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A Revolution in Biology, A Distortion in Theology

July 5, 2024


In his recent essay “A Revolution in Understanding the Embryo,” Dr. John Wallingford, the Regents Chair in Molecular Biology at UT Austin and a past president of the Society for Developmental Biology points to an amazing fact: 

Fifty-four years ago, I did something extraordinary. I built myself. I was a single, round cell with not the slightest hint of my final form. Yet the shape of my body now—the same body—is dazzlingly complex. I am composed of trillions of cells. And hundreds of different kinds of cells; I have brain cells, muscle cells, kidney cells. I have hair follicles, though tragically few still decorate my head. But there was a time when I was just one cell. And so were you.

Wallingford continues, “All organisms, including humans, build themselves. Our construction proceeds with no architects, no contractors, no builders; it is our own cells that build our bodies. Watching an embryo, then, is rather like watching a pile of bricks somehow make themselves into a house, to paraphrase the biologist Jamie Davies in Life Unfolding (2014).” The human embryo is actively self-developing his or her body toward becoming a newborn, a toddler, and eventually an adult. 

Unfortunately, Wallingford does not stay in his lane of his biological expertise:

In the modern debate over abortion, the doctrine that ‘life begins at conception’ is now so constantly repeated that it’s often assumed to have an ancient, perhaps even scriptural origin. It does not. In fact, in Catholic canon law, the doctrine dates precisely to 12 October 1869, when Pope Pius IX declared excommunication as the penalty for anyone involved in obtaining any abortion. For the nearly 2,000 years that had gone before, however, many Christian thinkers held the embryo to acquire its humanity only gradually. This concept, linked to the ‘animation’ or ‘ensoulment’ of the embryo, arose in laws first set down more than 3,000 years ago that imposed increasingly harsher penalties for causing the loss of a pregnancy as it progressed.

Wallingford’s claims are misleading. The Catholic Church has always condemned abortion, not starting in 1869, but from the first century in the Didache, the Letter of Barnabas, and the Apology of Tertullian. Medieval authors like Thomas Aquinas and contemporaries like Pope Francis echo this unchanging teaching. 

If embryos can be kept alive, then embryos are alive. If an embryo is alive, then the life of that embryo has begun.

Moreover, Wallingford confuses moral doctrine and canon law. Moral doctrine holds that the intentional killing of any innocent human being, before or after birth, is always wrong in every circumstance. But canon law, like secular law, determines a penalty for intentional killing that can and does change in various circumstances. A change in legal penalty does not mean a change in moral doctrine. 

Wallingford also expresses skepticism about “when the Church says life begins.” But this stance is only reasonable if there is a difference between what science teaches and what the Church teaches about the beginning of human life. There is not. Both hold that we begin to exist as embryos. 

Wallingford continues, “Science can tell us how the human embryo develops, and it is an undisputed certainty that embryos develop progressively, building complexity and identity only over time. But there is no scientific consensus on when during that progression ‘life’ begins.” This attempt to swim but not get wet fails. Wallingford himself writes, “Human embryos should be kept alive in vitro only for the most important, highly regulated reproductive or research purposes.” But if embryos can be kept alive, then embryos are alive. If an embryo is alive, then the life of that embryo has begun. Of course, an embryo can also not be kept alive. An embryo can die. But only something that has life can die. 

To make his view coherent, Wallingford needs to distinguish embryos who are alive from embryos who have life. This distinction without a difference “carries verbal wizardry too far, deep into the forbidden land of the sophists,” to use the words of Justice Scalia. As Live Action points out, “Why is a single cell considered life on Mars, but a preborn child not considered life on Earth?” 

Wallingford is also mistaken about a supposed lack of scientific consensus about when an embryo’s life begins. In his article “The Scientific Consensus on When a Human’s Life Begins,” Steven Andrew Jacob points out that “biologists from 1,058 academic institutions around the world assessed survey items on when a human’s life begins and, overall, 96% (5337 out of 5577) affirmed the fertilization view.” 

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Wallingford continues, “By the 19th century, the new scientists had reached consensus. The concept of progressive embryonic development of animal embryos was established once and for all. But then as now, the embryos of scientists are not the embryos of the public, or the Church. In an odd synchronicity, science and Church staked out opposite views at essentially the same time.” In fact, the Church and science are in harmony, not opposition. They both agree that you and I were once a single, round cell, a new human being at the stage of embryonic development. Modern science and the Church also both accept progressive embryonic development. Wallingford offers not a single example of a modern Catholic thinker who disagrees. Who thinks that you and I were once a tiny but fully formed human infant curled up inside a sperm? This view, called preformation, is as dead as a dinosaur. 

Wallingford points out correctly that 

there is no consensus among faiths on when life begins. Certain Christian faiths now hold that life begins at conception, and these have an outsized influence. Yet, even within Christianity, that view is a recent stance, and one that reversed centuries of thought. Other Western religious traditions don’t share Christianity’s ambiguity. Cleaving to the ancient gradualist view of development, Islamic tradition generally holds the embryo to become human 120 days after fertilisation, though some use the 40-day mark; in most Jewish traditions, it happens only at birth.

In fact, orthodox Judaism does not require a funeral unless the baby survives thirty days after birth. So unless Wallingford is willing to deny moral status to newborn babies in the first month of life, appeal to religion will not be of much help in denying the moral status of human beings in utero. Indeed, since we have religious liberty, anyone can make up a religion that holds that the fetus becomes viable when she graduates from medical school. For this reason, and others, we do not make religious views the basis of our laws. Rather, the foundation for our laws ought to be the equal protection of all human beings. I was a single, round cell. And so were you. And so are other human beings now. If we believe in equal rights, then all human beings deserve to be “protected by law and welcomed in life.”