The issue of when "life" is brought into being and the capability of suffering of the unborn is a driving political force in the world today. It is a hotly debated topic and many who make claims on the issue have very little knowledge on the subject. When does the capability of suffering arise? Is the suffering brought by an unwanted pregnancy trump the suffering of an embryo? What constitutes an embryo? Does stem cell research impose suffering on the "unborn"? Is contraception immoral? What rights do the unborn have? These are some of the primary questions argued in discourse on the matter.
In order to fully understand the development from conception, I'll offer a Mayo Clinic link for anyone that isn't familiar with the process.
Now that we have an understanding of the development of conception we can begin to discuss an answer to these questions.
The first issue I'd like to address is suffering. Even though suffering is a subjective concept, it is morally important to human existence. Anyone with an empathetic desire to further the human race must seek to mitigate suffering as much as is humanly possible. What causes physical and emotional suffering? Human beings are capable of suffering because they have a vast network of neurons that interpret all sorts of signals. We have receptors for pain, pleasure, sight, sound, touch, smell, taste and many others that form this network via the neurons that make up our nervous system. The entire experience of life is dictated by this system via nerves that relay signals to our brain where the signals are processed into experience.
At conception, a sperm and an egg unite 23 chromosomes from each partner called a zygote. Religious doctrine may dictate that this is the founding moment of the "soul" and experience. One single cell constitutes life and it's intentional extinguishing constitutes murder. The fundamental question is: does this cell and the cells that it divides into have the capability of experience and thus must it be entitled to rights? Rational thought says absolutely not. Just as your skin cells are formed, "live" and die, a zygote cannot possibly experience anything, as it doesn't have the necessary material to do so.
After the zygote starts traveling down the fallopian tube, it starts dividing. When this occurs, it is now referred to as a blastocyst. It is a mass of about 200 cells with the interior cells known as stem cells. These cells are undifferentiated yet possess the capability to become any type of cell that makes up the human body. This realization and the study of it could lead to the most advanced methods of medical science. One day a liver, nerve, heart, practically any part of the body could be made or regenerated from these cells. Is this small mass of cells capable of feeling pain? Considering that there is no nervous tissue to transmit a signal nor any material capable of interpreting it, surely not.
Stem cell research could very well lead to a cure for paralysis, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, and a host of other diseases that break down the cellular systems of the human body. The question is: does the suffering of a blastocyst trump the suffering of a living person? The answer has to be no. As far as science can tell, a blastocyst is not in any way capable of suffering at all.
What then of abortion? At some point in the development, an embryo develops neurons and a nervous system. It should be at this stage that suffering could occur. The argument that abortion at the zygote or blastocyst stage is immoral is for all intents and purposes ridiculous. When the possibility of real suffering exists, where do we draw the line? Insects have a developed nervous system. Man frequently ends their existence to prevent his own suffering at the hands of them. Mammals on the other hand have a better developed nervous system and are capable even of crying out in pain. We show them much more respect because we believe they are capable of a higher level of suffering. A developed fetus is probably capable of suffering. A child more so, and an adult human even more. There should be some point when we rationally can say that the suffering caused by an abortion is unwarranted, but when does this happen? It is a question that needs to be discussed and investigated without interference from religious doctrine.
The amount of suffering placed on one person by the action or inaction of another can and should be philosophically debated. Does a slightly developed fetus have rights? At what stage are these rights implemented? If an impoverished person becomes pregnant and it is obvious that the birth of the child will cause suffering to the parent and the child, should the mother be allowed to intercede? I would posit that the unwanted child and it's mother and/or father can be made to incur an excessive level of suffering upon the birth of the child. It would be much more favorable if this philosophical question need not be answered but that is an unrealistic goal that will never come to fruition.
To that end, the question of contraception is not and should not even be a question. An egg and a sperm are certainly not capable of suffering and the possible birth of a child should never be considered "sacred". If such were the case, every stain on the sheets would be equivalent to a holocaust. The resources of the planet on which man lives are most definitely limited. The Catholic church commits an atrocity by it's anti-condom and birth control message. Families should be morally free to choose how many children they will have and definitely to choose whether they will risk the infection of venereal disease in their encounters. Society needs to have a rational discussion on the morality of conception and it's consequences. Religion should be excluded from this debate.