Health-Care Reform and the Right to Life

The main thing many Catholics and people of faith worry about in the evolving health-care reform bill is its potential for trampling on certain rights, even as it seeks to extend rights to a greater number of people.

The bishops of the United States have been clear that they support legislation that will help more people, especially the poor, access good health care — which they say is a human right.

But with Roe v. Wade being the law of the land and easy access to abortion one of the chief values of the current administration and the party in power, the right of the unborn to be born is not a sure thing. It must take second place.

Other rights are in jeopardy, as well: the right of taxpayers to ensure that the dollars taken from their paychecks are not used to pay for immoral practices, for example. Even with the Stupak-Pitts amendment, which severely restricts federal funding of abortions in the health-care bill (and an expected similar amendment in the Senate), Americans will still be forced to pay for certain abortions, namely those of babies who had the misfortune to be conceived through rape or incest.

The whole question of abortion boils down to this: Is the unborn creature in the womb of a female human being also a human being, and does that creature have the rights of a person?

An upcoming interview in the Register sheds light on these two questions. Maureen Condic, a senior fellow at the Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person, wrote “When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective” last October (available at Here are some excerpts from her conversation with Register correspondent Sue Ellin Browder:

You said the first step to understanding when a human person begins is to understand how a whole living being (an organism) differs from a clump of cells.

Yes. Living beings exist, and we all recognize them — dogs, cats, mosquitoes, oak trees, people. As living beings, we’re all integrated, functioning wholes. We have parts that all work together in order to do the job of life. Sometimes diseases, injuries or defects — birth defects, for example — can compromise the functioning of the whole being. But even if a little baby is born without arms, a very unfortunate birth defect, we all recognize it’s still a baby.

So a living being differs from a clump of cells in that the organism has interacting parts working together as a coordinated whole?

Yes. Although collections of human cells are alive, they fail to work together in an interdependent, coordinated way to “carry on the activities of life.”

So when do you first see an embryo behaving in this way — as a whole being with integrated parts all working together in a coordinated way?

The scientific evidence on this is very clear. You see this kind of holistic functioning from the moment when a new cell, distinct from the sperm and the egg, comes into existence.

How quickly does this fusion between sperm and egg take place?

It’s a very rapid event. In less than a second, an entirely new human cell comes into existence. This new human cell (known as a zygote) has a unique molecular composition that’s distinct from either the sperm or the egg. And its behavior also differs radically from that of either sperm or egg.

This brings up a frequently asked question that goes beyond when life begins. And that is: When does the right to life begin?

I think ultimately this is the real debate. Let’s stop arguing about when life begins. We know when life begins. There’s no question about it. Beyond that, you’re then left with the question “When do we assign rights to this individual?”
Let’s talk about what we really are arguing about: When do rights begin? When do we confer rights upon embryos? We know they are clearly human beings — a living member of the human species — from the one-cell stage forward. When do we actually value these persons sufficiently to allow them the right to continued existence?

Browder and Condic proceed to discuss the various criteria society uses in different times, places and circumstances to determine when a human being receives the right to life.
Suffice it to say, the question is not above Condic’s pay grade.