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Human embryos before implantation

Are they alive? Are they human persons?

D.G. wrote to ask about human embryos at the earliest stage of their existence, and the meaning of the term ‘conception’. CMI’s Keaton Halley fielded his question.

Photo 127832395 | Morula © Sebastian Kaulitzki | Dreamstime.com8-cell-stage-embryo


I have a question I have been asking theological and scientific friends and would love to hear your take on it.

I believe that life begins at conception and abortion is wrong. That said, someone asked me: does conception mean “fertilization” or “implantation”?

We know from IVF that an egg can be fertilized and create a new DNA, but if it is not implanted, it does not live. But was it already alive?

It is not until implantation that the new structure receives oxygen and blood, and the Bible is clear that “the life is in the blood”. So, does that mean that life does not begin until implantation? At which point, ectopic pregnancies, many immediate “miscarriages”, or anything within the first few days are not abortive (intentional or otherwise) because, while there is new DNA, there is not yet life.

I look forward to your response and thoughts on this important topic. If you already have an article on this, I would love to read it.

Hi D.G.,

We have several articles that clarify that each individual human life begins at fertilization, and this is what we mean by ‘conception’. Conception has historically meant ‘fertilization’, and the attempts to define it as ‘implantation’ are more recent innovations. Hence the need for us to clarify.

The most important question, though, is not how we define the term ‘conception’. Instead, the real question is whether an individual human life is present upon fertilization.

The answer to that question is straightforward. Fertilization is the event that combines a sperm and ovum together. Neither of those contain a complete set of human DNA. But, once the sperm and ovum are joined, the new entity (embryo/zygote) does contain a complete human genome. So, a new individual, with his or her own unique DNA blueprint, comes into being at that time. The embryo is a whole, distinct, living human being. It is no less of a human being than an adult. The differences between embryonic humans and adult humans are not morally relevant differences. They are only differences of size, stage of development, location, and degree of dependency. I was still me when I was smaller, at an earlier developmental stage, inside the womb, and highly dependent on my mother for survival.

Implantation is an example of how an organism changes location and arrives at a new developmental stage. But implantation does not create the organism. Nothing about implantation would transform a non-human substance into a bona fide human. It also does not bestow life.

Before embryos are attached to their mothers, they are clearly alive, whether created by IVF or otherwise. Life can only come from life, so, for an organism to be biologically alive, it can’t have come from something not alive. That means the developing embryo cannot pass through a stage where it’s not alive, and then later becomes alive. Otherwise, we’d have an instance of spontaneous generation or abiogenesis (life springing from non-life). This has never happened.

Before implantation, human embryos are also dividing (growing) and metabolizing. This clearly shows they are alive.

You say that if an embryo is not implanted, it will not live. True, and that is because the embryo will die without proper nourishment. The embryo is dependent on the mother for survival. But that is no reason to deny that the embryo is indeed alive.

Regarding oxygen and blood, these are necessary for humans to continue living after we reach a certain stage of development, but it is misguided to think the early embryo cannot be alive without such things. When the Bible says “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11), it isn’t defining what it means to be biologically alive. It is prohibiting the consumption of blood because of its significance in the sacrificial system. The blood represents the life of the creature. Obviously, this is because the animals being consumed or sacrificed will die without their blood. But the text isn’t making a comprehensive ontological claim about all biological life in every stage of development.

Given that the early embryo is a whole, distinct, living entity with a human’s genome and the full capacity to grow into an adult human being, it would be wrong to intentionally end its life, or treat it as though it were not a valuable human person. Taking abortion pills and discarding embryos created by IVF would be examples of immoral behaviours that intentionally kill innocent human persons. God has prohibited us from doing these things, because people (even tiny ones) are made in God’s image.

We have written a number of articles on creation.com related to these ‘beginning of life’ moral issues. You can use the search function, or check out our Human Life Q&A page and our Cloning and Stem Cells Q&A page. Also, check out products like our Bioethics video and the booklet Is Human Life Special? A sample section is found on this preview page.

You can also be on the lookout for an article by our own Dr Robert Carter, in a future instalment of Creation magazine. It discusses some fascinating recent discoveries about biological interactions between pre-implantation embryos and their mothers. DNA is even being shared between them, and this happens pre-implantation, showing that human reproduction is a marvellous product of ingenious design.1

Plus, if you want to go even deeper, here are a few other useful books we do not carry in our webstore:

  • Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen
  • The Case for Life (second edition), by Scott Klusendorf and Lila Rose
  • Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing, by Ryan T. Anderson and Alexandra DeSanctis
  • Body and Soul: Human Nature and the Crisis in Ethics, by J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae

I hope you find this answer helpful.

Best wishes,
Keaton Halley

Published: 16 May 2024

References and notes

  1. Carter, R., Human reproduction more complicated than we thought: babies absorb, and use, their mother’s DNA, Creation 46(4), 2024. Return to text.

Helpful Resources

Is Human Life Special?
by Gary Bates and Lita Cosner Sanders
US $4.00