|Interview With Maureen Condic of the Westchester Institute
By Karna Swanson
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah, 7 NOV. 2008 (ZENIT)
The conclusion of scientist
Maureen Condic that human life begins at a defined moment of conception
isn't an opinion based on a belief, but rather a "reflection of the way
the world is."
Condic, a senior fellow of the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the
Human Person, published her conclusions in a white paper titled "When
Does Human Life Begin?" In the report she addresses the topic using
current scientific data in human embryology.
An associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of
Utah School of Medicine, Condic received her doctorate in neurobiology
from the University of California, Berkeley. Her teaching focuses
primarily on embryonic development, and she directs the University of
Utah School of Medicine's course in human embryology.
In the interview with ZENIT, Condic explains why the question of when
human life begins is important to address, and what scientific criteria
she used to define a "moment of conception."
Q: This is the first white paper for the Westchester Institute. Why this
topic? Why now?
Condic: This is an important question, with significant biological,
ethical and philosophical dimensions. As I note in the paper, resolving
when human life begins has important implications for a number of
controversial political topics, including abortion and human embryonic
stem cell research.
As a scientist and as director of a medical school course in human
embryology, I have been considering the general question of when human
life begins for quite a few years. The argument put forward in the white
paper has grown out of discussions with philosophers, scientists and
ethicists, as well as out of my own research in this area.
Yet this topic has come to the fore in the lead-up to the presidential
election. While the topic of when life begins has generally been avoided
by politicians and government officials, recently a number of prominent
figures have offered their interpretations, making this a timely subject
to consider with scientific rigor and neutrality.
Q: You define the moment of conception as the second it takes for the
sperm and egg to fuse and form a zygote. What were the scientific
principles you used to arrive at this conclusion?
Condic: The central question of "when does human life begin" can be
stated in a somewhat different way: When do sperm and egg cease to be,
and what kind of thing takes their place once they cease to be?
To address this question scientifically, we need to rely on sound
scientific argument and on the factual evidence. Scientists make
distinctions between different cell types (for example, sperm, egg and
the cell they produce at fertilization) based on two simple criteria:
Cells are known to be different because they are made of different
components and because they behave in distinct ways.
These two criteria are used throughout the scientific enterprise to
distinguish one cell type from another, and they are the basis of all
scientific (as opposed to arbitrary, faith-based or political)
distinctions. I have applied these two criteria to the scientific data
concerning fertilization, and they are the basis for the conclusion that
a new human organism comes into existence at the moment of sperm-egg
Q: Many in the scientific world would say that fertilization doesn't
happen in a moment, but rather that it is a process that comes to an end
at the end of the first cell cycle, which is 24 hours later. Why is it
important to define a "moment of conception," as opposed to a "process
Condic: It is not important to somehow define a "moment" or a "process"
of fertilization in the abstract. It is important to base conclusions
and judgments about human embryos on sound scientific reasoning and on
the best available scientific evidence.
Had this analysis led to a different conclusion
for example, that fertilization is a "process"
would have accepted this conclusion as scientifically valid. However, a
scientific analysis of the best available data does not support the
conclusion that fertilization is a "process"; it supports the conclusion
that fertilization is an event that takes less than a second to
The events of the first 24 hours following sperm-egg fusion are clearly
unique, but they are also clearly acts of a human organism, not acts of
a mere human cell.
Q: Do opinion, belief and politics have a place in defining the
beginning of a new life? How is it that the topic has become an issue of
Condic: The topic of when human life begins is an issue of debate
because it has strong implications for public policy on matters that
concern many people; abortion, in-vitro fertilization and human embryo
research. How "opinion, belief and politics" have assumed such a large
role in deciding when life begins is a question for a sociologist or a
psychologist, not a biologist!
It is important to appreciate that the scientific facts are themselves
entirely neutral; they are simply a reflection of the way the world is,
as opposed to how we may wish or imagine it to be.
That is not to say that the scientific facts lend equal support to any
and all views of when human life begins. While people are free to
formulate their opinion on when human life begins in any manner they
choose (including belief and politics), not all opinions are equally
consistent with factual reality. Those who choose to ignore the facts
cannot expect their opinions to garner as much respect or to be given as
much credibility as those who base their opinions in sound scientific
observation and analysis.
The opinions of members of the flat-Earth society should not carry as
much weight as those of astrophysicists in formulating national
aerospace policy. The opinions of those who reject the scientific
evidence concerning when life begins should not be the basis of public
policy on embryo-related topics, either.
Q: Who needs to read this paper and why?
Condic: I think every person who is concerned about the important
"life-issues" of health care, abortion, assisted reproduction and
stem-cell research should read this article, because understanding when
life begins is the basis of a sound political, ethical and moral debate
on these complex and difficult topics. Certainly, all those charged with
the formation of public policy on these matters should read this
argument and think seriously about its implications. If we cannot know
what a human embryo is and when it comes into existence, we cannot make
sound judgments regarding any of the issues surrounding the human
Q: What reactions have you received to the conclusions of your paper?
What do you hope will result from its publication?
Condic: Thus far, reactions have been thoughtful and considered. I hope
this will continue and that a clear understanding of the relevant
scientific evidence will help ground future public policy debates over
embryo-related issues in sound scientific fact
rather than in mere "opinion, belief and politics."
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On the Net:
"When Does Human Life Begin?":