An Interview with Priests for Life

By Patheos Gateway Team - May 31, 2009

This week, Patheos interviewed Fr. Peter West, Associate Director of Priests For Life (, on the subject of abortion. (See the Public Square for more Catholic perspectives on abortion.) Fr. West responds to questions about the beginning of life, the role of Catholic advocacy in a pluralistic society, and whether abortion is ever morally permissible.

Patheos: When does life begin?

PW: It is science, not faith, that tells us that a new human life begins at fertilization.

As the novelist Walker Percy once said, "How much more convenient if we lived in the 13th century, when no one knew anything about microbiology and arguments about the onset of life were legitimate."

Below are some quotes from scientists regarding the scientific fact that a new human life begins at fertilization:

"Human development begins after the union of male and female gametes or germ cells during a process known as fertilization (conception). Fertilization is a sequence of events that begins with the contact of a sperm (spermatozoon) with a secondary oocyte (ovum) and ends with the fusion of their pronuclei (the haploid nuclei of the sperm and ovum) and the mingling of their chromosomes to form a new cell. This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning, or primordium, of a human being." [Moore, Keith L. Essentials of Human Embryology. Toronto: B.C. Decker Inc, 1988, p.2]

"The development of a human begins with fertilization, a process by which the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote." [Sadler, T.W. Langman's Medical Embryology. 7th edition. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins 1995, p. 3]

"The question came up of what is an embryo, when does an embryo exist, when does it occur. I think, as you know, that in development, life is a continuum.... But I think one of the useful definitions that has come out, especially from Germany, has been the stage at which these two nuclei [from sperm and egg] come together and the membranes between the two break down." [Jonathan Van Blerkom of University of Colorado, expert witness on human embryology before the NIH Human Embryo Research Panel -- Panel Transcript, February 2, 1994, p. 63]

"Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)... The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual." [Carlson, Bruce M. Patten's Foundations of Embryology. 6th edition. NewYork: McGraw-Hill, 1996, p. 3]

"Although life is a continuous process, fertilization is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is thereby formed.... The combination of 23 chromosomes present in each pronucleus results in 46 chromosomes in the zygote. Thus the diploid
number is restored and the embryonic genome is formed. The embryo now exists as a genetic unity." [O'Rahilly, Ronan and Müller, Fabiola. Human Embryology & Teratology. 2nd edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 1996, pp. 8, 29. This textbook lists "pre-embryo" among "discarded and replaced terms" in modern embryology, describing it as "ill-defined and inaccurate" (p. 12}.]

Patheos: Is abortion morally permissible under any circumstances? Why or why not?

PW: The question can be asked another way. Under what circumstances would it be permissible to violently kill an unborn child living and growing in his mother's womb? It is interesting that many of the same people who oppose water-boarding suspected terrorists under any circumstances justify the choice to dismember an unborn child even in the second or third trimester of development. In fact, Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in all nine months of pregnancy and for practically any reason.

Roe vs. Wade said the only abortions the state could prohibit, if it wanted, were abortions in the third trimester provided they were not necessary for the woman's life or health. The exact words of the Court are, "For the stage subsequent to viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother." (Roe, 410 U.S. at 164-65)

In the companion case of Doe vs. Bolton, the Court defined the scope of the "health" exception as follows: "The medical judgment may be exercised in the light of all factors -- physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman's age -- relevant to the well-being of the patient. All these factors may relate to health." (Doe, 410 U.S. at 192).