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The Wholly Family Beginnings of Life:
Child, Woman, Man and the Success of Procreation

Michael Phelan

Introduction:  No Man (or Woman or Child) is a Biological Island

The Catholic Church defines the family based on marriage as both the fundamental cell of society and the domestic church.  For purposes of political and theological debate, these definitions are of supreme importance. They are also morally relevant in debates over the beginning of human life insofar as the Church insists that it is the family based on marriage that is the fundamental cell of society and the domestic Church. Thus the Church clearly teaches that if human life is to be respected in its generation it must be the fruit of the conjugal act, and that it is morally wrong to generate human life by means other than the conjugal act, whether by fornication, adultery or new reproductive measures such as artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization (cf. Vatican Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origins and on the Dignity of Procreation [Latin title: Donum vitae]).

In less scientifically enlightened eras, the mysterious darkness of the womb allowed men to impose their philosophical paradigms of sexual difference into the dark world of the womb, assuming that the child’s small body was fully contained in his seed, woman supplying mere “soil” for its flourishing.  In the modern era, biological knowledge of both male and female reproductive systems has disposed of this myth, and we now know clearly the woman’s role as supplier of 23 chromosomes to shape the child’s form as well as provider of the first “home.”  Feminist ideology in our time has led to an embryology of the absent father, reducing his role to that of mere sperm donor in the process of generating new life.  Now we know neither of these views of the womb is sufficient.

Given the expanding biological and immunological information we have about the intricacies of the processes at work in the act of intercourse and the developments of conception, implantation, and gestation, we can conclude that biologically these processes are best described as an integrated working system of living systems. [1]  Child, woman, and man are all indispensable, from the informational/hormonal view, in the fourfold process of bringing new human life successfully into the world.  In this paper, in addition to providing evidence for the above definition, I will demonstrate how this view bolsters the Catholic theological understanding of the importance of marriage and family. I will briefly explore its possible application in debates about such heated bioethical discussions as the GIFT infertility procedure and embryo adoption.  Finally, I will claim that in addition to defining the family as both domestic church and primary cell of society we can add a helpful bioethical definition: the family is the only proper system for the generation of human life.

Intercourse:  A Fuller Understanding of the Informational One-Flesh Union

            Sexual intercourse between man and woman is the first natural stage, of course, in the procreation of new human life.  At this point, the child-to-be is uninvolved in the life process.  Only man and woman are “speaking” to each other.[2]  

            The body of a healthy, fertile woman passes through a series of hormonal changes during every menstrual cycle.  With the onset of menses, considered the beginning of a new menstrual cycle, a woman experiences a sharp drop in progesterone levels; essentially this hormonal shift is information to the metabolism in a woman that no child has been conceived during this past particular cycle and that the rich layer of engorged tissue lining her endometrium can be sloughed off in menses.  Following menses, a period of relative infertility continues until a rise in both estrogen and progesterone again calls for changes in the fertile woman.  These rising informative hormones cause the production of fertile mucus in the woman’s cervix.  This mucus is prepared to act as a “hosting” system for a man’s sperm.  The mucus first of all changes the viscosity of the vagina from an acidic environment, its most common state, to a basic one, allowing the initial survival of the sperm should intercourse occur. 

      Additionally, cervical mucus provides needed sugars to strengthen the sperm for the upward journey into the uterus and fallopian tubes as well as providing encouraging channels made precisely for the sperm to use.  This fertile time in a woman is normally accompanied by a greater libido.  It is as if the woman is informationally prepared to desire new human life, even in her accompanying sexual arousal.

            If no unhealthy obstructions remain, the woman also at some point in this fertile segment of her cycle releases an egg, which ruptures out of her ovary and enters the fallopian tube.

            While the biological system of a healthy woman is systematically prepared to bring about new life in such obvious ways, she cannot bring life about unaided but requires information from a man.  This information is “enfleshed” in the approximate 300 million sperm that enter the vagina in an average ejaculation. [3]   The large number is necessary, as we will see shortly, and bespeaks a biological urgency on the part of a healthy man’s body to effectively bring about a child. Despite the advantage given sperm by fertile mucus during the fertile time, the journey toward unity with the woman’s oocyte is a perilous one, and few of our 300 million adventurers will even get close to the goal.  To see the gravity of the challenge to even healthy sperm, I will quote at length the remarkable passage by Barry Werth:

…newly released sperm still face a succession of lethal pitfalls.

Think spawning salmon.

The first barrier—though hardly the most daunting—is distance.  Whipping their tails, sperm swim mightily, about a half-inch per minute.  But the upper reaches of the fallopian tubes are nearly a foot away—in fish terms, miles.

In between, the sperm must navigate a deadly gauntlet of physical and chemical obstacles.  Acid kills sperm, and though the normally acidic vagina becomes less so during ovulation, most male sex cells would die there if not for the protection of the semen, which is alkaline.  Still more resistant is the cervix.  Although its sheath-like mucous plug thins at ovulation, the area remains thick with fibrous cells that block and ensnare millions of migrating sperm.  Scientists compare it to the Sargasso Sea.

Those that survive and enter the uterus soon face a choice that for half will mean certain failure and extinction.  Only one ovary has generated a mature egg, and if a sperm enters the wrong ovaduct, it’s tantamount to a salmon struggling upstream in a barren tributary.

Strikingly, the harshest travails await those that enter the correct passageway.  The waving cilia and muscle contractions that propel the egg downward beat back the current of sperm.  The walls are richly variegated, and many sperm become entrapped.  Scavenging white blood cells, ever alert to intruders, attack and destroy vulnerable sperm.  Of the hundreds of millions of sperm released during ejaculation, fewer than 500—perhaps one in 500,000—finally encounter the ovulated egg. [4] 

            Returning to our analogy of language, we observe that man’s body bespeaks in intercourse and ejaculation an ecstatic eagerness into woman, the biologically-hoped-for end of which is the unity of one of his sperm with her released egg. [5]   Woman’s body likewise “speaks” a greater readiness for the man’s information during the fertile time, but not an unconditional readiness.  A sperm capable of weathering the perilous journey through the body of the woman will of necessity be a strong one.  It will bear with it a greater biological “worthiness” than the vast majority of the others, which, in her body’s concern for the resulting child, is necessary. [6] 

Fertilization and the Visitor from Within

            One of the 300 million sperm alone will be successful in the quest for which all of them set out.  Werth again describes it thus:

Of that number, barely a handful breaches the outer shell and bind to the inner membrane.

And then, if success is to be obtained, comes the final selection.  Once the first sperm penetrates and fuses with the egg, the membrane rapidly changes electrical charge, in effect demagnetizing.  All other competing sperm literally drop off.  Less than five minutes later, a second, more permanent chemical blocking mechanism is triggered, safeguarding the unique mixture of parental genes. In reproduction, nature abhors threesomes.  Still, like jilted suitors, the excluded sperm continue to flutter around the ovum for several more days. [7] 

We have, at this point, a newly formed human being.  Contrary to the revisionist definitions of conception and pregnancy introduced in 1972 by the Committee on Terminology of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, who defined conception as “the implantation of the blastocyst.  It is not synonymous with fertilization.  Synonym: implantation,” [8] we have present an entity who needs only time, sustenance, and a welcoming environment to fulfill his human potentiality; the newly conceived being is in fact a human person with potential and not a potential human person. The bodies of man and woman have spoken to each other in a moment in time, and these two words have become flesh—a unique instance of flesh never to be repeated.  Moreover, the body of the woman knows this in several demonstrative ways.  “One of the earliest manifestations of pregnancy is the production in the ovary of an immunosuppressive protein, early pregnancy factor (EPF), which is initiated by fertilization and which may have a local endometrial function.” [9]   Early biomolecular changes of pregnancy begin prior to the implantation of the blastocyst as well. [10] 

            So from this early moment in her life, the newly formed human being is already making herself known as a visitor from within.  Her early development of cell division, though, is not up to her, but rather seems to be under the control of the mother’s information.  The first several days of cell division are marked by an inability of the small life to use her own genes.  The blueprint of “instructions pre-packaged into the egg long before the sperm arrived” [11] helps this time of obvious vulnerability along.  It is mom’s role to informationally lead the “confused” new life for the first week of its existence, until such time as its own genes take over the process of development.

            Unlike in some animals studied, however, this temporary period of maternal control over her offspring does not alter the embryonic body plan in humans.  In humans and other mammals, it seems that the reason for this external guidance is “aimed solely at shepherding their embryos through their first few hectic days.” [12]   Mom biologically knows her baby needs help through these first days.  By the time the child is a multi-celled blastocyst, some six to ten days post-conception, and ready to implant in his mother’s womb, this process of maternal control is over, however, and the child’s information has taken stewardship over his own development.

Implantation:  The Welcomed Breach

            The most dangerous point of the young embryo’s journey is that of implantation.  It is estimated that 75% of miscarriages happen in the next three weeks of the child’s young life.  This is because a great deal can go wrong at the point where the embryo tries to lodge into the lining of the uterine wall.  First of all, the timing is key.  The new child needs nourishment quickly.  Its rapidly dividing cells are simultaneously causing an over exuberant metabolism which is doubling in speed every few hours.  To survive, “the blastocyst must organize to feed all its cells and be fed by its mother.” [13]   Secondly, he must hope for a well-prepared and welcoming endometrium as his new home base.  Fortunately, he is not on his own in this biological hope.

            Mother is prepared, if she is healthy, to be the baby’s host.  The complex intrapersonal communication system of her hormonal fluctuations is well ahead of the child; the corpus luteum (abandoned follicle in the mother’s ovary) releases progesterone in large amounts, raising the mother’s temperature and making the endometrium a blood-engorged and lush garden of receptivity for her approaching child.

            New developments in the study of maternal immunology are also showing an irreplaceable link to the father in the process of implantation.  How so?  Counter to feminist commentators who would remove fatherhood from the procreational processes after the necessary “sperm donation,” recent research is showing…

that a successful pregnancy requires a state of maternal immune tolerance to accommodate the embryo.  Furthermore, several laboratories have published data that indicate that semen plays an integral role in the establishment of this immune tolerance.  These studies suggest that a man’s semen primes his wife’s body so that her womb will tolerate an embryo that is generated from the union of his sperm and her egg.  To put it another way, a man’s semen deposited during intercourse appears to condition his wife’s immune system so that it will not reject his immunologically unique molecular signature, a signature that his embryo would inherit. [14] 

To use an analogy, the father scouts ahead of the child by informationally preparing the mother’s womb to receive the child as a guest who is in some sense like him and not a parasite to be destroyed.  New research currently taking place in Australia is also indicating a possibility that “the effects of semen may reach to the ovary to facilitate development and function of the corpus luteum.” [15]   This would mean that the father’s encrypted information would, through seminal fluid, take part in the continuation of progesterone flow into the woman’s system.  When the prepared blastocyst is ready, “machete-like” enzymes begin a tearing process into the lining of the womb, rupturing capillaries, digging to find the place to root.  “Fingerlike structures reach out from inside the chorion and tap the mother’s circulation.”  Certainly an aggressive virus does the same thing!  Why does the mother’s immune system not send the armies of white blood cells to the rescue and destroy the little embryo?  It has been prepared from within (her own ovaries) and without (from the man) to take this invasion as a welcome breach.

Gestation:  Making Space for Another

            With the tapping of the maternal circulatory system, the embryo begins a voracious period of rapid growth.  To sustain this growth, a stalk which will become the umbilical cord ties directly into the placenta, through which up to 300 quarts of blood per day will ferry just before birth. [16] The umbilical cord and placenta will be formed of cells of both mother and child, which now intermingle to become necessary intermediary organs in the development of the baby.  They are now working together to assure the survival of the implanted embryo.  The mother is pouring her own life, literally, into her child, and while this ensures the growth of the child, it does not diminish her; in fact, women experience many health benefits from pregnancy.

            Though we would rightly say that mother and child are certainly the ones most directly involved in the pregnancy process at the point of gestation, this is not exclusively so.  According to the Reproductive Immunology group of Australian researchers, father is not out of the picture entirely, even at this point.  “We have discovered that survival and development of the conceptus can directly benefit from the response elicited by semen, through trophic responses to semen-induced cytokines.”  Nicanor Austriaco comments, “Thus, it is not surprising to discover that exposure to semen during sexual intercourse around the time of a morally illicit IVF embryo transfer significantly increases the likelihood of successful early embryo implantation and development. Furthermore, the incidence of pre-eclampsia, a disorder believed to be caused by and overly aggressive maternal immune response towards paternal markers in the placenta is diminished in women following prolonged exposure to her partner’s semen, with this protection being partner-specific.” [17] 

            We see that the father, the specific genetic father, is key to the successful generation and continued thriving of his particular child.

Conclusion—Implications of the Family System of Living Systems for Bioethics

            In exploring the biology and immunology of pregnancy and its connection to the entire family in an informational sense, I have not discovered any new information to cause a reversal of a magisterial teaching regarding a bioethical matter.  Nor have I undone yet the arguments in favor of questionable infertility interventions such as GIFT or the morally illicit process of in vitro fertilization.  But what is becoming more and more clear with each new step of research into the processes of procreation is that the Creator has fashioned male and female “wonderfully made” in the deepest biological sense.  Informationally, both are necessary for the success of a pregnancy from the beginning of the marital embrace through the gestation of the implanted child.  The woman provides not only an egg but also the nurturing home of origin for her child.  The man provides not merely sperm, but an analogous guardianship through his seminal fluid in preparation for the possible new life. 

            And in all this, nature condescends to giving the child an irreplaceable responsibility for her own survival and flourishing.  She announces “I’m here!” through complex hormonal means, and mother and father are likewise there, ready for her uniqueness that somehow also is like them.

            The entire family is intricately involved in the beginnings of new life.  Can we not say with growing conviction that, for example, infertility interventions such as GIFT and in vitro fertilization, by bypassing the natural courses at work in the conjugal act, are illicit precisely because the family is the only proper system for the generation of human life?  Do not any other means to the end of a child take this child willfully out of the context of this created order, somehow replacing an intricate sharing of information that we are only beginning to decipher?  Does not this new area of maternal immunological discovery give greater biological and even personalistic weight to the Catholic ought nots which the scientific world finds so dissonant with its chorus of progress at all costs?


Austriaco, Rev. Nicanor, O.P. “On the Meaning of the Conjugal Act and the Morality of Embryo Transfer,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 5.2 (Summer, 2005, forthcoming.

Bainbridge, David. Making Babies: The Science of Pregnancy. (Cambridge, Massachussets: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Barabasi, Albert-Laszlo. Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge, Massachusetts (Perseus Publishing: 2002)

Johnson, Steven. Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York (Scribner Publishers: 2001).

Tsiaras, Alexander and Barry Werth. From Conception to Birth: a Life Unfolds. (New York: Doubleday, 2002) p. 27.

Turkington, Carol and Michael M. Halper, M.D. The Encyclopedia of Fertility and Infertility. New York. (Facts on File Publishing: 2001)


1. For an introduction to the new development of systems thought, read Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, Linked: The New Science of Networks. Cambridge, Massachussets (Perseus Publishing: 2002) and/or Steven Johnson,  Emergence: the Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York (Scribner Publishers: 2001).

2. The terminology of speech will be used throughout the essay in reference to the interaction of the involved biological parties.  John Paul II’s “language of the body” is in mind here.

3. Alexander Tsiaras and Barry Werth. From Conception to Birth: a Life Unfolds. (New York: Doubleday, 2002) p. 41.

4. Ibid p.41-42.

5. This biological hope may very well be opposed to the psychological hopes of the couple and their moral intention.  I am emphasizing the presence of a language of the biological order which is present regardless of intention.

6. Here it is not too soon to mention a common bioethical concern relating to the artificial process of fertilization in fertility interventions such as in-vitro fertilization and GIFT.  The bypassing of the woman’s natural “sperm filtration” system to create such embryos should cause alarm and may point to the still inconclusive but disturbing results of studies showing a greater prevalence of birth defects in in-vitro babies.  (See the excellent study by Patrick Carr in his essay “The Risks to the Life and Health of Children Conceived using Assisted Reproductive Technologies” available at the following web address: http://www.christendom-awake.org/pages/may/patrickcarr.htm) More on this in the conclusion.

7. Ibid. p. 42.

8. E. C. Hughes (Editor). Obstetric Gynecologic Terminology with Sections on Neonatology and Glossary of Congenital Abnormalities.  (Philadelphia: P.A. Davis Company, 1972, 1999) p. 299.

9. H. Moron, B. E. Rolfe , A.C. Cavagh, Pregnancy proteins: basic concepts and clinical applications. Sem Reprod Endocrinol (1992); 10:72.

10. http://www.paratheke.net/stephanos/articles/redefinition.html

11. David Bainbridge. Making Babies: The Science of Pregnancy. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2000) p. 49.

12. Ibid, p.50

13. From Conception to Birth,  p. 57.

14. Rev. Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., “On the Meaning of the Conjugal Act and the Morality of Embryo Transfer,” National Catholic  Bioethics Quarterly 5.2 (Summer, 2005), forthcoming. 

15. For recent reviews of the relevant research, see both Sarah A. Robertson and David J. Sharkey, “The role of semen in induction of maternal immune tolerance to pregnancy,” Seminars in Immunology 13 (2001): 243-254; and Sarah A. Robertson, John J. Bromfield, and Kelton P. Tremellen, “Seminal ‘priming’ for protection from pre-eclampsia – a unifying hypothesis,” Journal of Reproductive Immunology 59 (2003): 253-265.

16. From Conception to Birth. p 61.

17. Austriaco.

Copyright ©; Michael Phelan

Version: 8th March 2005

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