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January 15, 2005
Embryos are Humans of the Same Kind
Robert George and Patrick Lee have published what is one of the clearest statements I've read on the ethics of embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. Appearing in the New Atlantis, their article is titled Acorns and Embryos and is a response to an argument put forward by the New England Journal of Medicine which asserts the morality of ESC harvesting on the basis of developmental difference between newly formed embryos (acorns) and mature adults (oak trees). [Hat Tip to Imago Deo]
In defining the basic dispute, George and Lee identify the question regarding the humanity or personhood of the embryo:
The point of controversy is the ethics of deliberately destroying human embryos for the purpose of harvesting their stem cells. The threshold question is whether it is unjust to kill members of a certain class of human beings (those in the embryonic stage of development) to benefit others.
This, then, is the very essence of the matter. The benefit derived from ESC harvesting can never be great enough to justify the practice if the embryo is human. But are human embryos human beings?
Indeed they are, and contemporary human embryology and developmental biology leave no significant room for doubt about it. The adult human being reading these words was, at an earlier stage of his or her life, an adolescent, and before that an infant. At still earlier stages he or she was a fetus and before that an embryo. In the infant, fetal, and embryonic stages, each of us was then what we are now, namely, a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens. Each of us developed by a gradual, unified, and self-directed process from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of human development, and into adulthood, with his or her determinateness, unity, and identity fully intact. Although none of us was ever a sperm cell or an ovum, the sperm and ovum from whose union we emerged were genetically and functionally parts of other human beings, each of us was once an embryo, just as we were once infants, children, and adolescents. In referring to "the embryo," then, we are referring not to something distinct from the human being that each of us is, but rather to a certain stage in the development of each human being, like saying "the teenager" or "the five-year old."
Any argument to the contrary is based upon the premise that there is some characteristic of an embryo that leads to its devaluation. However, George and Lee make the argument that "we value human beings precisely because of the kind of entities they are" and not in a manner related to their characteristics. Racism, sexism, and all sorts of other isms
are repugnant because we believe the value of humans is tied to their humanity not their characteristics or maturity.
Indeed, that is why we consider all human beings to be equal in basic dignity and human rights
We do not believe that especially magnificent human beings, such as Michael Jordan or Albert Einstein, are of greater inherent worth and dignity than human beings who are physically frail or mentally impaired. We would not tolerate the killing of a retarded child or a person suffering from, say, brain cancer in order to harvest transplantable organs to save Jordan or Einstein.
But there is also the claim that there is something lacking in the embryo or fetus, namely his or her personhood. John Kerry
used this same argument to justify his belief that (human) life begins at conception yet abortion is morally acceptable because the fetus is not a person.
[The] claim that human embryos are not human beings, or not full human beings, or merely potential human life, simply cannot be squared with the facts of human embryogenesis and developmental biology. Briefly, modern embryology shows the following: (1) The embryo is from the start distinct from any cell of the mother or the father, for it is growing in its own distinct direction and its growth is internally directed to its own survival and maturation. (2) The embryo is human, since it has the genetic constitution and epigenetic primordia characteristic of human beings. (3) Most importantly, the embryo is a complete or whole organism, though immature. From conception onward, the human embryo is fully programmed, and has the active disposition, to develop himself or herself to the next mature stage of a human being. And unless prevented by disease, violence, or a hostile environment, the embryo will actually do so, despite possibly significant variation in its circumstances (i.e., in the mother's womb). None of the changes that occur to the embryo after fertilization, for as long as he or she survives, generates a new direction of growth. Rather, all of the changes (for example those involving nutrition and environment) either facilitate or retard the internally directed growth of this persisting individual.
This is an excellent article about embryonic stem cell harvesting and it applies equally well to the abortion debate.
Updates: DeoOmnisGloria comments on the article.
Posted January 15, 2005 10:27 PM