Friday, December 17, 2010
Behind the scenes on the 1986 Constitutional Commission's declaration that conception -- and therefore life -- begins at fertilization
(See this as well: An important legal resource: the 1986 Constitutional Commission declares that life begins at fertilization.)
By BERNARDO M. VILLEGAS
December 16, 2010, 11:00pm
MANILA, Philippines – In the Philippine Constitution of 1987, conception is defined as fertilization, the moment the egg is fertilized by the sperm. This was the majority decision (32 to 8) of the members of the Constitutional Commission of 1986 convoked by the late President Corazon Aquino. This majority decision was made after the most thorough debate in which some of the most articulate members of the Commission raised their objections, bringing up some of the issues that are now being revived by the population control advocates. Some raised the issue of personhood. They claimed that the fertilized ovum is not yet a person, even quoting Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Others maintained that the fertilized ovum is not yet viable and, therefore, cannot be considered a human being.
Despite all these objections, the majority decided that conception should be defined as the moment of fertilization.
I was the sponsor of the provision and had to answer all the objections. For the sake of constitutionalists, lawyers, and Supreme Court justices, let me describe how I defended the position that the fertilized ovum is already a human being. To the question, is the fertilized ovum alive? My answer was: “Biology categorically says yes, the fertilized ovum is alive. First of all, like all living organisms, it takes in nutrients which it processes by itself. It begins doing this upon fertilization. Secondly, as it takes in these nutrients, it grows from within. Thirdly, it multiplies itself at a geometric rate in the continuous process of cell division. All these processes are vital signs of life. Therefore, there is no question that biologically the fertilized ovum has life.”
To the second question “Is it human?,” my answer was: “Genetics gives an equally categorical ‘yes.’ At the moment of conception, the nuclei of the ovum and the sperm rupture. As this happens, 23 chromosomes from the ovum combine with 23 chromosomes of the sperm to form a total of 46 chromosomes. A chromosome count of 46 is found only – and I repeat, only – in human cells. Therefore, the fertilized ovum is human. Since these two questions have been answered affirmatively, we must conclude that if the fertilized ovum is both alive and human, then, as night follows day, it must be human life. Its nature is human.
It must be stressed that the question about the fertilized ovum being human has to be settled by the natural sciences. In contrast, the question about personhood, that is, when does God put a soul into the fetus goes beyond the natural sciences. It is a philosophical or theological issue and cannot be settled by resorting to empirical evidence. That is why when Commissioner Blas Ople asked me whether there is in jurisprudence anything that will help determine the approximate moment of conception, I replied that only natural sciences have the answer. In my reply, I said: “I would like to read this specific statement by natural scientists about when human life begins. This is taken from the Handbook on Abortion by Dr. and Mrs. J.C. Wilke. The most distinguished scientific meeting of recent years that considered this question of when human life begins was the First International Conference on Abortion held in Washington, DC, in October, 1967. It brought together authorities from around the world in the fields of medicine, law, ethics, and social sciences. They met together in a think tank for several days. The first major question considered by the medical group was: When does human life begin? The medical group was composed of biochemists, professors of obstetrics and gynecology, geneticists, and so forth, and was represented proportionately as to academic discipline, race, and religion. For example, only 20 percent were Catholics. Their almost unanimous conclusion, 19 to 1, was as follows: ‘The majority of our group could find no point in time between the union of sperm and egg which is the fertilization or, at least the blastocyst stage and the birth of the infant at which point we could say that this was not a human life (the blastocyst stage is shortly after fertilization and would account for twinning).”
It was, therefore, the intent of the large majority of the framers of the Constitution of 1987 to define conception as fertilization. No amount of further debate will change that. Only a charter change can modify that conclusion. It is, therefore, futile for the population control advocates to suggest that conception should be defined as implantation. They will have to move for an amendment of the Constitution for their view to prosper. In the meantime, any contraceptive device (e.g. the “morning after” pill, the IUD, etc.) that can be medically demonstrated to be abortifacient, i.e. killing the fertilized ovum before implantation, will always be declared unconstitutional, whether or not the RH bill is passed. As far as the present Constitution is concerned, attacking the fertilized ovum is killing a human life. No amount of philosophizing can change that. For comments, my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.