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“I am no more me today than when I was an embryo, although there is more of me today”

christianbrugger.jpgFellow in Ethics Christian Brugger clarifies, in layman terms, what it is to be: To be who we are when we were an embryo.

A conditionalist account of human value argues that human beings are deserving of full moral respect in virtue of a condition that some but not all meet. This is opposed to a substantialist account that argues humans are deserving of respect in virtue of what they are (i.e., full living members of the species homo sapiens).

I shared a panel recently with an eminent Harvard bioethicist at a conference on regenerative medicine at a prestigious East coast university. I was invited because the convener wanted a “diversity of opinion” on the question of the moral status of the embryo. From what I could tell I was the only opponent of embryo destructive research in the room. My argument ran something like this: if it would be wrong to lethally experiment on me today without my consent, it is reasonable to conclude that it would have been wrong to do so yesterday, and by extension last year, and when I was twelve, when I was a fetus, and when I was an embryo; I am no more me today than when I was an embryo, although there is more of me today; and so on. From reading the eye contact of my audience, I could see that many had never reasoned this way before and I was pleased to see that the argument was having a positive effect. I was the final panelist before the break. After a time of polite applause, the convener approached the podium to adjourn for lunch. Before he could do so, the Harvard bioethicist stood up, grabbed his microphone and asked to make a final point. He stated confidently: “I just want to say in closing that I was never an embryo.” Even among an audience of philosophical friends, his statement caused some head scratching.

What he meant was that the “I” that designated the person he was today signified the possession of something that an embryo lacks. And so while an embryo constituted an organismic precursor to his personal self, it was not yet personal—not yet, strictly speaking, him. He was of course appealing to a conditionalist argument. This particular bioethicist believed the possession of consciousness was the necessary condition for one to be deserving of full moral respect. Other theorists place the line at minimum brain development, others at whether an embryo is wanted or not (whether it is ‘spare’) and others at day 14 of development. Wherever the line is drawn, the conclusion is the same: some humans deserve moral respect, others do not. Since embryonic life is undeniably the beginning of the life of a whole, individuated and genetically distinct human being, and since it constitutes the beginning of every human life, the conditionalist line is fateful indeed. On the embryonic side stands an entire class of human beings who can rightly be manipulated, mutilated and destroyed; on the other side stands those deserving of moral respect.

I do not intend here to provide philosophical arguments against the main conditionalist theses. This has been ably done by others, especially Robert P. George and Patrick Lee. One point however is very important to make about all conditionalist accounts. The lines they draw are necessarily arbitrary. They select a point (usually in early human development) at which full human value is said to begin. But the life of the one whose value begins at that point began much earlier. Yet it is not its life that gives rise to its unique value, but rather some function or quality it possesses, not its existence as a human being, but rather a capacity or quality that begins at some later point.

But strictly speaking, nothing radically new begins after fertilization (or its equivalent in SCNT). Every natural capacity or quality that a human individual will ever actualize is already present in seed form when he or she comes into existence. What develops at 14, 40 or 400 days existed (to use an Aristotelian term) as an “active potency” at the embryonic stage of development. To be sure, existence at this stage means existing with great potential. But existence at any stage of human development is existence with potential. This is the point. It is not the quantity of unrealized potential that qualifies one for moral respect, but rather being the kind of thing that possesses such potential.

Existing with potential is different from potentially existing. A sperm and egg floating down a Fallopian tube potentially exist as human life. But once fertilization (or its equivalent) occurs, a whole human life begins. This human life will never be more human, whole, or alive than it is at that moment. It will simply be the unfolding of the intrinsic possibilities of an already-existing whole, human life. So human life with the potential for consciousness, brain development, or the quality of being ‘wanted’ by his or her makers is not different in a fundamental way from life with the potential for full cranial development or with the potential to reach the age of reason. And yet one can be conscious and not yet have full cranial development, or have a brain and not yet have reached the age of reason. Drawing the line of fundamental human value at one or the other therefore is necessarily arbitrary. Commenting on the arbitrariness of this line-drawing, a British working group (which included Elizabeth Anscombe and John Finnis) writes the following:

"If actual possession of such abilities is a necessary condition of the claim to be treated justly, questions will have to be faced precisely which abilities must be possessed, and how developed they must be before one enjoys this claim to be treated justly. And these questions can be answered only by choosing which to count as the relevant abilities and precisely how developed they must be to count. But any such line-drawing exercise is necessarily arbitrary…. Arbitrary choices may be reasonable and unavoidable in determining some entitlements…. But if one’s understanding of human worth and dignity commits one to being arbitrary about who are to be treated justly (i.e., about who are the very subjects of justice), it is clear that one lacks what is recognisable as a framework of justice. For it is incompatible with our fundamental intuitions about justice that we should determine who are the subjects of justice by arbitrary choice. The need for a non-arbitrary understanding of who are the subjects of justice requires us to assume that just treatment is owing to all human beings in virtue of their humanity. This indispensable assumption is also intrinsically reasonable. It is true that the distinctive dignity and value of human life are manifested in those specific exercises of developed rational abilities in which we achieve some share in such human goods as truth, beauty, justice, friendship, and integrity. But the necessary rational abilities are acquired in virtue of an underlying or radical capacity, given with our nature as human beings, for developing precisely those abilities."

The point here is plain. When identifying the basic source of human worth and dignity from which arises those moral immunities that protect individuals from exploitation and death, arbitrary lines will not do. Nothing less than moral certitude is required before any such line can be accepted. The consequences of being wrong are too great. So unless we are certain that what we are dealing with is not a being invested with distinct human value, justice requires us to refrain from lethally experimenting on human embryos.

*Copyright 2008 — Culture of Life Foundation. Permission granted for unlimited use. Attribution required.

Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen set out a similar argument in “Embryonic Debate: A Reply to William Saletan, liberal bioethics writer, former embryo,” National Review Online, Feb. 11, 2008; at http://article.nationalreview.com [1]
Others holding a similar view include Michael Tooley, Abortion and Infanticide (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983); Daniel Callahan, Abortion: Law, Choice, and Morality (New York: Macmillan, 1970), pp. 383-389, 497-498; Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994). Daniel Maguire, “The Freedom to Die,” in New Theology # 10, ed. Martin Marty and Dean Peerman (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 188, and Ashley Montagu, Sex, Man, and Society (New York: Putnam, 1969), pp. 13-14. Joseph Donceel, S.J. argues for an updated version of Aquinas’s “delayed hominization” view in “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization,” Theological Studies 31 (1970), 76-105; Donceel, “A Liberal Catholic’s View,” in Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate, eds. P. B. Jung and T. A. Shannon (New York: Crossroad, 1988), pp. 48-53; Thomas A. Shannon and Allan B. Wolter, OFM, proceed along similar lines in “Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo,” Theological Studies 51 (1990), 603-636; for a critique of this position see John Haldane and Patrick Lee, “Aquinas on Human Ensoulment, Abortion and the Value of Life,” Philosophy 78 (2003), 255-278.
John P. Lizza, “Potentiality and Human Embryos,” Bioethics. (Sept. 2007), vol. 21, no. 7, 379-85.
Norman Ford proposes the line to be drawn at day fourteen after which point monozygotic twinning no longer can occur; see Norman Ford, When Did I Begin? Conception of the human individual in history, philosophy and science (Cambridge: CUP, 1988), 108.
The widely used embryology textbook by Moore and Persaud, for example, states: “Human Development begins at fertilization when a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoon) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell – a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2008), 15, emphasis added.
See Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2008), ch. 4, 119-129; also George and Lee, “Acorns and Embryos,” New Atlantis 7 (2005), 90–100, Lee and George, “The First Fourteen Days of Human Life,” New Atlantis 13 (2006), 61-67, “The Wrong of Abortion,” in Andrew I. Cohen and Christopher Wellman, eds., Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics (New York: Blackwell Publishers, 2005), 13–26, George and Lee, “Dualistic Delusions,” First Things 150 (2005); Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997), 26-27; see also Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefson, Embryo: The Case for Human Life (Doubleday, 2008).
From Euthanasia, Clinical Practice and the Law, ed. Luke Gormally (London: The Linacre Centre for Health Care Ethics, 1994), pp. 123-124. The working group was treating the issue of human value in relation to the problem of euthanasia