Q&A with the Scholars: Science and the Beginning of Human Life
Maureen Condic, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah. She has been a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, a distinguished group of physicians, scientists, and theologians from the international community whose mission it is to study questions and issues regarding the promotion and defense of human life from an interdisciplinary perspective, since 2014. Dr. Condic is one of our nearly 40 associate scholars. In this interview, she discusses the beginning of human life and the moral status of the human being.
What can science tell us about when human life begins?
Condic: The question of when life begins has been addressed for a very long time by philosophers and religious thinkers—often without the benefit of detailed information regarding what actually happens during prenatal life. Consequently, this question has also been answered in a wide variety of ways, leading many to believe that the question simply cannot be answered.
The advantage of a scientific approach to the question of when life begins is that the answer is not based on opinion or personal values, but rather on direct observation. And in the modern age, we have very detailed observations, confirming beyond any reasonable doubt, that the cell produced by sperm-egg fusion (the zygote) is a human organism; i.e. a human being. We know this because immediately upon the binding and fusion of the gametes (a rapid event taking less than a quarter second to complete), the newly formed zygote enters into a sequence of molecular events that determine and direct its subsequent maturation and growth. The fact that the zygote autonomously initiates the process of embryonic development distinguishes it from a mere human cell and clearly indicates that it is a full and complete, albeit immature, member of the human species.
What can reason tell us about the moral status of the unique human being who comes into being at conception?
Condic: Similar to the question of when life begins, the question of when human beings have moral status and a right to life has also been answered in many ways. The three most common approaches are to confer rights based on 1) some aspect of form and/or function (ability), 2) social convention (or fiat) and 3) status as a human being (or nature).
Most of us reject linking rights to abilities as repugnant. It defies our basic sense of justice to envision a world where the strong, the beautiful, and the intelligent have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while the weak, the plain, and the slow are enslaved or killed. Similarly, most of us find repulsive the idea that a simple plurality of opinion can decide, as it did in Nazi Germany, who has rights and who does not.
The principles of liberty and justice form the basis of all civilized societies. The only way of viewing human rights that does not offend these principles is that rights are inalienable for all human beings; i.e. that we have rights only and always because we are humans. And this would apply equally to humans at all stages of maturity, including the zygote stage.
Why is it important that the right to life of the human being from conception until natural death can be established by scientific and philosophical, rather than revelation-based, arguments? Does this mean that religious arguments are somehow unimportant or should be excluded from the public square?
Condic: I don’t believe that the right to life of the human being can be established by a scientific argument. Science is simply a useful system for making accurate and neutral observations. As such, it does not speak to abstract principles like human rights.
In contrast, reason and logic are common to both philosophy and science. And the conclusion that all human beings have human rights is a logical, not a scientific conclusion. This does not mean that the truths revealed by religion have no place in formulating moral judgments. But I would argue that religious truths must be consistent with both reason and observation. For example, a religion that denies rights to people of a particular gender, race, or faith would have to reconcile this belief with scientific fact and place it within a logically consistent framework.
Why should the state not fund or promote embryonic stem cell research, and what alternative research should the state support?
Condic: As a matter of justice, no state should support, or indeed tolerate, research that involves the destruction of a living human being. While embryonic stem cells are scientifically interesting, research on stem cells derived from ethical sources (for example; animal’s stem cells, stem cells from mature tissues, and stem cells produced by cell reprogramming) are viable alternatives to human embryonic stem cell research.
Why are you pro-life? If you had 60 seconds to explain to someone why you have pursued the work that you have throughout your career, what do you tell them?
Condic: I have pursued scientific research because I am fascinated by how things work. And human development is an enormously complex, and therefore enormously engaging intellectual problem. It is also an astonishingly beautiful process; an elegant, intricate, and yet quite robust molecular dance. It seems to me that anyone who appreciates the beauty of human development and who has paused long enough to think through the logical implications, would inevitably have a profound respect and admiration for the beauty of human life.
Dr. Condic’s full biography can be found here.