A.C. Rouco on the Status of
the Embryo and IVF
"How Could a Human Individual Not Be a Human Person?"
VATICAN CITY, 17 MARCH 17 2003 (ZENIT).
Assaults against the human embryo are linked to faulty notions in the
realm of philosophy as well as medicine.
Here, ZENIT publishes an adapted text of an address by Alfonso Carrasco
Rouco, dean of the School of Theology of San Dámaso in Madrid, Spain.
He delivered it during a theological videoconference on bioethics. The
Feb. 28 videoconference was organized by the Vatican Congregation for
* * *
"The Status of the Embryo and IVF"
By Alfonso Carrasco Rouco
Among the characteristic traits of our culture one must count the
rapid progress of the technological capability to intervene at the
origins of human life, a capability that has been accepted and even
protected by the law in our societies.
This fact has placed at the center of attention the issue of the
embryo's own status and the fundamental question of when a human being
begins existing. In the current debate, however, there appears to be a
lack of clarity regards to this subject.
An answer is possible, if one accepts to honestly acknowledge the
increasingly abundant amount of data about experimental science and one
immediately interprets it correctly within the framework of human
This interdisciplinary effort is necessary; biological science in fact
is capable of determining at what moment a specific human being starts
its life cycle, but does not include the person among the formal objects
of investigation, hence the importance of the new human being's dignity
and rights require the exercising of philosophical, ethical reasoning,
In any case, the issue concerning the status of the embryo cannot avoid
assuming first of all the fundamental biological data that is present,
however in an extremely summarized form.
There exists a biological use of the words: "life" (also
applicable to the cell, the organism, the population and the species);
"organism" (multi-cellular living beings with forms of
individual life); "life cycle" (the real form of the existence
of an organism in the morphological and functional variations that
programmatically belong to it). There is also a precise meaning in
biology for "individual human organism."
Science teaches us that, after the fusion of the gametes, a new human
cell starts to operate as a unit, the zygote, provided with a new and
exclusive structure of information that creates the basis for its
further development. Studying this cell, it is clear that this embryo,
in its initial stage, is not "only a mass of cells," but a
real individual, in which the cells are closely integrated in a process
guided by the genome, in which a certain organism develops.
The zygote therefore is a new organism at the beginning of its life
cycle, in which the human individual evolves autonomously according to
an increasingly complex rigorously defined plan. The final shape is
achieved gradually, according to an intrinsic regulation, written in the
genome that guides the development of the embryo.
Biologically speaking, starting with the fusion of the gametes the
embryo is a real human being, not simply a "potential" one: It
is in the zygote that the biological identity of a new human being is
Most of the objections made against this statement have no consistency
from a scientific point of view, and therefore do not deserve a detailed
discussion on this occasion.
One could instead say that one objection derives from the existence of
homozygotic twins, which according to some proves that one zygote can
turn into two human beings, and that consequently there might be a
period of development of the zygote that might be preliminary to the
existence of the human being. Biological data does not appear to confirm
Observations do show instead that, in this case, which is also quite
rare, there is first one human being from which another immediately
originates, and not an undefined system that soon forms two defined
The experimental manipulation of embryos has on the other hand shown
that embryonic cells, over a period of time, are provided with
multiple-power or "total-power": meaning that, they can
differentiate in different ways in various environments and even become
This possibility of these cells, which exists only when they are
artificially separated from the developing embryo, would deny the
individuality of the initial embryo, which would rather be an aggregate
of, to say the least, potential individuals.
Now, the total-power present in the zygote does not mean indefiniteness.
This is an individual who is creating himself according to a precise
self-regulating mechanism. The embryo's cells are provided with
necessary potential for this process, as the precise parts of an
individual organism that will develop, if this is not prevented by
external intervention. In this manner, therefore, the totally-powerful
cells are part of an organism the individuality of which they do not
It is mainly the philosophers and the theologians who object that no
embryo can be considered a human being until the central nervous system
is sufficiently developed (sixth to eighth week of pregnancy).
One must remember, however, the particularity of the embryonic status,
meaning an organic process involving the gradual organization of the
body, in which unity and individuality are organized by the laws written
in the genome. For biologists, this explanation is not an objection.
Whether the embryo, during the various stages of its corporal
development, is suitable material for receiving the "soul,"
whether it can be considered a "person," is not an issue that
can influence the conclusions reached by experimental science, nor can
it be solved by it.
From a biological point of view, one can recognize the various stages of
development. It is only a quantitative observation that evaluates the
degree of complexity achieved at a given moment; for example, when the
so-called embryonic disk is formed.
In all events, from a scientific point of view it is undoubtedly the
conclusion according to which, from the moment of conception, a new
unitary human organism develops according to a coordinated, continuous
and gradual modality; that it is always the same identical individual,
led through an increasingly complicated process by an intrinsic law
written in its very own genome.
In a few words, with the fusion of the two gametes, a new human cell,
characterized by a new and exclusive informative structure, starts to
behave as an individual unit.
In the famous Warnock Commission's final report one reads: "Because
the timing of the various stages of development appear to be critical,
once the development process has begun there is no particular time at
which one stage is more important than the other; they all form a part
of a continuous process, and if each of these stages does not occur
normally at the right time and following a precise sequence, further
development ceases. For this reason, from a biological point of view,
one cannot identify one single stage in the development of the embryo,
beyond which the in vitro embryo should not be kept alive."
However, that same commission introduced the word
"pre-embryonic" for reasons that were openly neither
scientific nor biological, but socially induced, so as to facilitate the
acceptance of the embryos' manipulation by society's ethically sensitive
This shows us clearly how biology is intrinsically open to surpassing
mere experimental analysis, to achieve more concise perceptions, to
categories and concepts that are in continuity with philosophical
meditations. These, on the other hand, must develop respecting the data
of the living reality they intend to refer to, without manipulating this
data with passions or interest extraneous to the authentic dynamics of
Modern sciences, biology, also provide important information for
determining the status of the human embryo: the affirmation of the
individuality of the biological organism, present after conception. This
corresponds to the philosophical affirmation concerning the existence of
a unitary subject of the corporeal organism, identical and the same
during the entire course of his life cycle, amid the biological changes.
This subject is inevitably of a human nature, it is a human being. Once
again this makes manifest an important philosophical truth: It is
impossible to separate the biological dimension from the human one, or
from the corporeity.
Mankind's corporeity is not an appendix added to the human essence, but
rather an expression of the human being, one and indivisible; hence the
existence of mankind is corporeal from the very beginning, it has a
corporeal beginning. The initial absence of complete external shapes in
the embryo does not question the authentically human characteristics of
the becoming corporeal organism. The body too is therefore human and
cannot be reduced to a mere object or simply a thing.
From the philosophical point of view it is in particular emphasized that
the human being is not reduced to its biological dimension, to the
material dimension or to its belonging to the animal species, because it
consists in the substantial union of the corporeal dimension and the
spiritual one, and because, in a unique and unrepeatable manner, open
and in relation with all the Creation, with the Absolute.
Of course, the presence of a spiritual soul cannot be deduced from the
observation of any experimental data. In spite of this the very
conclusions reached by science in regards to the human embryo offer
precious indications for being able to rationally acknowledge a personal
presence in that very beginning of human life: How could a human
individual not be a human person?
The presence of the embryo of a human person cannot be observed using
the methods followed by experimental science and does not therefore
constitute a strictly biological affirmation. It does, however, have
important consequences since it may prove insufficient to speak only of
the unborn child's "human nature," which might then be
considered only as one more specimen of the human species, which could
be subordinated to the general good of the species — for example,
through scientific experimentation.
The concept of person instead affirms first of all the individual
subject (the existence) of a rational nature; in fact it is not human
nature as such that is born, but always a human being, a single human
But it is in this very way that the human being expresses the
incommunicable uniqueness, the unrepeatability of the human individual;
this means the expression of the singular and eminent dignity, since
each person is unique and unrepeatable.
The person has a dignity and a value per se, not only depending on
mankind in general or on some accidental quality; therefore the human
being can never be used as a means, but is an end to itself, with its
This also applies to the embryo, and first of all one must remember that
it is a human individual, and therefore cannot not be a human person.
If the signs of a personal presence are weak and hidden, it is all the
more necessary that this embryo should be provided with the credit that
all human beings need so that it may manifest what it is, as is easy to
understand when dealing with children: "The typical way in which a
boy grows into a man implies that he must be considered from the very
beginning as a human being and not as a thing. Should the educator treat
him as a thing until the first signs of rationality appear, these first
signs would never appear. Mankind has the right to make use in advance
of the credit of humanity."
Summarizing, the truth on the status of the human embryo is accessible
to mankind's intelligence if he is not closed to the truth, uniting the
biological perspective to the philosophical meditation: It is an
individual being belonging to the species called homo sapiens, in one
word, it is a human individual and therefore a human person. This status
belongs to the embryo from the very first moment, hence after
fecundation. Therefore in every moment one must acknowledge the embryo's
dignity and value as an individual human being.
Theology makes the unique personal dignity of the human embryo
definitely manifest, acknowledging that its origin and its full destiny
are in God, that it is loved in its creation and even more in its
redemption through Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man.
This is implied in the traditional affirmation of the immediate creation
of the human soul by God. Hence one understands it starting from its
unique and personal relationship with the Creator, and in a manner that
cannot be reduced to the dynamics of matter, from which it cannot come,
or to the spiritual strength of its parents, which even they cannot
In addition to the discussion regarding the moment in which the soul
enters the body — if one can imagine the existence of a human body
without a union with its soul, at any time during its organic
development — one thereby affirms the absolute irreducibility and
dignity of each person, whose origin must be identified in a unique and
specific relationship with the eternal God.
Every human conception forms part of God's particular plan, God who
eternally loves the child whatever the circumstances of its conception
may be, perhaps sinful or violent. Every man, from the very beginning of
life, is the object of divine predilection: God contemplates in the
child all that it is called upon to be, knowing the child and loving it
from when it is in the mother's womb, opening the child to its Destiny,
united to that of his beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
The encounter between the two children, Jesus and John the Baptist,
which takes place in the scene of the Virgin Mary's Visit to her cousin,
St. Elizabeth, is a splendid testimony of this paternal loving
Providence and the personal meaning of the embryo in the mother's womb.
The acknowledgment of the embryo as an individual human being, one in
body and in soul, avoiding its reduction to a merely physically reality,
a mere biological product, will be the starting point in moral behavior.
This means the axiological status of the human embryo follows the
ontological status and is depicted by the same fundamental elements for
every living human person; this moral requirement derives for each being
from the principle of justice: from the acknowledgment of another person
who is the same as myself.
Hence the embryos' physical and moral well-being must be respected and
encouraged, as well as their own rights; with reference to the embryo
one could also list: the irreducibility, the integrity, care and health,
the life habitat, procreation within marriage, and birth.
The debate concerning the moment in which the soul enters the body or
the infusion of the spiritual soul, regards to which the teaching of the
Church have not spoken, is not decisive for this moral judgment. The
unborn child must be respected as an innocent human being.
In fact, if from the moment of conception a human life exists, the
presence of the soul cannot be excluded; hence damaging the embryo means
assuming responsibility for seriously damaging the dignity and the
rights of an innocent human being, an act that is always immoral.
Well, respect for the human embryo begins with the modalities and the
conditions in which conception takes place. This aspect of the problem
came to light especially through the development of techniques for
One must first of all remember that these techniques for in vitro
fertilization are characterized by a very elevated cost in terms of
embryonic lives. There is a high percentage of failure and, effectively,
the embryos are exposed to the risk of death over a short period.
These risks have in no way been overcome by progress in scientific
research, nor can they be avoided with the current techniques that
envisage an enormous loss of embryos (for example, the percentage of
success in ETIVF according to the ratio of fertilized eggs/children born
alive, is no higher than 5%) and cause seriously problematic situations
due to many "surpluses," "numbers in excess," which
remain frozen — which is a clear aggression against their most
The generalization and development of these techniques, in which the
number of abortions caused, and other immoral acts concerning married
life — the indispensable masturbations, for example — is very high
and is inducing people to lose sight of their immoral and criminal
This has created reasons for a serious ethical crisis of fundamental
dimensions for our society, also when there are attempts to hide this by
using words such as "pre-embryonic," "clinically assisted
procreation," "embryonic reduction," etc.
These techniques for IVF would continue to be morally evil even if the
problem of the excessive number of embryos was eliminated as well as the
serious risks they run; in fact, "they separate procreation from
the totally human context of the conjugal act" and create "a
dissociation between the gestures destined to human fecundation and the
conjugal act," and do not correspond to the full truth of conjugal
life and the generation of a child.
Nuptial communion between a man and a woman is the only place that is
suitable for the life of a new human being. A person born to a new life
can be suitably understood only as the result of that uniting and
procreational indivisible love, which, on the other hand, is the symbol
of God the Creator's eternal love. Only nuptial communion is provided
with the personal characteristics that are needed so that a child that
is born from the very beginning as a human person and not as an object
that anyone can use.
Being generated as the fruit of embryo producing techniques does not
correspond to the dignity of the embryo. It then ceases to exist within
the context of a gift and of love, remaining within the field of
production, of the effects and results of human power attempting to
satisfy its own needs.
Effectively, very often a logic of "domination" over the
unborn embryo follows the acceptance of these techniques for
procreation, attempting to decide in advance over its life and its other
The fact that its embryonic life is subject to subjective will and the
power of techniques does not respect the dignity of a human person. This
becomes even more and more obvious the further the techniques introduced
distance conception from the environment of nuptial love, introducing
third parties, the absence of a father, the prospect of cloning etc.
This aggression against married life and the fundamental relationships
of fatherhood and motherhood then questions the fundamental good and the
rights of the human person.
Procreation at all costs is incompatible with the dignity of the human
embryo, whose personal existence establishes clear borders for the
expectations of human, scientific and technological power, and clearly
manifests the inevitable presence of freedom and therefore of the moral
value at the heart of all human actions.
This responsibility, especially clear when facing a weak and undefended
human life, is also the signal of human dignity, present from conception
due to the particular relationship mankind has with God, who bestowed
the gift of life and to whom he wished to give an immeasurable dignity
offering for love definite redemption. ZE03031722