Earlier today at the Vatican Press Office, a veritable who’s who of scientific and ethical experts gathered to discuss the nature of the human embryo, seeking to understand how it may be more fully understood and respected within an increasingly hostile society.

The group had gathered to present plans for an international congress themed, "the human embryo prior to implantation, scientific aspects and bioethical considerations," which will be held at the Vatican on Monday and Tuesday of next week.

The congress is being held to mark the 12th general assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

On hand for today's press conference were Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life; Adriano Bompiani, gynecologist and director of the International Scientific Institute of Rome's Sacred Heart Catholic University; Fr. Kevin T. Fitzgerald, associate professor of genetics at the oncological department of Georgetown University, Washington, U.S.A.; and Bishop Willem Jacobus Eijk of Groningen, Netherlands, moral theologian, expert on bioethics and doctor.

Andrio Bompiani explained the nature of the conference, saying that "In order to attribute a 'juridical status' to the embryo, it is necessary to 'understand' its nature." Such understanding, he pointed out, must be based on ontological study.

"Today,” he said, “it is not enough to examine the embryo under the microscope." He said rather, that it is necessary "to use all available means" from the fields of genetics, morphology, biochemistry and molecular biology.

Bompiani also said that in order to really “recognize“ the embryo, "we come up against the concepts of human life, human being, human individual, and person.”

He said that while “Reflection on these concepts is…the aim of ontological study,” in his opinion, it “should be undertaken only after having described and understood what happens in the few hours following the encounter between a living human ovum and a spermatozoon."

Bishop Eijk, who traveled from the Netherlands for the conference, spoke of the extrinsic and intrinsic criteria for attributing a moral status to the human embryo.

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He showed that many of these extrinsic criteria fall short of true understanding, citing a mindset, arising in the 1960’s which suggested that the status of human being and personality only emerge at the moment of nidation.

This status, he corrected, "already comes about in the fusion of the spermatozoon and the ovum as the fruit of a sexual relationship between the parents.”

He also examined other fallacious extrinsic criteria held by much of society, including the pluralistic mindset that the status of the human embryo can be defined by democratic consensus or by the “choices” of researchers and parents, specifically for those embryos created by in vitro fertilization, and pending whether or not they should be allowed to develop.

He explained that because many of these extrinsic criteria "are inadequate for establishing the moral status of the embryo,” that “it is necessary to use intrinsic criteria in order to achieve an objective judgment on the respect due to the embryo."

Likewise, he said that people must be recognize that "the embryo, even in the pre-nidation phase, is a being with its own life separate from that of the mother, a human being from a biological point of view, an individual, and a being with an intrinsic destiny to become a human person."

Citing the late John Paul II’s groundbreaking Encyclical "Evangelium vitae," Bishop Eijk said that modern science can offer "a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of the first appearance of a human life."

Aristotle's theory of animation, he added, "was based upon his mistaken understanding of the embryo," while "modern anthropological theories which attribute the status of human person to an embryo only at the moment of self-awareness (at the end of pregnancy), or even at that of manifest rational consciousness (some time after birth), are characterized by a profound dualism incapable of explaining the human being as a substantial unity."

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"Current embryological and genetic knowledge” the Bishop concluded, “provides precious indications that the embryo has a specific identity as a human person," a fact which "is determined fundamentally, though not alone, by the human genome, which is present and active at conception.”

He told the crowd that “Although it is impossible to demonstrate empirically a personal presence from conception, philosophical reflection on the bio-anthropological status of the human embryo points to an incongruity between [the idea of] indirect or gradual humanization and the vision of a human individual as a substantial unity of spirit and body."