Book review: Norman M. Ford, When Did I Begin? Cambridge University Press 1988.


Author: Darryl R. J. Macer
The clue to the way this question is answered lies in the subtitle, "Conception of the human individual in history, philosophy and science". Dr. Ford is a Salesian priest and moral philosopher and concludes with the answer that we did not begin before definitive individuation, which occurs with the appearance of the primitive streak at 14 days after fertilisation. The book argues against placing the time of ensoulment before or after that time.

The forward is written by Baroness Mary Warnock, who chaired the U.K. Committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology. While that Inquiry examined the question of when human life became morally and legally important, they did not attempt to answer the question "When did I Begin?", which really should be the fundamental question before considering how to treat the human embryo.

The book is written with a philosophical approach, including much current scientific knowledge of embryonic development which is crucial to the question. Many Christians have stopped considering the weight of scientific data beyond the moment of fertilisation, however the formation of a new genotype after the sperm and egg fuse, is not the only major step in embryonic development, and is not

necessarily synonomous with our beginning. The references and notes are quite adequate, and there is a reasonable glossary which will be needed. We could hope that it might become available in a cheaper paperback edition, as it is an important book at a time when society is deciding the laws dealing with human embryos.

After an introduction to recent considerations of this question and the problems of language, Ford turns to the historical influence of Aristotle on our ideas of human reproduction. This is a useful historical introduction from the thinking of Aquinas and the relevance of scripture to the current Vatican position. Then the criteria for being a human individual is examined, which he equates with the idea of an ontological individual. The being must start to behave like an individual before individual personal development can occur.

After laying this foundation, the second half of the book is divided into another three chapters, considering the scientific and philosophical evidence, and the various arguments put forward for the beginning of a human individual at three stages, fertilisation, implantation and after implantation. There are several problems with placing the beginning of the individual at fertilisation, including the difference between genetic and ontological individuality, identical twinning occurs between 7-10 days later, the 70% natural embryo wastage before implantation is complete (14 days), the totipotency of early embryonic cells, the lack of unity of the cells in the early embryo, the possibility of chimeras (individuals from multiple embryonic cells) being formed, and recombination (two embryos combine to form one), and parthenogenesis where the embryo is not the result of a fertilised egg with the new genotype, the possibility of a cancerous tumour being the outcome of embryonic development. There are important philosophical problems with ensoulment occuring before an individual exists.

Implantation is the next major stage (7-14 days), and it has some significance for the stability that is occuring. More significant is the formation of the primitive streak at 14 days which makes a beginning of the clump of cells becoming an individual coordinated embryo. By 3 weeks the process called gastrulation is completed where the embryo has formed the three basic types of tissue and the membranes around the embryo are well underway. Ford concludes that the time of individualisation is 14 days, the time from which we began. There is some logic in saying that a "human individual could scarcely exist before a definitive human body is formed", fertilisation is to be considered as the beginning of the development into a human individual.

Some Christians believe that God preordains all fertilisations and they see fertilisation to be the start of a person which is considered to come about as the direct result of God's will. However, this

view, which is the common objection to manipulating human embryos, can apply to any particular stage of embryonic development as it applies to ensoulment. It is a separate question to that considered in this book. It is the deeper theological issue of God's providence versus free will. To believe that every action is the direct result of God's will is only one possible interpretation of God's sovereignty. Some knowledge concerning human development that is accessible in this book might help to change this attitude. This issue is important in consideration of birth control, embryo arrest, abortion and embryo research.

There are still questions regarding the time of ensoulment, such as the idea of brain life, when the brain begins to function, as a criteria of personhood. The book is written in a style open to philosophers, scientists and laypeople of most religions. Whatever our intepretation of life's beginnings, the arguments discussed and the scientific descriptions provided are useful. It is an important book in the development of Christian thinking on the subject also, being basic reading for anyone interested in this or related questions. Even if the human individual does not begin until after 14 days, it does not mean that we can treat eggs, sperm and embryos in any way, or use them for experimentation. That is a separate question, but one that is dependent on the answer to when did we begin.


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