- - https://cultureoflife.org -

“Killing the Patient: Arguments For and Against the Personhood of the Embryo”

christianbrugger.jpgPart I – The unjust treatment of human embryos in the U.S. and in the world is an unspeakable moral catastrophe rivaling some of humankind’s greatest evils!

I expect that some reading this feel it is a bit of an overstatement, rather hyperbolic: ‘Come now, we mustn’t be extreme.  Things are bad, but let’s be moderate.  We don’t want to sound like extremists.’ And so on.  I agree that we mustn’t be extreme.  But I disagree that the statement is extreme.  The 2003 RAND-SART Report (the most reliable to date) puts the number of frozen ‘excess’ embryos (as of 2002) at IVF clinics in the U.S. at approximately 400,000.  Reliable estimates put the number today (2008) at closer to half a million, approximately the population of New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina.  Although RAND tells us that the majority of those embryos (88%) are earmarked for future “family building”; since most of their custodians have completed their IVF cycles, it is reasonable to conclude that without wide-scale intervention of a life-affirming kind the majority of the half million human embryos will never be gestated.  They will die.
What can we do?  The pro-life community has before it the same two goals in the defense of the human embryo that it has had in defense of the fetus for the past 35 years: 1) change laws, and 2) and change hearts and minds.
The next two CLF BRIEFS will address each respectively.  In this BRIEF, I address the question of how to awaken hearts and minds to the dignity of the embryo.  I suggest the most important way is to humanize the embryo.  Human embryos conceived through marital love are treated like children.  In the laboratory they are treated as property.  And in the courts (which we will discuss in a future essay), they paradoxically have fewer rights than property.  I would like to set forth four common arguments for the non-humanity (non personhood) of the embryo, and then reply with a brief refutation of each.  The replies will neither be comprehensive, nor formulated in a complex philosophical idiom.  They are intended to equip pro-lifers with simple replies to the sometimes baffling defenses of embryo-destructive behavior heard often in the media and political arena.
1. “Embryos cannot be human beings like you and me because they look so different.” 


This is an argument from appearance.  Although it sounds rather weak, when it comes to forming the opinions of most people, appearance is often decisive.  The fact is that an embryo does look very different from a newborn, teenager or adult.  The often repeated statement that “it’s only a ball of cells” is rhetorically very powerful.  Why?  Because the early embryo is a ball of cells, all of which to the untrained eye look identical.  Embryos do not have a humanoid appearance so when we see pictures of them our emotions are rarely moved as they are when we see, say, an ultrasound of our baby, or an image of a twelve week old fetus in utero.
But appearances can also be deceiving.  The ball of cells is a highly complex, self-organizing, living member of the species Homo sapiens, which if given hospitable conditions will self-direct its own development from immaturity to adulthood.  Moreover, it is not true, not true at all, that an embryo looks different from you and me.  In fact, it looks identical to you and me—when we were embryos!  In other words, an embryo is merely a developmental term, not an existential term.  The existential term is human being.  Human beings have many developmental names: embryos, fetuses, newborns, toddlers, children, adolescents, adults, and senior citizens.  We must charitably admonish our neighbors not to discriminate unfairly against anyone, and particularly human embryos, merely on the grounds that they look different.  Many a grave evil has been done to our neighbor because he looks different from us.

2. “Okay, I will grant you than an embryo is a human being; but it is not a ‘human person’; and only human persons are deserving of full moral respect.”

This is called the ‘emerging personhood’ argument.  It holds that humans are deserving of full respect in virtue of some quality that some human beings acquire and which not all share; when an individual acquires it, they become a person.  The ability to exercise consciousness is the most common quality appealed to in the literature as grounding human personhood.  Clearly an embryo is not yet conscious; it is therefore not a person.

There are two replies.  The first is that this view assumes a faulty dualistic conception of the human person.  It implies that persons are something other than their bodies (not more than their bodies, but other than their bodies), that consciousness is personal and body is subpersonal such that I can have a living human body without a human person.  This faulty idea informs much of the thinking in the euthanasia movement: permanently comatose individuals are not persons and therefore intentionally killing them is morally different from killing a human person; or when conscious experience is radically attenuated by pain and suffering, the value of the person is radically attenuated; this is how we get the so-called ‘life not worth living’.
But it is an error to deny that living human bodies are personal.  Although I am more than my body, I am always also bodily.  As bodily I share the power of sensation with the animal world, and animals are not persons.  But I know that the same human being that senses also deliberates and chooses.  Since only persons can deliberate and choose (i.e., possess reason and will), the bodily being who senses, deliberates and chooses must be a person.  It follows that the living bodily being is the unified subject of both his spiritual (deliberating and willing) and bodily (sensing) acts.
The second reply is to deny that human embryos lack in a morally relevant sense any properly human capacity.  To be sure they lack the developed ability for consciousness.  But given what they are (i.e., living human beings), they can be said already to possess consciousness in seed form.  Another way to say this is they possess the radical natural capacity for conscious experience.  A radical natural capacity is an inherent power a thing possesses in virtue of the kind of thing it is.  It is an ability the actualization of which constitutes a natural part of the thing’s developmental trajectory.  And though the ability to exercise consciousness has not yet been actualized in an embryo, given its dynamic developmental orientation, the embryo will one day—if given the right conditions, and barring interruption or disease—actualize consciousness.  The human embryo therefore is by type (though not yet by developed ability) a conscious being.  Since it possesses within itself all the necessary internal resources—the genetic plan, active dynamism, executive wherewithal—to direct its own ordered development to sufficient maturity for the exercise of consciousness, it is correct to say that it is already a rational animal (to borrow from Aristotle).  It will not develop an ability that it does not already possess an active potentiality to develop.  It is by nature therefore already characterized by that ability.  Since it is more reasonable to found a thing’s basic value in virtue of what it is and not according to its stage of development, human embryos ought to be valued as rational animals, which means as human persons.

3. “But isn’t it true that an embryo can split into two or more embryos (i.e., undergo monozygotic twinning) up until approximately day fourteen?  If it is capable of becoming more than one individual up to this point, shouldn’t we deny that it is a single individual before this point?”
This argument denies the ontological individuality of the embryo before the point at which twinning can no longer occur (i.e., approximately day fourteen at the appearance of the ‘primitive streak’).  It argues that the cells making up the embryonic body (called blastomeres) should rather be conceived as an aggregate of potential individuals held together until the point of individuation.  The reply is to deny that the conclusion (namely, that the embryo is not an individual) follows from the premise (namely, that before day 14 an embryo might twin).  The simple fact that an embryo may split into two or more embryos at a particular point, provides us no argument whatsoever for whether or not it was a single individual or aggregate prior to that point.  It could be the case that it is an aggregate.  But it also could be the case that it is an ontological individual before twinning, then after a blastomere splits off, two embryos remain, the original embryo and a progeny.  Or it could be that at the split, the original embryo passes away and two new embryos begin.  The fact of the split sheds no light on what it is before the split.  We must therefore look elsewhere for our answer.
Evidence supports the conclusion that an embryo before day 14 is not an aggregate of individuals merely held together until activated to become a single organism, but rather a single developing multicellular organism.  The embryonic blastomeres intercommunicate on behalf of the welfare of the whole.  There is even evidence at the single cell stage that body axis symmetry is beginning to be determined.  The work of Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, for example, has given strong indication that an early embryo is not an undifferentiated ball of cells, but a complex unified system in which the cells from the earliest divisions show preferences for adopting positions that determine their ultimate developmental fate (see B. Plusa, M. Zernicka-Goetz et al., “The first cleavage of the mouse zygote predicts the blastocyst axis,” Nature 434 (2005), pp. 391-5).  The more reasonable conclusion is that twinning is not determined by an internal drive of the embryo, but rather is an anomaly caused by extrinsic factors acting upon the embryo.  If embryos possessed the active potency to twin, why don’t far more do what’s natural to them?  The infrequency of the occurrence (0.4% of births) suggests rather that there are factors in the embryo that resist disaggregation, but that occasionally are overcome.  Embryonic cells have remarkably complex compensating mechanisms, which is why blastomeres that ‘bud off’ are sometimes able to form independent organisms.

4. “If a house was burning down and there was only time to save either a seven year old girl or a tray of living human embryos, isn’t it true that the vast majority of people—including pro-lifers—would save the little girl? If this is the case, doesn’t it prove that people don’t really believe—or at least don’t act as if—embryos are as valuable as you and me?”
This argument, posed in the literature by Harvard bioethicist Daniel Brock, has been used effectively to undermine the personhood claim of human embryos.  Although it is likely that many people, including some pro-lifers, would save the little girl, I think it is false to say that it is because they don’t really believe embryos are persons (although some certainly do not).  There are several factors that might account for one’s reflex decision to save the little girl.  The first, and the most significant, is (as stated above) that when it comes to forming the opinions (and the actions) of most people, sensory appearance is often decisive.  In the case of the little girl, I can see her face and flailing arms, perhaps hear her pitiful screams; if I cannot see her (say, she’s in a far off room), I create the images in my mind.  In addition, the psychology of empathy sets in; I think of my own daughter, niece, or neighbor and feel sick at the thought of their dying such a horrible death.  This powerfully moves my emotions in the direction of the little girl.  In the case of the embryos, their little bodies are invisible to the naked eye; all I see is a tray of test tubes.  There is no sensory information here to stir my emotions and draw me towards them.  The powerful effects of empathetic identification arising from the sensory images of the little girl would be psychologically decisive for most people, while my ability to affectively identify with a tray of embryos would be much less.
But this does not mean that down deep I really don’t believe the embryos are deserving of full moral respect.  If the dilemma was between my neighbor’s child and my own, I would likely choose to save my own child; if it was between an injured adult and a child, I would be inclined to choose the child, between a very old man and a young father, to save the father.  In none of these cases would I be denying the full moral status of the other.  It is unrealistic to expect such decisions to proceed from a cool-headed calculus of anthropological equality.
But, you might say, there are twelve embryos and just one girl.  Isn’t saving twelve better than one?  If I believed at that moment that I could save all twelve, and that each would be successfully transferred into a woman and safely gestated, then I would save the embryos.  I think many people would.  But the chances of the embryos’ survival through gestation and birth are low given the best condition; in the case of such a crisis, the chances would be very low indeed.  I will know this and may feel I have a greater chance of saving the girl than any of the embryos.
Moreover, because the embryos are not yet sentient, they will experience no suffering if they die in the fire; but the little girl’s suffering likely would be enormous.  This could influence my thinking without any corresponding doubt that the embryos have the value of persons.  I may also think about the grief of the girl’s mother and father.  Our grief at another’s demise is usually influenced by the depth of our reciprocal relationship to that person.  Abandoned embryos on a tray have few to weep for them.  The thought of the girl’s parents joyfully receiving her back could influence me without my devaluing the lives of the embryos.  At the same time, it would be tendentious to assert that an IVF patient who lost her only embryo in a fire would not experience a mother’s grief.
Nevertheless, the thought experiment does suggest that many (perhaps most) people’s confidence about the personhood of the embryo is not as certain as it is about the personhood of the little girl.  To be sure.  How could it be otherwise?  We have almost no sensory support for the personhood of the embryo and volumes for the little girl.  For the embryo, we must rely almost exclusively on difficult and abstract argumentation.  For the little girl, we need rely on no argument; our affirmation is an immediate conclusion following on a sensory experience.
But defenders of the personhood of the embryo are not denying the differences in the measures of certitude between the two cases.  They are asserting rather at least three other things.  First, they are denying that there are good reasons for rejecting the personhood of the embryo; the arguments set forth above illustrate this.  Second, even if pro-personhood arguments lack a measure of certitude, defenders of the embryo are strenuously denying that contra-personhood arguments ground a judgement of moral certitude that it is ever legitimate to create, manipulate, and destroy human embryos for purposes of utility.  Finally, they are asserting that given the valuable indicators for a personal presence in our observations of human embryos, in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, the only morally responsible position is to treat embryos as persons.  This is the position taken by the Vatican document Donum vitae (1987): “the conclusions of science regarding the human embryo provide a valuable indication for discerning by the use of reason a personal presence at the moment of this first appearance of a human life … The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception” (DV, I, 1, pars. 3-4).

For additional reading see Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics (Cambridge University Press, 2008), chs. 1 & 4.1

Copyright 2008 –Culture of Life Foundation.  Permision granted for unlimited use.  Attribution required.