human life”? What has come to exist, then, that is not human life but which has the “potentiality of human life”? Even St. Thomas Aquinas, whose antiquated biology was used to justify the claim that ordinarily there is not a human being from the first instant of conception10 argued that nature intends a man.

St. Thomas embraced such a comprehensive account of Christian and philosophical thought that it is worth considering his understanding of the implication of the delayed ensoulment of a human being; he said: “foetuses are animal before they are human . . . [but] nature, in producing the animal foetus, is aiming at producing a man.”11

Furthermore, and what seems to be much less well known, is that St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the conception of Christ was immediate: “conception of the body [does not precede] . . . animation by a human soul . . . in Christ”;12 and, indeed, it is this understanding, explicit in St. Maximus the Confessor, which advances the view that what happened to Christ, not withstanding the virginal conception, is what happens to us. “Fr. John Saward, drawing on St. Maximus the Confessor, says: ‘Apart from the saving novelty of its virginal manner, the conception of Christ is in all respects like ours.’”13

In other words, while there is an argument from St. Thomas concerning the delayed animation of a being from conception by a rational soul, there is a more important argument that Tradition has taken up, namely, that human conception follows, however imperfectly, the conception of Christ: that just as Christ was one in body and soul from conception so we are one in body and soul from conception. What is more, the philosophical biology on which St. Thomas based his three phase conception of human being was Aristotelian in that Aristotle held that matter was eternal and that, therefore, form (which determines what first matter will be) was always necessary to differentiate the matter that eternally existed into its various kinds; and, as it was held that human conception was not developed enough to receive a human soul, so it was understood that there was a three phase ensoulment: plant; animal; and then rational ensoulment.14

Prescinding, then, from the conception of Christ being a “model” of human conception, there seems to be a coincidence of meaning: that a woman is pregnant with a “living being” that “will be” a person or the woman is pregnant with whatever it is that has the “potentiality of human life” but, again, is not yet a person. In the first case there “will be” a person and in the second case there is the “potentiality of human life” and, presumably, at some indefinable point a human person. In the context of each document, however, there is a world of difference between how these two starting points are evaluated. In the case of The Gospel of Life, Pope St. John Paul II says: “what is at stake is so important that, from the standpoint of moral obligation, the mere probability that a human person is involved would suffice to justify an absolutely clear prohibition of any intervention aimed at killing a human embryo” (Evangelium Vitae, 60). Whereas in the case of Roe v Wade, the uncertainty as to what the woman is pregnant with has led to the possibility of the destruction of whatever she is pregnant with which has the “potentiality of human life.” In other words, there is uncertainty in both expressions of what has come to exist at conception and yet they are evaluated in completely different ways.

Part II: On the Interpretation of Texts, Particularly “Amendment 14”


15 All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.16

As, however, the 14th Amendment states, it is concerned with “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside,” it could, therefore, be said to exclude a more universalist claim to apply to all human beings, whether in America by immigration or for whatever other reason. But then it also says: “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”17 In other words, there is scope for the possibility that the meaning of no State can “deprive any person of life” is in fact of a more universal character; and, therefore, there is a sense in which, perhaps not fully consciously, the legislators intended an implicit declaration of human rights which, in the nature of the law, is simply expressed according to the natural jurisdiction of this law applying specifically to those born or naturalized in America.18

What, then, will help with the interpretation of legal texts?19 Thus, just as there is a concern for the original meaning of the philosophical understanding of “first matter” and “form”20 which lies behind the triple conception of human being, whether in Aristotle or St. Thomas following him, so there is an interpretation of legal texts which endeavors to understand the original intention of the document. Just as there are principles and practices basic to the interpretation of Scripture which, generally, develop from the principle that the literal sense is the sense intended by the author,21 so there seems to be a parallel sense of interpreting legal texts: “a method of statutory interpretation that relies on the plain text of a statute to determine its meaning.”22

Clearly, then, the American Constitution follows Lincoln’s address that “all men are created equal”;23 for, in the common understanding of being created equal, there is an ordinary sense, no doubt common at the time, that whatever constituted the original moment of a human being’s creation was a moment common to all. Therefore, it could be said, whatever is now understood to be the common starting point of all human beings is what establishes our common equality before the law. Thus the principle: Where the body lives, there the soul is and where both are is the person.24 Therefore, the first instant of human conception is ordinarily the first moment of a person beginning to exist. Where this first instant is subsequent to the first instant of fertilization, as in the case of twins, in the first instant that the body of the twin comes to exist is the first instant that the twin human being has come to exist; and, irrespective of the difficulties of conjoined twins, the reality of conjoined twins shows the reality of the relationship of bodily existence expressing personal existence. In the first instant of what is established by artificial methods of human conception, it is the first instant in which the bodily existence comes to exist that there is what expresses the existence of the human person, whole and entire; it being the nature of bodily development to progressively manifest the existence of the human person from conception.

In other words, again in the common understanding of the time, a person would have been understood to exist from conception in that the life of the person exists from conception: parents conceive children, not plants, and mourn the loss of a child, not the loss of a plant; and, now that conception is better understood to have a first instant, then it follows that personhood begins from the first instant of human conception: from the first instant that the sperm-egg union effects the whole of the embryonic child expressed, bodily, in the enclosing of the sperm in the newly formed and active embryonic wall. In other words, there is a moment when there is an active sperm and an inert egg and then there is the embryonic child expressed in the bodily integrity of the newly “walled” human embryo. For, quite apart from the philosophical problems that have arisen and, in a sense, which have always accompanied the definition of terms, there is the reality of a living presence from the first instant of conception: a person’s life: what is understood to be the life of a human child: the life of a boy or a girl. The American Constitution, then, establishes a wonderful precedent to which not only American abuses of this truth can be appealed,25 but to which the world can “measure” its juridical claim to expressing and embodying equality before the law; indeed, while other legislation is more explicit, such as the 1990 German Embryo Protection Act passed “in compliance with the Nuremburg Code,”26 the American Constitutional reference to the life of a person is as true now as it always was and communicates a common understanding that each one of us begins at conception.

Nevertheless, the opening wording of the 14th Amendment provides a context in which to understand the protection of the life of a person; for, it says: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” In other words, a person is clearly understood to refer to “All persons born or naturalized”; and, in general, a number of the cases which were heard with respect to this Amendment were concerned with, quite rightly, the reality of equality between races before the law.27 Thus, it could be argued, the 14th Amendment is referring to the life of a person who is born, in that this simply reflects the concern of the legislation at the time, bearing in mind its desire to establish racial equality before the law; however, the life of a person who is born may well be a way of presuming that the life of an unborn child is implicitly defended in that this naturally leads to the life of “All persons born.” In other words, the fact that the words of the 14th Amendment are concerned with the life of a person who is born is naturally the basis on which to recognize the implicit concern of protecting the life of all innocent people — from conception onwards.

One of the ways, then, of corroborating this claim is looking at the cultural climate which developed in the course of the period following the 14th Amendment. In other words, there are cultural, even legal developments, which elucidate the basic meaning of a text. In the case of the contemporary question of the validity of Anglican Orders, the question of what intention was expressed in the Anglican ordination of a priest, it was historically demonstrated that an Anglican priest was ordained in a specifically different sense to that of his contemporary, Catholic priest. In other words, an Anglican ordination was specifically intended to repudiate, or reject, the Catholic understanding of the priest as celebrating, effectively, a sacramental mystery of the presence of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.28 The point of this observation, however, is not to confuse the issue by assuming that there is no other intention possible, either then or now, but rather to recognize that a historical account can elucidate what is specific in a public enactment characteristic of a historical period. Similarly, then, the very developing of laws, across the United States,29 protecting the unborn child from the possibility of abortion is itself confirming evidence of the historical intentionality expressed in the 14th Amendment. In other words, the very development of legislation which protected the life of the unborn child, as it became increasingly threatened due to the increasing practice of abortion is itself evidence of how the 14th Amendment’s protection of the life of the person was and is to be understood.

Barrett . . . states that she “tend[s] to agree with those who say that a justice’s duty is to the Constitution and that it is thus more legitimate for her to enforce her best understanding of the Constitution rather than a precedent she thinks clearly in conflict with it. That itself serves an important rule-of-law value.”30

In a word, the historical consistency with which a statute is interpreted, whether in a constitution or elsewhere, reflects its underlying meaning and is a part of the evidence of what constitutes its original and stable meaning; and, therefore, the evidence of legislation, post-14th Amendment, protecting human life against a rising tide of claims to justify deliberate abortion is itself evidence of what was understood by the 14th Amendment’s protection of the life of the person. Furthermore, then, in the specific context of the American Constitution, it makes sense that the first duty of a judge is to express “her best understanding of the Constitution.”

Part III: An Answer to the Uncertainty of What or Who Exists at Conception

Uncertainty is a characteristic of human experience; and, therefore, it is not unusual for a variety of factors to help determine the reality of what actually exists: What the real situation is. Uncertainty, however, expresses a value. There is an uncertainty about whether or not a specific act of spousal love will beget a child; and, indeed, it is possible that the very uncertainty that exists allows for the perception and reception of a child as a gift: a gift from God.31 In the case of pregnancy, then, these two very different documents agree that there is an uncertainty about what is happening. On the one hand, the woman is pregnant with a “living being” and, on the other hand, with what has a “potentiality of human life.” In neither case does there seem to be any clarity about what comes to exist at conception; except, that is, there is a common agreement that “something” comes to exist at conception. The question is, then, what comes to exist at conception.

Drawing on St. Maximus, Fr. Saward says that “if the embryo immediately after fertilization is endowed with only a vegetative soul, then men father plants, not men. But in fact the act of fertilization establishes a human-to-human relationship between father and child; I am conceived by my father.”32 Alternatively, what is the living human life which has begun: Is it not an actual human life with the potential of manifesting the whole presence of the human person?

A further question arises: What is the experience of the women? My wife spoke of looking forward to meeting the person conceived,33 and, as such, echoed the certainty of Eve: “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gn 4: 1; but consider the whole biblical witness to the real experience of women, children and men written about in the Scriptures). Even, then, if it was not so clear to my wife that conception involved an act of God, it was certainly clear to my wife that she had conceived a child: “a man” (Gn 4: 1). There are many other testimonies, too, both in human experience generally34 and in the human experience embedded in the Scriptures. What is the identity of the human longing for a child which makes the suffering of infertility so painful?35 What is so disappointing about a miscarriage? Surely it has nothing to do with the abstract claim of losing a blob of cells: a claim so contrary to the reality of the organized human embryonic child whose development is so interactively ordered to his or her presence in the nurturing womb of his or her mother.36 What is the value of this human experience? Why is it only a question of arguments based on often difficult philosophical positions when, in reality, there is a wealth of human experience, particularly the experience of the woman and mother?37

Certainty: The Witness of Each One of Us

In contrast to the uncertainty that surrounds human conception, there is no doubt that a person who comes to exist, comes to exist at a certain point in time. In other words, each one of us is an indelible, irrevocable and incontrovertible witness to the three-dimensional fact: firstly, each one of us comes to exist; secondly, we come to exist amidst multiple relationships, beginning with those from whom we received our ordinary human inheritance, ordinarily our parents; and, thirdly, that our life is a gift and, if we are well disposed to recognizing it, we recognize it as a gift. Whatever we may think about the multitude of questions that surround human conception, that we are conceived is certain: that conception, which means “beginning,” is certain. The contrary claim, that we did not come into existence, is clearly contrary to the facts of the union of sperm and egg and the existence of each one of us.

Even with respect to the manipulation of human life which involves the multiple injustices of fertilization in a glass dish, discarding unwanted human embryos, freezing of human embryos, experimenting on human embryos and combining different paths to the whole of conception, wherever there is the living human body, there is the presence of the person. Otherwise why would husband and wife, from the dawn of time, come together and exclaim, like Eve, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord” (Gn 4: 1)? Otherwise why would a human egg be fertilized in a “petri dish” in 1977, and born in 1978, make the birth of Louise Brown “headline news around the world”?38 Otherwise why would a frozen human embryo returned to the nurturing womb be a human being: a girl called Hannah?39 Thus there is the corresponding human right that the human life, once conceived, in whatever way he or she is conceived, to the completing nurture of maternal implantation and development.

The Contribution of Revelation and Dogma

Within the very tradition of the Church, whether it is the unique conception of Christ drawing us ever closer to the truth of human conception, one in body and soul from the first instant of human existence, there are scriptural and dogmatic resources to be drawn upon to elucidate the mystery of human conception. Indeed, notwithstanding the different accounts of human conception and their authors’ purposes,40 there is a sense that who is conceived is conceived as a whole; as David says:

“Thy eyes beheld my unformed substance; in thy book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” Psalm 139:16; and, indeed, the very unique Hebrew word, golmi, communicates an incredible summary sense of “an unfinished vessel” which is inescapably personal: my unfinished vessel.41

At the same time there is the mystery of Mary, the Mother of the Lord. This mystery has, in the last century, come into greater and greater prominence, for a variety of reasons but, in truth, to assist us in a timely and providential understanding of the mystery of the Church, the mystery of salvation in Christ, and the mystery of each one of us. This great untapped mystery offers us a singular glance at the moment of human conception, primarily so that we can understand that Christ inherits human flesh free from original sin — but nevertheless it does so in such a way as to illuminate the moment characteristic of human conception:

If grace requires the presence of the human soul, then for grace to be effective in the flesh, as it were, as well, then body and soul need to be united. Thus the mystery of the Immaculate Conception implies that Mary is one in body and soul (Gaudium et Spes, 14) at the instant of their reciprocally coming to exist; indeed, as it says simply in Lumen Gentium: “Enriched from the first instant of her conception with the splendor of an entirely unique holiness, the virgin of Nazareth is hailed by the heralding angel, by divine command, as ‘full of grace’ (cf. Lk. 1: 28 …)” (56). In other words, while the Church does not explain the “first instant of conception” — the ultimate “first instant” is the first instant that the sperm animates the egg and the embryo expresses this through the formation of the embryonic wall.42

In a word, then, just as St. Thomas Aquinas argued that we need the help of Revelation to aid our understanding of whether or not there was a beginning to creation so we need the help of Revelation to determine the truth concerning human conception: a truth which confirms and expresses the common understanding of personal experience.

Conclusion: Lest We Forget Mother, Child and Father

Controversies, as we know, have raged and will continue to rage down the centuries of human history; but, in contrast, we have a number of helps. The Hippocratic Oath states: “I will not give a woman a pessary to procure abortion.”43 The Nuremburg Code says: “No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur.”44 The Belmont Report says: “persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection.”45 Indeed, there are any number of wonderful declarations that seek to draw the truth from human experience, rectify wrongs, and establish a way forward for us all; and, indeed, as it has been discussed, it involves the use of technical terminology which, however, has an understandable significance: the reality that each one of us begins: a beginning which entails an inviolability which requires recognition and, where appropriate, the remedies of medical help which are possible and applicable for the benefit of each human embryonic subject.

In a word, however, there is an ongoing necessity that there be an explicit recognition of what constitutes both the historical truth of what was intended by specific national legislation and its updating according to a more explicit understanding of a relevant reality, such as human conception; but, also, we are in a new human context and that requires a renewed understanding that even specific, national laws, exist in the context of universal truths and rights and that, in the end, these are a part of what will fashion the future for all of us.

Thus there will no doubt be ongoing controversies about the human right to completing human development: so that once a child is conceived he or she can be rescued from the frustration of being frozen; then there is the question of the integrity of human being: that a human being has a natural right to be conceived without the admixture of what is foreign to his or her natural constitution — thus excluding animal-human hybrid experiments on principle; and, finally, there is the whole field of experimentation on embryonic human beings and the vested interests of investigators, multi-nationals, harvesting of organs and a whole, almost unimaginable world of exploiting the human being as a “resource” — for this human being is our brother or sister.

We stand, then, at a point in human history where it is not so much a question of personal choice determining anything and everything as choosing the truth, as it becomes more fully known concerning human conception, that will take us into a humane future of the human race, or the future of the human race will be determined by the most powerful and prevailing vested interests that will determine, utilitarianly, whose future it will be to be a resource for the rest of the human race. If there are documents explaining the ethical relationship to one another, because of our equality as human beings46 and the tragic events of our times, then how much more necessary is a revisiting of these foundational expressions in the light, or flickering light, of the times in which we currently live.

In the end, then, this is not an abstract discussion, although at times it takes us into the most difficult philosophical terminology there is, the most amazing and detailed analyses of embryology and the most intense and controversial social disagreements in modern times; it is a discussion about specific people, whether born or unborn: it is about who has received the gift of human life is simply equal to anyone else who has received the gift of life. Thus no one is excluded from the world discussion of what we, as human beings, are bringing about in the present ethical climate of the human race. As we emerge, then, from our national identities and increasingly recognize that abstract truths about human personhood, that to be a human person is to be a human being-in-relation, need “returning” as it were to the concrete reality from which they came — we will appreciate more and more that parent and child, brother and sister, aunt and uncle communicate the profoundly interpersonal structure of human identity.

There is a mother who needs help.47 There is a child who needs help. There is a father who needs help to understand his fatherhood.48 And there is a world of people with vested interests who need help to appreciate that all human beings are a gift, equally given into the care of each of us; and, therefore, that whatever the good intended, there is obligated on all of us that there be an objective good for each and every one of us, without exception, otherwise there is an actual inequality between us. And if there is an actual inequality between us, as regards who is a human being, then there is the increasing possibility of an exponential increase in the exploitation of all of us; for human rights, in the end, are the rights of relationship: the rights of relationship which come into existence when human beings are conceived — conceived in relationship to the whole human race and to God.

Just, then, as a plant exists in an ecological context and what is done to it, for better or worse as regards the health of the individual plant and its place in the ethico-eco-system, so what is done to individual human beings impacts, for better or worse, on the “ethical” whole of the integrity of the human community. But, “conscious” as we are of our “limitations,” we ask “for constant prayer and intercession for” our efforts to translate the sacred texts “in the same Spirit by whom they were written”;49 and, therefore, we need and ask for the same help to read both the book of nature and all that helps us to recognize what is universally good, true and applicable to all. Thus, in a spirit of universal fraternity, any progress in the Church’s teaching on conception can only complement any development in the natural understanding of it; and, in that same spirit, one source can complement another while being very different from it.

  1. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
  2. The definition of neighbor was provided by Mr. Martin Higgins, MA, an Eastern European linguist.
  4. Evangelium Vitae:
  5. Donum Vitae:
  6. Humanae Vitae, 13:
  7. Evangelium Vitae:
  8. Excerpt from Francis Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, p. 369, St. Louis: En Route Books and Media, 2017.
  9. Roe v Wade:
  10. Dr. Elizabeth Rex: “End Word”: “1973 – On January 22, the U.S. Supreme Court legalizes abortion in Roe v. Wade. The majority decision uses 13th century theology and science to support their erroneous decision about when human life begins, stating: ‘Christian theology and canon law came to fix the point of animation at 40 days for a male and 80 days for a female, a view that persisted until the 19th century. . . . Due to continued uncertainty about the precise time when animation occurred, to the lack of any empirical basis for the 40-80 day view, and perhaps to Aquinas’ definition of movement” (footnote 807: Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973) IV.3, with emphasis and italics added) on p. 611 of Etheredge, Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  11. Summa Theologiae, Methuen, Pt I, Qu 85, art 4, p. 136; quoted from Etheredge, Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, p. 237.
  12. Summa Theologiae, Methuen, Pt III, Qu 5, art 5, p. 484, footnote 239 of p. 233 of Etheredge, Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  13. In footnote 249 of Conception: An Icon of the Beginning: Redeemer in the Womb, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1993, p. 12, but see also pp. 8-13.
  14. For a more comprehensive discussion of this, go to Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), pp. 303-306.
  17. My perception of this point was sharpened by my daughter, Grace Etheredge’s, reading of a draft of this article; and, in addition, the recognition that there will be a legal tradition defining the term “person.” But, at the same time, it must be understood that meaning is never confined to one expression of it and, therefore, there are wider considerations that are need to help us to understand the use of any specific, legal terminology.
  18. See: Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know About Supreme Court Nominee Amy Coney Barrett,” The Gospel Coalition, September 28, 2020. 5. In her judicial philosophy, Judge Barrett is considered a proponent of originalism, a manner of interpreting the Constitution that begins with the text and attempts to give that text the meaning it had when it was adopted, and textualism, a method of statutory interpretation that relies on the plain text of a statute to determine its meaning.
  19. “Form” is here understood as that which determines the pure potentiality of “first matter” to be a specific entity, e.g. plant, animal, or rational being.
  20. Cf. Etheredge, Scripture: A Unique Word, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014.
  21. Carter, “Amy Coney Barrett.”
  22. Dr. Elizabeth Rex, “End Word”, p. 607 of Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  23. See this theme developed throughout Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  24. Whether it be the abolition of slavery (Rex, “End Word,” p. 607 of Conception: An Icon of the Beginning), the mistreatment of people suffering from syphilis (cf. Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, “General Foreword” by Dr. Mary Anne Urlakis, pp. 13-16), or the manipulation of ignorance which led to such tragic experiments on women in the trials of contraceptive pills (Etheredge, footnotes 780-781 on pp. 583-584 of Conception: An Icon of the Beginning).
  25. Pp. 597-598 of Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, Elizabeth Rex’s “End Word.”
  26. Cf. the “List of 14th Amendment Cases”:; but, as one can see, there are many more cases that need to be considered as falling under this Amendment:
  27. Cf. for example, a concise summary of the point in question raised and explained by Dr. Francis Clark, SJ, in Anglican Orders and Defect of Intention (London: Longmans, Green, 1956), xx and 215. 25s. R. Vidler:
  28. Cf. Christian Myers, “Law Professor Reflects on Landmark Case”: “Barrett also outlined the history of the Roe v. Wade decision and associated cases in the Supreme Court. At the time of the case, most states prohibited abortion, except in cases wherein it protected the life of the mother, she said”:; and, more generally, the article by Steven Mosher: “How Amy Coney Barrett will use science and legal principles to overturn Roe v. Wade”:
  29. From Ed Whelan, “Judge Barrett on Stare Decisis”:
  30. Cf. Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (St. Louis: En Route Books and Media, 2017), 61-62.
  31. Etheredge: Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, p. 221, quoting from Redeemer in the Womb (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 1993), 10, drawing on the Ambigua 2, 42; 1337B-1340B.
  32. This was put more formally in the article, Francis Etheredge, “The Mysterious Instant of Conception”: The National Catholic Bioethical Quarterly, Autumn 2012:$FILE/ncbq_2012_0012_0003_0041_0050.pdf.
  33. Cf. Etheredge, The Prayerful Kiss (St. Louis: En Route Books and Media, 2019); the poem and prose entitled “Indelible”: an account of the loss of a child to abortion from the experience of a father.
  34. Cf. Etheredge, Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (St. Louis: En Route Books and Media, 2020). See Leah Palmer’s “Foreword to Chapter Seven,” pp. 223-228 and Chapter Seven: “Love, Scripture, Suffering and Bioethical Questions,” pp. 229-254; and see Adriana Vasquez’s Foreword, pp. 84-91, to Chapter Two: “Marriage is a Liturgical Act” of Etheredge’s The Human Person: A Bioethical Word, 2017.
  35. Cf. Etheredge, Conception: An Icon of the Beginning: the following is a profound analysis of the evidence by Profs. Justo Aznar Lucea and Julio Tudela: Chapter 5: Part II: “The Biological Status of the Early Human Embryo: When Does the Human Being Begin?” pp. 480-507.
  36. Cf. Etheredge, Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, for Scriptural citations under the heading: Chapter Two: “The woman’s perception of conception: Part V of XII,” pp. 158-162 and drawing further on Job up to p. 166.
  37. Dr. Elizabeth Rex, “End Word” on p. 596 of Etheredge, Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  38. Dr. Elizabeth Rex, “End Word”: “1998 – Hannah Strege, the world’s first adopted frozen embryo is born in San Diego, California on December 31, 1998” on p. 599 of Etheredge, Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  39. In Genesis, for example, there is a very different account to the creation of human being, male and female, to that expressed elsewhere and yet its very difference is open to interpretive explorations, albeit not contradicting natural truths (according to St. Augustine); see “Chapter Two: Scripture and the Beginning of Human Being,” Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  40. Cf. pp. 190-200 of Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  41. Etheredge, Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration, p. 166; and the footnote to this quotation goes to Etheredge, Chapter 12, Scripture: A Unique Word, in which the intricate evidence for these claims is discussed.
  42. Courtesy of Dr. Mary Anne Urlakis, p. 21 of The Human Person: A Bioethics Word.
  45. Cf. Chapter 5: Part II, a masterful review of the biological evidence concerning conception written by Profs. Justo Aznar Lucea and Julio Tudela in Conception: An Icon of the Beginning.
  46. Myers, “Law Professor Reflects on Landmark Case”:
  47. Cf. Etheredge, The Prayerful Kiss, particularly “Indelible.”
  48. Pope Francis, Scripturae Sacrae Affectus, commemorating the life and work of St. Jerome, citing Praefatio in Pentateuchum: PL 28, 184’:
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); and Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020).

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 co-founder of the Donum Vitae Institute.


  1. Though this is a ‘deep’ article, with foundational background, it serves to prove what has been known as simple truth and common sense for centuries. It’s only in recent decades, due to the growth of Communistic influence in every part of culture and life, resulting in an upside-down world, that truth is mocked and lies are promoted as truth. Whether out of ignorance or simply ignoring the truth of God, the Communist mindset refuses to agree with the value of life, except for their own, of course. But Satan knows the Truth, which he hides and twists, that every life has value and purpose and comes from the Source of Life, a loving God. With Mr Etheredge’s article, the ‘enlightened’ have an opportunity to truly be enlightened.

  2. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Thank you for the two who people have responded to this article; it is no small compensation for the pain it causes me to write and research as I do and to find an almost heart rending indifference. May this season stir the hearts of us all, whether to reconciliation, a deeper search for the truth or simply to love: to love fathers, to love mothers and to love children. God bless, Francis.

  3. Avatar Christine Kesterson says:

    Francis, this is an excellent article that covers all the major issues of the era. The issue of abortion and contraception is inseparable from the role of women in society and Church. Until we take a stand on the meaning of woman, motherhood and fatherhood and recognize that celibacy allows the transendance of these natural law relationships we will not be speaking the whole truth. See my LinkedIn articles on woman.


  1. […] Making the same point in terms of the poignant sufferings we know to exist, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said: “Beginning at conception, children suffering from malformation or other pathologies are little patients whom medicine today can always assist and accompany in a manner respectful of life. Their life is sacred, unique, unrepeatable, and inviolable, exactly like that of every adult person” (the Good Samaritan, Samaritanus Bonus, 6).1 […]