Life Begins at 'Want a Cigarette?'

Presidents and babies are usually an unimpeachable combination, but two weeks ago, when President Bush stood for a photo-op in the White House with 21 "Snowflake" children, the scene sent a chill through the scientific community. Each tiny tot was a former frozen embryo rescued from cryogenic storage and implanted into an "adoptive" Christian mother. Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "This embryo was not discarded," Snowflake infants highlight the human potential of the in vitro fertilization (IVF) industry's vast and growing pool of spare fertilized eggs.

Run by the Nightlife Christian Adoption Agency, the Snowflake program is one of a growing number that seek out Christian couples willing to be implanted with some of the estimated 400,000 fertilized eggs residing in the nation's IVF freezers. Proponents refer to the process as "embryo adoption," and while no state or federal law currently recognizes the term, bills to do so are now being put forward in several state legislatures, including California's. To many scientists, however, Bush's endorsement of these programs signals yet another attempt to stymie embryonic-stem-cell (ESC) research.

The Snowflake gathering took place just days after South Korean scientists Woo Suk Hwang and Shin Yong Moon of Seoul National University announced the first successful attempt to derive embryonic stem cells from therapeutically cloned human eggs. Many medical researchers believe that ESCs hold the key to treating a wide range of diseases from juvenile diabetes to Parkinson's, and one potential source of such cells (at least for research purposes) is the fertilized eggs in IVF banks. Most of these eggs will eventually be discarded, and scientists argue that a better option would be to use them for stem-cell research.

But to Christian opponents, that is tantamount to murder, and so far the White House has agreed. U.S. scientists are barred from using federal funding for any research that would destroy a fertilized egg. The Snowflake jamboree was carefully orchestrated to protest a bill that would open up this option, and on that day the president declared he would veto any such attempt. Yet the point at which a human life begins is far from obvious. Hwang himself is adamant that his work does not involve killing: "I never destroy any life during my process," he told The New York Times. He argues that since the eggs he uses never formally become embryos, they cannot be considered human beings. The semantic nuances here can be exploited by both sides but, technically speaking, Hwang has a point.

In medical terms, an embryo is a fertilized egg (or zygote) that has become embedded in a woman's womb. The eggs used in Dr. Hwang's procedure are never fertilized and never leave the lab. Instead, the nucleus of an unfertilized egg is replaced by the nucleus of a cell taken from a potential patient's body, and the resulting hybrid is forced to undergo the cell division characteristic of a zygote. The process is known as somatic nuclear transfer, and strictly speaking, it does not result in an embryo.

In recent years, there has been a definitional drift -- fertility clinics have expanded the meaning of embryo to include test-tube zygotes and thereby opened the way for any kind of altered egg to be included in the definition. While this rhetorical strategy has no doubt boosted the IVF business by giving prospective parents the belief that each frozen cell -- each "snowflake" -- is a baby-in-waiting, it has also been a boon to the right-to-life movement.

When Does Life Begin?

For much of Christian history, the official church position held that a child's life began at the "quickening," when the mother first became aware of its movement. Typically, mothers feel fetal stirring around the fourth or fifth month, though some are aware as early as three months and others may not feel it until the sixth or seventh. In the age of ultrasound, we can see a fetus move as early as the second? month, and the technology is improving all the time. The U.K.'s Warnock Committee, which was set up to rule on embryonic research, adopted a policy that human life begins 14 days after fertilization with the appearance of the so-called "primitive streak," the tissue that will develop into the central nervous system. At that point, spontaneous division of the blastocyst (better known as twinning) ceases to be possible, and the embryo may be unequivocally termed an individual.

Current U.S. law sidesteps the question of when life begins. As Justice Harry Blackmun wrote for the majority in the Roe v. Wade decision: "When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy and theology are unable to arrive at a consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer." Effectively, in the wake of the Roe case, life comes into legal being at the point of viability, when the fetus can survive outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid. The time cited in the Roe decision was between 24 and 28 weeks, after which abortion is an option only if the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the mother.

Supporters of embryo adoption resoundingly reject Roe's ambiguity, arguing that a person is a person from the moment at which the egg and the sperm fuse. For biblical confirmation, they call upon Psalm 139: "You created every part of me," David said to God, "you put me together in my mother's womb." By this view, any fertilized egg -- and now also any egg that has undergone nuclear transfer -- must be considered as a fully fledged human and accorded requisite legal rights.

Redefining "Personhood"

It is beyond the scope of science to determine when a human person comes into being: "Personhood" is not a quality that can be reduced to an empirical scale, and the question remains indelibly in the realm of politics, culture, philosophy and theology.

Christianity has long recognized the metaphysical problem. In the traditional cosmology of the Christian afterlife, unbaptized babies did not go to heaven but to Limbo, a sad little anteroom to hell. Though these innocents would not suffer infernal torment, neither would they bask in the light of divine love. Their place in the eternal order was set on the negative side of the scale precisely because they had not been inducted into the community of believers, what Catholics call "the body of Christ." That doctrine acknowledged that the Christian person is ineluctably a social and socialized construct.

Traditional Catholic practice distinguishes various stages of human spiritual development -- though children are baptized at birth, full acceptance into the religious community requires the further steps of making one's first Communion (which usually occurs around the age of 10) and the later ritual of Confirmation, in which faith is formally professed. Taking this even further, the entire Baptist movement is founded on the view that adults must make a conscious choice to accept God into their lives. Yet if personhood begins at conception, then surely the time to baptize a soul is the moment a sexually active woman ceases to menstruate.

In Christian terms, full humanity has never been associated merely with material substance. Declaring that a human soul comes into being fully formed at the moment of conception is logically at odds with its status as an organ of informed choice and goes against the whole thrust of the born-again movement. What I find so curious about the right-to-life position on the fertilized egg is its astounding materialism: A zygote has neither brain nor mind and no ability whatever to accept or reject the existence of a supreme being. A "person" -- especially a Christian person -- is a being of free will. To extend that definition to a single cell is theologically absurd.


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