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The Moment of Personhood: A Commentary on Dignitas Personae,
Part One, nn 4-5

Dr. Edward J. Furton, NCBC Director of Publications

Have you ever had someone tell you that the Catholic Church does not teach that the human soul is infused into the body at conception? Would you be shocked to learn that this is pretty much true? The Church holds that a “human being” begins at conception, but you will not find any official Vatican statement asserting that there is a “human person” at conception.

Regardless of whether or not a person is present from conception, the Church has always condemned abortion. The sacredness of human life remains inviolable, whether or not we know with certitude that the embryo conceals within itself a personal presence. But it is easy to see why those who are hostile to Catholic teaching would want to use this “loop hole” to argue that abortion is not really wrong, or to say that human embryos do not really deserve the same kind of respect that babies do.

An earlier 1987 Church document, Donum vitae (DV), had said that the point at which the soul is infused into the body is not a scientific question, but a philosophical one. It observed that “no experimental datum can in itself be sufficient to bring us to the recognition of a spiritual soul,” but it also said that scientific evidence provided a valuable confirmation of the view that there is a personal presence from the moment of conception. The zygote, or single celled organism that is formed from the sperm and ovum, is a unique individual, not identifiable with the life of either the mother or father. Having stressed this unique individuality, Donum vitae then asked “how could a human individual not be a human person?” (DV I.1)

This is a nice rhetorical question, and even though it strongly implies what the correct answer must be, that was as far as Donum vitae was prepared to go. Thus it concluded that

the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.

To say that the human embryo is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception is not the same thing as saying that the human embryo is a personfrom the moment of conception. There is, in fact, a very significant difference.

Dignitas personae (DP) took a further step in the direction of affirming that there is a personal presence at conception, though it apparently continues to resist arriving at a definitive conclusion. If we look closely at the argument of DP, it seems increasingly difficult to imagine how the Church could affirm that there is any other moment at which the soul is infused.

Part One (#4) of DP begins with the observation that, “in recent decades, medical science has made significant strides in understanding human life in its initial stages. Human biological structures and the process of human generation are better known.” The document acknowledges that much progress has been made in the field of embryology since Donum vitae. What is now even more evident than before, according to DP, is that “the embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its proper finality.” Also DP states that, at no point during that development do we find any other moment, besides conception, that would qualify as the transitional point at which the soul could be infused. Scientific evidence shows us that embryological development is a continuous process that admits of no sudden leaps or changes.

These are the scientific facts that would seem to justify a stronger conclusion. Dignitas personae therefore states, in paragraph 5, that

the reality of the human being for the entire span of life, both before and after birth, does not allow us to posit either a change in nature or a gradation in moral value, since it possesses full anthropological and ethical status. The human embryo has, therefore, from the very beginning, the dignity proper to a person. [emphasis in original]

We no longer see here Donum vitae's language of “as if,” but instead we see the words “the embryo has.”

But DP still has not stated point-blank that “the embryo is a person.” We will not find that expression anywhere in the text. Nonetheless, it would seem that this is the only conclusion that one could possibly draw, for if it is true that the embryo undergoes no change in nature throughout its development, and if it is true that the embryo, by its very nature, has the dignity of a person, then it must also be true that the embryo is a person---and from the moment of conception.