Defending Human Embryonic Life
This essay addresses the moral status of the human embryo. It asserts that on the basis of biology and metaphysics, the human embryo should be accorded full moral status, that is, inviolability. While this is also the position afforded it by the Catholic Church on the basis of divine revelation and elsewhere, the case will not be argued on that basis in this brief. Instead it will provide a critique of the so-called "intermediate" or "special status" which has been proposed by some ethicists including several of the members of the President's Council on Bioethics. In so doing it will demonstrate why anything other than full moral status for the human embryo is biologically and philosophically untenable.
The President's Council on Bioethics has recommended a total ban on cloning to produce children (Reproductive cloning or CPC). However, it has suggested a moratorium rather than a total ban on cloning for biomedical research (Therapeutic cloning or CBR). A careful review of the Council's report entitled; Human Cloning and Human Dignity, reveals that the Council is equally divided with seven members favoring a complete ban on CBR and seven favoring CBR. Only three members initially favored a moratorium for CBR. As a result, the seven members who initially recommended a ban on CBR and the three who favored a moratorium have joined together in favor of a four year moratorium on CBR.[i] While this is fortunate in that a clear majority of the Council is unwilling to recommend CBR for a period of at least four years, it is disconcerting that any members would be willing to allow it now or ever. It would appear that the reason for disagreement with respect to public policy is that the moral status of the human embryo is still in doubt from the perspective of public perception. Similarly, the fundamental underlying reason why there remains doubt and debate about the moral status of the human embryo is that the truth about its basic nature and essence has not been adequately defined and accepted. This essay is an attempt to outline the salient features involved in such a discussion.
At the January 2003 meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics, Dr. Opitz delivered an excellent presentation of the details involved in human reproductive biology. It nicely coincided with contemporary understanding of human developmental biology as presented in standard texts.1 The reader is referred to the proceedings of the Council at www.bioethics.gov for a complete presentation of his remarks and for access to standard reference works in this area.2 The following basic material was outlined. No attempt will be made to provide an exhaustive review of human developmental biology. The data herein presented represents the author's interpretation of the salient features involved in human reproductive biology vis a vis its implications in the discussion of the moral status of the human embryo.
II. Human Embryology and Developmental Considerations
Fertilization (conception) or sexual reproduction biologically occurs when a male sperm cell or haploid germ cell called a gamete (containing 23 chromosomes) unites (nuclear fusion) with a female egg cell or haploid germ cell also called a gamete (containing 23 chromosomes). The fusion results in an exchange and recombination of nuclear or genetic material. The resulting diploid "zygote" or embryo (containing 46 chromosomes) which is created at that point, is biologically a "nascent" human being or human organism possessing all of the genetic (coded information) material of a full grown adult in microscopic form. The one celled zygote is genetically complete (contains the complete and unique genetic code) and fully (actually) not potentially human even though not yet completely developed morphologically (structurally). Prior to fertilization, no new human being is present; instead a living separate "germ cell" one each from the male and the female exists, i.e. living tissue only, not an entire and genetically complete organism. Thus the biological "dividing line" between new human life (organism) and microscopic living material (tissue) is fertilization (conception). The latter has been a known fact in Biology since shortly after the development of the microscope, but was definitively "settled" with the more recent discovery of DNA, the details of molecular biology and genetics. The "dividing line" between new human life (organism) and living tissue at the level of "sub-organism" is a critical one and represents a piece of relevant scientific information which must be understood in order to properly apprehend the nature of this debate.
The early human embryo or zygote (the product of conception), also called a clonote or cloned human embryo if artificially created by somatic nuclear cell transfer (SNCT) then experiences multiple cell divisions and proceeds through various stages of early development. The earliest stage is referred to as a "blastocyst" which is usually thought to end at roughly the 12 to 14 day stage with the process of gastrulation where the trophoblastic cells which nourish the early embryo are thought to differentiate from the actual cells which become the body of the embryo itself and where the "3" primary germ layers develop. This is also the point at which the so-called "primitive streak" appears which is thought to represent the early tissue from which the central nervous system arises. In the natural setting, implantation in the uterine wall of the female usually occurs by about the 8th day.
At the earliest stages, embryonic cells preserve the ability to differentiate (develop) into any type of tissue contained in the body of the adult human being. Certain "totipotent" cells actually retain the ability to "nourish" the early embryo thus becoming part of the placenta in humans. The "pleuripotent" cells are those which are restricted to the cell lines "destined" to be a part of the actual body of the human being. It is for this reason that they provide so much interest to biologists and researchers, (since they can be "altered" in various ways through bioengineering). At even the one celled (zygote) stage, the human embryo already has begun to "unfold" its predetermined and self-directed or "pre-programmed" trajectory and contains an axis of orientation (front/back), the midline while "unstable" is beginning to be established, and special "programmed" activity is well underway in that gene expression occurs even at the level of the first and second cell divisions. This is not the case with respect to the haploid gametogenic cells from which it arose, which are no longer present after nuclear fusion of the two germ cell nuclei. The blastocyst stage and the stage in which gastrulation occurs is referred to as the stage of blastogenesis which usually ends at roughly the 28th day.
After the blastogenesis stage is completed, the embryo enters the developmental stage in which organogenesis occurs that is the stage in which the major organs of the body are developed. This stage generally extends from 29 days to 56 days during which the embryo increases in size from 6 to roughly 31 cm. Blastogenesis and organogenesis together make up what is referred to as embryogenesis in which major qualitative changes occur.
The final stage, phenogenesis which in general extends from roughly the 9th to the 38th weeks, is the stage in which marked growth and maturation occurs primarily in a quantitative sense, particularly in overall size, beginning with an embryo of roughly 8 grams and ending with one of some 8300 grams [ed note: What the author intends here is unclear. Grams are not a measure of size but of weight, and the weight of a normal baby at birth would be around 3800 grams, not 8300. It is possible that the first two digits were transposed.]. The important point to apprehend from the perspective of human embryological development is that the biologically significant feature which determines the presence of a new and unique human organism is fertilization, i.e. nuclear fusion and recombination of the material from the male and female gametes or germ cells, the oocyte and spermatocyte respectively. Upon nuclear fusion, that is, fertilization or conception, the gametogenic cells are destroyed as living functioning biological entities, and a new entity, the zygote is formed that contains a unique and complete genetic code. That genetic code includes all the information required for the embryos entire "unfolding" and growth along a self directed pre-specified trajectory, which proceeds to "term" provided that it is not naturally or artificially interrupted. Thus in normal sexual reproduction we have a biologically unique and genetically complete organism at the level of the one-celled zygote stage.
With respect to the creation of "clonotes" or cloned embryos which are derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), a type of asexual reproduction, the situation is analogous in that the "reprogrammed" zygote or cloned embryo is brought back to a stage where it is activated or "programmed" to "unfold" or develop according to its pre-determined genetic code containing the full diploid compliment of 46 chromosomes.3 If it is implanted into the uterus of a human female, it could theoretically proceed to term as has been demonstrated in large animal mammals such as Dolly the sheep. Biologically in terms of its "destiny" the cloned embryo is analogous to the one-celled zygote of standard sexual reproduction. The President's Council has correctly found the clonote or cloned human embryo to be functionally analogous to the zygote resultant from type-ordinaire sexual reproduction, i.e., standard human fertilization.4 For the purposes of moral reflection therefore, this author is in agreement with the Council's report that the moral status of the embryo produced by the sexual (nuclear) fusion of an oocyte with a spermatocyte is equivalent to the cloned human embryo resultant from SCNT. Therefore, all of the subsequent arguments in favor of the full moral status of the human embryo (inviolability) will apply equally to both.
III. Philosophical Considerations in Overview
The major impediment to the passing of Federal legislation with respect to the banning of CPC (cloning to produce children) is the fundamental disagreement which still exists regarding what moral status the human embryo should be afforded. This has prohibited the development of a public consensus with respect to the moral licitness of CBR (cloning for biomedical research). In light of the work done by the President's Council on Bioethics as summarized in their above referenced report, there exist three options, opinions or beliefs which presently are being articulated and advanced in the public discourse and by the Council.
The first is that the early human embryo should be afforded no special significance since it is analogous to any other somatic type tissue, often referred to as a "clump of cells". This view not only denies the personhood of the human embryo but also denies that it is a human being, organism or member of the human species. While such a view is incompatible with basic human reproductive biology and a thoughtful analysis of the relevant moral and philosophical principles, it is passionately endorsed by at least one member of the Council, not a small number of research scientists and some others including members of public advocacy groups. Were it not for that fact, it would be appropriate to reject the view as a "non-starter" undeserving of serious further consideration since it is patently false and relies largely on rhetoric, sophistry and language deconstruction rather than the perceivable truth which can be apprehended by a careful analysis of the biological and philosophical principles involved. This critique has been well argued by William E. May in his book: Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, and others of similar philosophical persuasion.5 For the remainder of this work then, the debate will be focused on options two and three to follow, in addressing the legitimacy of what has become known as "special" or intermediate" status for the human embryo.
The second view is that the human embryo while not deserving of full moral status i.e., deserving of all the rights of any other member of the human race or human community it is deserving of some "special status" or "intermediate status" reflective of its nature as a human organism or being, albeit in a rudimentary or undeveloped stage. This construct is associated with what might be termed the "acquired" view and usually requires the acceptance of a physicalist, Cartesian or false dualism on a philosophical basis, wherein human "personhood" is separated from human organism and being. Variations include the "gradualist" and the "immediate" view. The gradualist view has some additional "variations on its theme" as does the immediate view which attempts to "draw" strict lines at various points in development when the human embryonic organism purportedly "becomes" a person. Those who hold this view do not believe that the separation between person and organism/body/being is artificial in that they believe it is consistent with what their "visceral" sensations suggest to them about the embryo among other things. The question which we must subject to rigorous analysis is whether they are correct to believe as they do. In other words, is the human embryo "person-lite" that is "intermediate" or somehow lacking in full moral status since it "seems" in certain ways not to be a "person" or is the human embryo "actually" a human person despite its appearance? As Professor Peter Kreeft has argued in The Unaborted Socrates, InterVarsity Press, 1983, can we be certain that the "seems" is only that, and not an "is" or an "actually"?6 At least 3 lines of evidence are cited by proponents of this view which will be discussed in a subsequent section of this essay.
The third view is that the human embryo by virtue of what it is in nature, kind and essence should be afforded full moral status as would any other member of the species homo-sapiens. This opinion is predicated on the assumption that the human being or person is a complete integrated whole and that human "personhood" can not be separated from human "being" at any stage in human development without resorting to an artificial Cartesian or physicalist dualism which denies the very nature and essence of humanity, humanness, and what it means to be human. The latter finds it routes in the enlightenment philosophies of Descartes, Hume and others in which mind and matter are separated and never satisfactorily harmonized into an integrated whole.
This third view, which is much more compatible with the philosophy of Aristotle and Aquinas is also predicated on the demonstrable fact that humanness and human personhood is not dependent upon size, location, activity, cognition, or any other characteristic other than the demonstration that the embryo in question is biologically human. It contends that it is philosophically untenable to suggest that the human embryo is not in possession of full human personhood from the initial moment of its existence, i.e., conception (fertilization) or in the case of the cloned embryo, the one-celled zygote or "clonote" stage. According to this view, denial of human personhood for the human embryo is also dependent on language deconstruction by altering the commonly understood meaning of terms, a phenomenon which arose in modern analytical philosophy which has dominated much of contemporary bioethics. In advocating this third view which the author shares, use is made of the philosophical foundations laid by Socrates, Aristotle, Aquinas and Kant.
Without a proper understanding of the moral status of the human embryo, the issue of CBR (cloning for biomedical research) "continues to be portrayed as a matter of balancing various potential moral goods, which are at times thought to be in conflict, such as the treatment of illness and disease vs. the protection of nascent human beings".7 This could only be true if the embryo is not afforded full moral status, for if the embryo is in fact a human being i.e. a human person of equal moral status to any other human being, then clearly the aforementioned calculus of "balancing various perceived moral "goods" is inapplicable and morally illicit. Therefore, it is necessary for the proper development of public policy and debate on and enactment of Federal legislation to "flesh-out" the truth with respect to the moral status of the human embryo. This will necessarily involve a repudiation of moral relativism which would make the determination of truth regarding the moral status of the human embryo impossible. For those who desire a detailed critique see Peter Kreeft's A Refutation of Moral Relativism, (Ignatius Press, 1999).
The most intensive debate has occurred between advocates of option 2 or its "variants" and those who hold view or option 3. With respect to the President's Council on Bioethics and the Congressional debate thus far, both groups have advanced biological and philosophical positions although in this author's view, somewhat incomplete arguments in favor of their respective positions. In the remainder of this essay each of the major variants involved in option or argument (2) above will be analyzed in detail.
IV. Critique of the "Acquired" View and its Variants
The major argument which is marshaled by advocates of the "intermediate" or "special significance" view is that the human embryo at some point during the process of gestation, either "suddenly" or "gradually" becomes human and personal in nature. It alleges that the early embryo while being human genetically is not a human person, but that at some stage it becomes a personal human entity deserving of full moral respect equivalent to any other human person. This view has many variations most of which appeal to 3 lines of evidence. They include: 1) the low but real incidence of monozygotic "twinning" which is known to occur up until day 14 of gestation, 2) the relatively high rate of "natural" attrition of fertilized oocytes (zygotes) estimated variously at between 35-70%, either as a result of genetic (chromosomal or other) errors or failure to implant or remain intra-uterine for a variety of reasons, and 3) the fact that the early human embryo lacks the "form" which we normally associate with human persons. Each of these "3" lines of evidence have been addressed and in the author's view adequately refuted by Professors George and Gomez-Lobo in their essay published in Human Cloning and Human Dignity, (Public Affairs, 2002)8 and by numerous other scholars as well. The following material will add to those arguments and discuss some additionally related positions as well.
The weakest of the "3" lines of evidence is that of "form". First, the argument as to form is "circular" in that it seeks to answer the question as to the personhood of human embryos by assuming that which it intends to prove. The proponent argues that since human persons normally look a certain way and embryos do not, therefore, embryos are not persons. This is precisely what the proponent hopes to demonstrate, that is whether an embryo is obliged to look a certain way in order to be a human person. Thus what has been "proved" is that embryos do not look like other human beings and that as a result we are justified in denying them personhood. This justification would surely be repudiated should it be applied to "Siamese" twins or severely deformed adult human beings who do not look like other persons.
Arguments of this kind are plausible as Germain Grisez has written; "because they use imagery and directly affect feelings. Usually, in judging whether or not to apply a predicate [such as human being or person] to an experienced entity, one does not examine it to see whether it meets a set of intelligible criteria; instead, one judges by appearances, using as guide past experience of individuals of that kind. While the particular difference [between a human zygote or early embryo and embryos and fetuses at a later stage of development] is striking because of the normal limits of human experience, (nevertheless) entities that are different in that way certainly are living human beings".9
As Stephen Schwartz has indicated, (William E. May and Germain Grisez also endorse this reasoning), this sort of objection to the personhood of embryos is; "based on the expectation that what is a person must be like us. It must be the right size, (a size like ours); it must have a level of development comparable to ours; it must look like us; it must, like us, be conscious". These are not true criteria for being a person [nor for being a human being] . . . simply expressions of our expectation, of what we are used to, of what appears familiar to us. It is not that the zygote fails to be a person [or human being] because it fails these tests, it is we who fail by using these criteria to measure what a person [or human being] is".10
A variant of this argument is waged by Professor James Q. Wilson in his appendix statement of the President's Council on Bioethics report, who contends that we do not respond in the same way to the loss of an embryo that we do to a late gestation, pre-mature or newborn infant. Despite his admission that the assertion is devoid of "religious or metaphysical meaning", he does suggest along with others that the assumption of "personhood" is a gradual process and to some extent assigned by the social community at large; "My view is that people endow a thing with humanity when it appears, or even begins to appear, human; that is when it resembles a human creature".11
Many others have waged similar arguments which attempt to demonstrate that personhood is a "social status" conferred on entities by others. William E. May has provided a critique of this argument in his book referenced above; "proponents of this view contend that personhood is a social status conferred on an entity by others and that an entity is a person only when recognized by others as a person. They believe that this view is supported by the truth that persons exist only with other persons personhood is relational in character".12
May disagrees and discusses the position of Marjorie Reiley Maguire who has proposed another variation on the "gradualist" view of the "personhood" of the unborn which involves a variant of Wilson's argument that personhood is conferred by social convention which; "begins when the bearer of life, the mother, makes a covenant of love with the developing life within her to birth . . . The moment which begins personhood . . . is the moments when the mother accepts the pregnancy". 13
May's critique of this argument is particularly insightful:
"And if she does not accept it and decides to abort the "developing life within her", that life must be regarded as not a person, for personhood has not been bestowed on it. This position of course leads to the absurdity that the same being can be simultaneously both a person and not a person; it is a "person," for instance, if at least one person, say its father, recognizes and esteems it as a person; but it is not a "person" if another person, say its mother, refuses to consider it a person. This claim presupposes that human meaning-giving constitutes persons; the truth is that human meaning-giving and human societies presuppose human persons".14
In arguing the above, May refers to the work by Germain Grisez, "When do People Begin?" (Proceedings of the American Catholic Philosophical Association 63 (1989) 29; Living a Christian Life. P. 489), to which the reader is referred.
Conceptually then, whether the argument as to "form" proceeds from the "visual appearance" of the embryo or our "perception" of it either individually or as a society, the difficulty is that we fail to "probe" to the level of what the embryo actually is in metaphysical terms, in each of the above arguments. We have seen that physical appearance only "seems" to help in identifying personhood as is the case of conjoined "Siamese" twins where 2 separate human persons share one physical boundary condition (body). No one would argue that in such cases we have 1 person and 1 body, and no one would argue that we have 2 persons in 2 separate bodies while physically joined by one common tissue boundary. Take for example the case of the Hemsley conjoined twin girls who share one set of lower extremities and one abdomen, pelvis and modified thorax and vertebral column, and one set of two arms, essentially one body plan with two separate heads. It is undeniable that they are 2 human persons in 1 body despite the fact that we normally see only humans who have 1 person confined to 1 body. The question is whether it is metaphysically possible to have no person in what is 1 human body or human organism.
It has been demonstrated above that one can have 1 or 2 persons in one human body or organism. Can one have no person in 1 human body or organism? Does this violate the law of identity which in human beings involves the unity of body (material) and soul (immaterial) on the basis of what they are by nature and essence?15 The author obviously believes that it does. Thus, the human person is a combination of matter and form like all other inorganic and organic beings (entities), where the human soul is the ethereal form of the person. To proceed further then, if one purports that it is possible to have no person in 1 human body or organism, does this not relegate the entity to that of the "sub-human" by definition? In other words has one by definition described a sub-human primate at best, in whom no human soul or underlying basic unifying life force exists (which it is demonstrably ethereal in nature) or principle of unity or life force exists? Those who suggest that human embryos lack this capacity which would afford them personhood have engaged in a type of language deconstruction and metaphysical distortion by artificially separating the notion of human personhood from the notion of human being, organism or entity. There can be no such entity as a "non-person" human being or organism since human beings are by definition and by nature, persons. Virtually everyone with the possible exception of Singer and perhaps Tooley and a few others would agree that "lower" animals and subhuman primates are not persons even though they are living organisms or beings. Unlike all other material entities or beings, the human person is capable of both intellection (including the formation of abstract concepts), and will (which includes the "passions" or emotions). Thus there is an essential interdependence and unity between body and soul in each human person, a point well made by Professor William E. May in his book: Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life. (Huntington Indiana: 2000).16
This would also mean that if human embryos are not persons they are non-human animals and we know that biologically they are genomically human. Therefore, all human embryos are human persons by the law of the excluded middle. If we accept the argument that human embryos are not persons, one is forced to ask what other human bodies, organisms or beings are not to be afforded personhood then, and on what basis? What other living incapacitated, disabled or otherwise less than fully perfect human beings will be denied human personhood if the human embryo is so denied? These are questions of the most profound significance since they bear directly on what it means to be human and a member of the species homo-sapiens.
B. "Twinning" and possible Fusion or Recombination of Zygotes
A second line of evidence presented by some members of the President's Council on Bioethics and others, (also a variation on the "acquired" sudden appearance type argument) is to cite the known incidence of monozygotic "twinning" which can occur up to the 14th day of gestation. The argument alleges that since it is not clear that an embryo will become 1 physical human individual until that point, it can not possibly be a human person. Essentially it asserts that as long as "twinning" can occur, or recombination of two zygotic entities into one is possible, what exists, is not yet a single individual human being but only a "mass of cells" each of which is totipotent and independent of the others. There exist several significant problems with this argument. First, as some members of the President's Council on Bioethics (Human Cloning and Human Dignity, Public Affairs, 2002, pp. 176-177) have written:
"There is the obvious rejoinder that if one locus of moral status can become two, its moral standing does not thereby diminish but rather increases. More specifically, the possibility of twinning does not rebut the individuality of the early embryo from its beginning. The fact that where "John" alone once was there are now both "John" and "Jim" does not call into question the presence of "John" at the outset. Hence, we need not doubt that even the earliest cloned embryo is an individual human organism in its germinal stage."
Second, this argument or line of evidence is really an attempted but undisclosed variation on the argument of "ensoulment" or "delayed Hominization" addressed later, in that it suggests that if a soul were present in the zygote while it is one, it could not be the same entity which exists when it becomes two. This is an example of confusing the boundary conditions of the material with the immaterial (which has no boundary in 3 spatial dimensions). As we have seen in the example of the Hemsley "Siamese" twins, it is possible for their to be 2 individual persons (a person is an immaterial entity on one level [whether that is called a soul or something else], while being material on another level unless one postulates an artificial substance or physicalist dualism) in one individual and inseparable body or tissue boundary. No one would argue there are not 2 souls or separate persons or "presences" present in the Hemsley girls. Therefore, where there is a person, there is a soul and vice versa, but where there is a body, organism, or a being, there is not necessarily only 1 soul or 1 person, there can be 2 but not no person(s). By extension then, if "John" (1 person) is an individual embryonic person who becomes (through asexual reproduction or natural cloning), "Jim" and "John" (2 persons), this in no way takes away from the individuality or personhood of "John" who existed temporally and spatially before "Jim", even though "Jim" did not exist temporally or spatially as such before.
Some individuals who have advocated for this view (Norman Ford, an Australian Catholic Priest in When Did I Begin?: Conception of the Human Individual in History, Philosophy, and Science, (Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988) and Michael Coughlan in The Vatican, the Embryo, and the Law (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990) for example, believe that the early embryo or pre-implantation embryo is genetically and biologically human and distinct from its parents but believe it is not yet ontologically a distinct individual. This is a metaphysical distinction without a difference since the very essence of a human organism is to possess personhood. It is artificial to divide the human whole organism which contains personhood as part of its essence from one of its parts, its body, or a portion of its body such as the primitive streak which advocates of this position attach such special significance to and which occurs at 14 days of gestation.
Their allegation is that what exists prior to 14 days is a "colony of cells" held together in an artificial way, not an ontologically distinct human individual. This presumably is because they are either unaware or are unwilling to admit that this "colony of cells" is in fact the biological continuation of the life of a distinct individual which began at the time of fertilization. Note the summary of embryologists R. Yanagimachi, "Mammalian Fertilization," in The Physiology of Reproduction, ed. E. Knobil, J. Neill et al. (New York: Raven Press, 1998), p. 135; and Antoine Suarez, "Hydatidiform Moles and Teratomas Confirm the Human Identity of the Preimplantation Embryo," Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 15 (1990) 627, in describing what is scientifically known about fertilization in mammals; "fertilization in mammals normally represents the beginning of life for an individual". Ford and Coughlan attach significance to the totipotency of these cells arguing that prior to implantation and the formation of the "primitive streak" the cells within the zona pellucida (the membrane surrounding the zygote and early embryo) are all "totipotential" and each is able to become distinct individual human persons. The problem is that they believe, as William E. May points out, (Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000, p. 169):
"that the individual cells within the early embryo have the active potentiality to become individual human beings and if so, then they would so develop unless some accident prevented such development. But they do not have "active" potentiality; their "potentiality is not "active" but hypothetical. It is hypothetical because for it to be actualized some extrinsic cause must separate the individual cells within the pre-implantation embryo. We can grant that during the early stages of its development (i.e., prior to implantation) the individual cells of the embryo are as yet relatively unspecialized and therefore can become whole human organisms IF they are divided and have an appropriate environment after division. But, as Patrick Lee points out, 'this does not in the least indicate that prior to such an extrinsic division the embryo is an aggregate rather than a single, multicellular organism,' and one identifiably of the human species, distinct from other members of the species."
May then proceeds:
"The crucial question raised by such phenomena as monozygotic twinning and possible recombination is this: Do they, of themselves, demonstrate that the "ontological human individual comes into being only after implantation? The attempts to demonstrate this by Ford and others are very implausible and rest on the presupposition, not credible, that the individual cells within the zona pellucida surrounding the early embryo have the active potentiality to become individual human persons. But if they did have an active potency of this kind, then they would all become individual persons, and this is absurd. Thus, as Grisez says, "contrary to what Ford asserts (without argument) in those zygotes which develop continuously as individuals the facts do not evidence an active potentiality to develop otherwise. Rather, at most the facts show that all early embryos could passively undergo division or recombination".
As May then further makes clear (Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000, p. 170):
"In short, the argument that individual human persons cannot begin at fertilization because of such phenomena as identical twinning is based on appearances and alleged common sense, but it fails to prove what it claims to prove. It is far more likely, as Ashley/Moraczewski and others argue that identical twinning is a developmental accident and that the coming into being of identical twins can be explained reasonably as a mode of asexual reproduction (cloning). Twinning and similar facts in no way compel us to conclude that individual human persons do not begin to be at conception/fertilization, (emphasis mine). It is possible that some human individuals begin to be between fertilization and implantation, but most human individuals do come to be at fertilization/conception; it is reasonable to hold that they do and unreasonable to claim that they do not".
Dr. William Hurlbut consulting Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University and a member of the President's Council on Bioethics addresses the issue of "twinning and its relationship to individuality of the human embryo in his appendix statement in the Council's report Human Cloning and Human Dignity (Public Affairs, 2002, pp. 312 and 313) as follows: "this argument actually supports the notion that crucial dimensions of individuation (and their disruption that results in twinning) are already at work in the blastocyst, the stage at which most twinning occurs. Monozygotic twinning (a mere 0.4 percent of births) does not appear to be either an intrinsic drive or a random process within embryogenesis. Rather, it is a disruption of normal development by a mechanical compensatory repair, but with the restitution of integrity within two distinct trajectories of embryological development. [The fact that these early cells retain the ability to form a second embryo is testimony to the resiliency of self-regulation and compensation within early life, not the lack of individuation of the first embryo from which the second can be considered to have "budded" off. Evidence for this may be seen in the increased incidence of monozygotic twinning associated with IVF by Blastocyst Transfer. When IVF embryos are transferred to the uterus for implantation at the blastocyst stage, there is a two-ten-fold increase in the rate of monozygotic twinning, apparently due to disruption of normal organismal integrity. It is also interesting to note that with Blastocyst Transfer there is a slightly higher rate of male births.] [internal footnote] In considering the implication of twinning for individuation, one might as the question from the opposite perspective. What keeps each of these totipotent cells from becoming a full embryo? Clearly, crucial relational dynamics of position and intercellular communication are already at work establishing the unified pattern of the emerging individual. From this perspective twinning is not evidence of the absence of an individual, but of an extraordinary power of compensatory repair that reflects more fully the potency of the individual drive to fullness of form."
The fact that a very small number of human individuals appear to come into existence after fertilization but prior to 14 days in no way establishes that no individuals come into existence prior to 14 days. Other relevant evidence clearly establishes that they do and thus it is the burden of those who wish to imply that all individuals arise after 14 days to prove it. It would appear highly "tenuous" indeed to base a moral decision of this magnitude on such "flimsy" evidence as that presented by Ford, Coughlan and those who support their view. The age old tried and true maxim of medicine comes to mind here: "when in doubt proceed with caution". In this case that would mean giving the embryo the benefit of the doubt since to do otherwise is to take away the only thing the embryo has, its "right" to life, liberty and happiness.
C. "Wastage" or Natural Attrition
A third line of evidence which also contributes to a variation of another of the "acquired" arguments is that under natural circumstances a significant rate of attrition or loss of embryos occurs, sometimes referred to as "wastage". The argument which is waged is that embryonic human beings are not worthy of full moral respect because a high percentage of embryos formed in natural pregnancies fail either to implant or undergo spontaneous abortion. This argument has some severe limitations. First, it suffers from a variation of the "naturalistic fallacy" as has been well outlined by Professors George and Gomez-Lobo in their appendix statement in the report of the President's Council on Bioethics: "It supposes that what happens in 'nature', i.e., with predictable frequency without the intervention of human agency, must be morally acceptable when deliberately caused, Since embryonic death in early miscarriages happens with predictable frequency without the intervention of human agency, the argument goes, we are warranted in concluding that the deliberate destruction of human beings in the embryonic stage is morally acceptable. The unsoundness of such reasoning can easily be brought into focus by considering the fact that historically, and in some places even today, the infant mortality rate has been very high. If the reasoning under review here were sound, it would show that human infants in such circumstances could not be full human beings possessing a basic right not to be killed for the benefit of others. But that of course is surely wrong. The argument is a non sequitur".17
The argument can be further refuted by noting the effect of pre-natal obstetrical care itself, well known to positively affect the outcome of human pregnancy including those instances where loss of the fetus would ensue absent Caesarean section and neonatal intensive care. Prior to the development of these modalities, the fetal infants in question would have been considered non-human since their natural fate would have been not to survive.
Second, it fails to recognize that almost invariably, what is "lost" is not actually a human embryo capable of self-direction and development, or is so severely malformed from chromosomal abnormalities resultant from nuclear mal-fusion and recombination as to render the "product" non-viable. This point was stressed by Dr. Opitz repeatedly at the January 2003 meeting of the Presidents' Council on Bioethics, a point which has been widely known, disseminated and taught. On further detailed questioning Dr. Opitz indicated that in virtually every case of early embryonic loss, either a gross or occult genetic abnormality was responsible. Those who advocate the "wastage" argument often cite various studies which purportedly affirm a high rate of attrition of pre-implantation embryos. W. Jerome Bracken in: "Is the Early Embryo a Person?" in Life and Learning VIII: Proceedings of the Eighth University Faculty for Life Conference, June 1998, ed. Joseph W. Koterski, S. J. (Washington, D.C.: University Faculty for life, 1999), 443-467, has examined these studies carefully and determined that most such "losses" are the result of severe developmental (chromosomal) abnormalities which render the individual incapable of forming a human body and that therefore, what is lost, or "wasted" is not human to begin with. Therefore, Bracken is in agreement with Dr. Opitz that the individuals who are lost early after nuclear fusion are severely malformed. Note also the paper by D. Wilcox et. al., "Incidence of Loss in Early Pregnancy," The New England Journal of Medicine 319/4 (July 28, 1998) 189-194, for further data.
Thirdly, a variation of this argument suggests that since the embryo might not be implanted in the case of cloned or IVF embryos, the human entity is not capable of developing to maturity and therefore is not to be afforded human personhood. Sad to say some of our elected officials have mistakenly utilized this specious argument in order to justify destructive embryonic stem cell research and CBR (cloning for biomedical research). This would be like a bird who was kept in a small cage in which its wings were not allowed to grow and develop normally for failure to be "outstretched" and then when it could not fly, the designation "bird" would be withheld because it had failed to "mature" as a functional bird. The President's Council on Bioethics has written well here in Human Cloning and Human Dignity, (Public Affairs, 2002. pp. 177-178):
"We are also not persuaded by the claim that in vitro embryos (whether created through IVF or cloning) have a lesser moral status than embryos that have been implanted into a woman's uterus, because they cannot develop without further human assistance. The suggestion that extra-corporeal embryos are not yet individual human organisms-on-the-way, but rather special human cells that acquire only through implantation the potential to become individual human organisms-on-the-way, rests on a misunderstanding of the meaning and significance of potentiality (emphasis mine). An embryo is, by definition and by its nature, potentially a fully developed human person; its potential for maturation is a characteristic it actually (emphasis mine) has, and from the start. The fact that embryos have been created outside their natural environment which is to say, outside the woman's body and are therefore limited in their ability to realize their natural capacities, does not affect either the potential or the moral status of the beings themselves. A bird forced to live in a cage its entire life may never learn to fly. But this does not mean it is less of a bird, or that it lacks the immanent potentiality to fly on feathered wings. It means only that a caged bird like an in vitro human embryo has been deprived of its proper environment", (emphasis mine).
In the case of IVF or cloned embryos, it is not the fault of the embryo (who did not bring itself into existence), that it has not been afforded the proper environment in which to flourish. Withholding personhood on that basis is disingenuous and sorely lacking in justice and beneficence even if one appeals to an entirely secular or "principle" based bioethic rife with elements of utilitarianism and personal autonomy.
Fourth, it assumes that the rate of attrition which seems "naturally" albeit unusually high, is part of "nature's efficiency" as was suggested by one of the members of the President's Council on Bioethics at the January 2003 meeting and therefore supportive of an "intermediate" moral status. This argument is very misleading since the data upon which it is based is heavily dependent upon factors which can hardly be called "natural". Note for example the following remarks of Richard Doerflinger of the USCCB at the January 2003 meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics available at www.bioethics.gov:
"I thought I saw in the discussion period of Dr. Opitz's talk the beginnings of an argument that the high natural embryo loss rate provides a kind of moral warrant for destroying embryos deliberately. I was glad to see Dr. Opitz decline the invitation to assert that it is the normal and natural fate of genetically normal embryos simply to die. He said that the high loss rate in the early stages is more often than not due to detectable gross abnormalities, and that when we have not detected that abnormality, it may simply be we don't know it yet.
But I want to draw attention to three problems. One is simply the logical fallacy that because something happens in nature we can do it deliberately. The eruption of Mount St. Helen's provides no warrant for dropping the big one on Seattle. Human ethics, I think, almost universally rejected the argument of the researchers at the Willowbrook Home that they could deliberately infect retarded children with hepatitis because many of them would develop it anyway, and current NIH regulations for many years rejected the idea that particularly harmful research can be done on the unborn solely because they may miscarry or even be deliberately aborted anyway.
I think, secondly, that it might be difficult or impossible to note what a natural loss rate would be. All of the studies done of early loss were done in our modern industrialized society awash in environmental insults ranging from coffee, tobacco and alcohol to environmental and industrial pollution, low level radiation, and electromagnetic waves, (emphasis mine).
Dr. Rowley rightly pointed to the excellent example of neural tube defects and folate. Perhaps a natural diet of our ancestors included a great many green, leafy vegetables that had a high folate content.
Nowadays France has a lower rate of spina bifida than England or Ireland because the French eat salads. Perhaps as the French become addicted to the "Grand Mac," like the rest of us, the natural loss rate of embryos would go higher, but it's very difficult to figure out what a natural loss rate would be or how one would study it because I don't think there's any natural world left anymore that we could find and study" (Emphasis mine).
As suggested by Mr. Doerflinger, we have no "natural" rates of embryonic loss or "wastage" upon which to construct a valid biological argument for the "expected" rate of attrition, particularly in the past 40 plus years since the human female reproductive system has been "assaulted" by pharmacological as well as various and sundry mechanical interventions.
D. Exercisable Cognitive Abilities
Another variation on the "acquired" view is that human persons must be capable of exercising certain cognitive abilities. It is readily apparent that embryos, fetuses, new born infants and young children up to a certain minimum age can not do so, as is the case with some severely cognitively impaired and otherwise neurologically "challenged" adults. If this view were correct, then none of the aforementioned could be deemed persons either. While some ethicists e.g. Peter Singer and a few others have made this argument, almost all thoughtful scholars have repudiated it and rightly so since it is obvious that once this hypothesis is accepted, there is no limit to what "standard" may be employed by those in power in way of conferring human personhood. Ample historical precedents exist which demonstrate that the standard(s) employed are often arbitrary and capricious.18
With respect to the allegation or assertion that human "personhood" requires the exercisable cognitive abilities, the following from William E. May is enlightening:
"The reasoning behind the claim that only those members of the human species, i.e., those living bodies identifiable as human, who possess at least incipient exercisable cognitive abilities are persons, is fallacious. It fails to distinguish between a radical capacity or ability and a developed capacity or ability, (emphasis mine). A radical capacity, one rooted in the being of the entity in question, can also be called (as it is by authors like Patrick Lee) an active, as distinct from a merely passive, potentiality. An unborn or newborn human baby, precisely by reason of its nature as a human being, (emphasis mine), and therefore a member of the human species, has the radical capacity or active potentiality to discriminate between true and false propositions, to make choices, and to communicate rationally. But in order for this human being to exercise this capacity or set of capacities, his radical capacity or active potentiality for engaging in these activities which are after all predictable kinds of behavior for human beings or member of the human species must be allowed to develop. But it could never be developed if it were not present to begin with, (emphasis mine). Similarly, human beings older than zygotes, embryos, fetuses (e.g., prepubescent children, teenagers, adults, senior citizens) may, because of accidents or illness, no longer be capable of exercising their capacity or ability to engage in these activities, but this in no way means that they no longer have the radical capacity or active potentiality for doing so. They are simply inhibited by disease or accidents from exercising this capacity, (emphasis mine).
In short, a living human body (alive and human, be it recalled, because its animating principle is the human or spiritual soul), no matter what its size (a zygote, a preimplantation embryo, a fetus, a newborn, some senile individual) has the radical capacity or active potentiality to do what human persons are supposed to do, (emphasis mine). A human zygote, embryo, newborn has the active potentiality or radical capacity to develop from within its own resources all it needs to exercise the property or set of properties characteristic of adult human beings. A human embryo, as philosophers Robert and Mary Joyce so precisely put matters, is a person with potential, not a potential person (emphasis mine) (1971, p. 123).
Those thinkers, who, like Singer and Tooley, require that an entity have exercisable cognitive abilities, recognize that the unborn have the potentiality to engage in such activities. But they consider this merely a passive potentiality (or do not make the distinction) and fail to recognize the critically significant difference between an active potentiality and a merely passive one, (emphasis mine). In his excellent development of the significance of this difference, Patrick Lee makes two very important points. The first concerns the moral significance of the distinction between an active and a passive potentiality. An active potentiality means 'that the same entity which possesses it is the same entity as will later exercise that active potentiality, (emphasis mine). With a passive potentiality, that is not so; that is, the actualization of a passive potentiality often produces a completely different thing or substance.' Lee's second key point is that the proper answer to the query 'why should higher mental functions or the capacity or active potentiality for such functions be a trait conferring value on those who have it' is that such functions and the capacity for them are 'of ethical significance not because [these functions] are the only intrinsically valuable entities but because entities which have such potentialities are intrinsically valuable, (emphasis mine). And, if the entity itself is intrinsically valuable, then it must be intrinsically valuable from the moment that it exists' (1997, pp. 26-27; emphasis added). As a group of British thinkers have also pointedly noted, in criticizing this alleged criterion of personhood for its arbitrariness, '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', (emphasis mine), (Gormally et al, 1994, pp. 123-124; italics in original).
I cannot here enter into a discussion of the time when a living human body, i.e., a living human person, first comes into existence. I simply affirm here that the vast majority of human persons first come to be at fertilization/conception (emphasis mine), with a tiny minority (e.g., one or more monozygotic twins, triplets, etc.) coming to be shortly thereafter as a result of a kind of "cloning." Arguments and evidence supporting this position are abundant and are perhaps best set forth by Lee (1997, chapters 1 and 2), Grisez (1989, pp. 27-47; 1993, pp. 488-505), Benedict Ashley and Albert Moraczewski (1994, pp. 33-60), Angelo Serra and Roberto Colombo (1998, pp. 128-177), Ramon Lucas Lucas (1998, pp. 178-205), May (2000, pp. 156-170), and I refer readers to these sources."19, (emphasis mine).
As can be seen by a careful review of Professor May's writing, there is a fundamental difference between having a radical capacity or active potentiality and a passive potentiality. These sorts of misunderstandings are routed in a failure to understand the nature and being of humans on a metaphysical basis, rather than a serious philosophical argument in favor of cognitive ability as a requirement for personhood. To put the matter differently, it is bad philosophy which is on display rather than a dispute as to the correctness or applicability of the argument.
As is the case with many of the "acquired" arguments, and aptly stated by Professor May, in his Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, (Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000, p.162); "the dualistic view of man underlying the claim denying personhood to human beings who lack exercisable cognitive abilities is, therefore, a false understanding of man, male and female."
One might attempt to embellish the above even more fundamentally as follows; to seriously pose the argument in question is to completely misunderstand the unique "anthropology" of man, to appeal to false dualism and to misapprehend the true meaning of humanity.
E. Delayed Hominization
This argument alleges that personhood cannot be "assigned" to the human embryo until it has developed sense organs and a brain since these are required in order to exercise cognitive and volitional powers. It represents another in the group of "acquired" theories in which a "line is drawn" in the developmental process after which personhood is "inferred". Those who have appealed to this theory have usually tried to rehabilitate the "delayed Hominization theory of St. Thomas Aquinas despite the fact that his notion predated modern science and our understanding of human reproductive biology and genetics. Therefore, strictly speaking the argument is a "non-starter" if used as an extension of Aquinas' theory since his views with respect to the embryo were based on an incorrect understanding of human reproductive biology given the primitive science of the time. If it is posed simply as another "acquired" theory in which anatomic rather than functional criteria are appealed to (in this case the presence at day 14 of the "primitive streak" or later at week 20 of gestation of the cerebral cortex) then it is simply another variation on a general theme in which it can be seen that no line can be drawn after which personhood can be inferred.
For the sake of completeness, the argument alleges that the embryo undergoes a fundamental and substantial change from a "subhuman" or pre-human entity to a human, personal entity at a time in development when its substrate or physical matter is sufficiently or adequately organized or developed enough for ensoulment (insertion of a soul into matter) to take place. Those who advance this argument e.g. Donceel Shannon, Wolters and others,20 contend that until a neural integrative function is present, the "soul" can not be present since it is dependent upon neural function for rational action or activity. Therefore, so the argument goes, the early embryo is incapable of being "ensouled" since it lacks any neural integrative capacity. Unfortunately for this hypothesis, it is impossible to ascertain when the actual integrative capacity is completely operative and therefore where to "draw the line". Even young infants can not be said to possess it, and many adults loose it by accident or disease. Thus those who advance this argument are suggesting a "potential" not an actual capacity for rational activity. Closer scrutiny reveals that what is really at stake here is again the notion of radical capacity and active potentiality rather than actual rationality (a demonstrated actual ability). As such this argument fails to be anything other than another of the "acquired" attempts to artificially divide personhood from human being or organism, relying on a type of artificial dualism in which the human embryo "suddenly" becomes a person at some point in development.
F. Failure to Grieve
This argument is similar to some of the arguments from "form". It suggests that because people sometimes do not respond the same way to a miscarriage in early gestation as they do to the death of a newborn infant or young child, that the embryo is therefore not a person. On careful analysis this is a circular argument since it uses the "indifference" of people who deny that human beings in the embryonic stage of development deserve full moral respect as an argument for not affording them that respect. This point was made persuasively by Professors Gomez-Lobo and George in their appendix statement to the President's Council on Bioethics report in Human Cloning and Human Dignity (Public Affairs, 2002, p. 304). They also make an excellent case for the "apparent" disparity is the result of either lack of understanding or lack of complete emotional bonding21 as follows:
"The absence of grieving is sometimes a result of ignorance about the facts of embryogenesis and intrauterine human development. If people are told (as they still are in some places) that there simply is no human being until "quickening" a view which is preposterous in light of the embryological facts then they are likely not to grieve (or not to grieve intensely) at an early miscarriage."
"Moreover, the fact that people typically grieve less in the case of a miscarriage than they do in the case of an infant's death is partly explained by the simple facts that they do no actually see the baby, hold her in their arms, talk to her, and so on. The process of emotional bonding is typically completed after the child is born sometimes, and in some cultures, months after the child is born. However, a child's right not to be killed plainly does not depend on whether her parents or anyone else has formed an emotional bond with her. Every year perhaps every day people die for whom others do not grieve. This does not mean that they lacked the status of human beings who were worthy of full moral respect."
This argument is really a "non-starter" since it again confuses the nature of what an embryo actually is with what an individual or society thinks it is. In that sense it is a variation of the "form" argument previously discussed which Professor Wilson and Marjorie Reiley Maguire advocate. The reader is directed again to Peter Kreeft's The Unaborted Socrates aforementioned for a cogent "Socratic" discussion regarding the difference between something which "seems to be the case" and something which actually is the case".
Hopefully the reader has now become aware that every species has a set of characteristics which can be utilized to help "categorize" and define it. This has been true in a formal way since the time of Linaeus and the development of his original biological classification system. These characteristics include gross and microscopic structural components, functional components, and genetic considerations. For example, fish have certain characteristics including gills, fins, existence in an aquatic environment etc. With respect to human beings, one of the characteristics which defines, describes and separates them from other individual living entities is that they engage in rational thought, have self-awareness, and are cognizant of realities in at least 3 spatial and 1 time dimension. This "knower or "I" who is in mind or control of these attributes is part of the whole and integrated material/immaterial, body/soul or body/mind entity or "composite" which we refer to as a human being or human organism. These characteristics along with the need or desire to engage in some form of spiritual interaction or "worship" make up some of the characteristics then which contribute to the designation "human" being, individual or person as can be ascertained by a review of the relevant literature from anthropology demonstrating that human beings are the only biological organisms which engage in worship of the transcendent. Thus among other things, Singer's corollary argument that affording full moral status to human embryos represents nothing more than "speciesism" is spurious.22 The implications of this critical difference, (that human beings are the only living organisms which are defined as "persons" or "body/soul" composites representing the combination of both the material and immaterial by basic nature and essence) are enormous from the perspective of how we deal with human embryos.
What advocates of "special status" or "intermediate" status for the human embryo have done, is to "pluck out" or select certain of these human characteristics from the integrated body/soul complex, which is a whole human person or being, suggesting that if some of the characteristics are not present at one given moment in time, the entity in question is not a member of the species in which it would otherwise be found. Virtually every human being at some point from conception to death will lack some or many of these characteristics. Thus the only criterion which is universal and consistent for inclusion in the species homo-sapiens and all that implies including personhood is whether the entity (organism) in question is biologically human as defined by their genome. Were it not for the gravity of this topic and the implications for biomedical research, this would be superficially and intuitively obvious. One can certainly imagine medical circumstances such as the comatose patient with heparin induced thrombocytosis and thrombosis who has lost all 4 extremities in whom it can be seen that from a structural and functional perspective, including a neurological perspective the individual bears almost no resemblance to what we normally conceive of as a human being. Nevertheless, few would suggest that such a patient is no longer a human person. The presence or absence of various human characteristics therefore, has no bearing on whether the individual is a member of the species homo-sapiens and in possession of all the moral status that is normally afforded to human beings, whether they appear suddenly or gradually.
In conclusion then, we have elucidated several problems which are insurmountable with respect to the so-called "intermediate" or "special status" designation for the human embryo. First, it is inconsistent with human developmental biology which has established that from the moment of nuclear fusion of the gametes and recombination of nuclear material, the resulting zygote is in fact a new, complete and genetically unique member of the species homo-sapiens which has within it the capacity to proceed along a "pre-programmed" trajectory to adulthood. There is absolutely no question on a biological basis that the 1 celled human zygote and in every stage thereafter is in fact biologically human with a complete human genetic code (genome). To suggest that it is something other than human (intermediate) in nature, essence and kind is to suggest that it is not human. Haeckel's Law has been repudiated, i.e., ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny. The early embryo in human reproduction is human not a pre or non-human precursor of fish, reptilian, amphibian or other origin. Therefore, on a biological basis the "intermediate status" represents a violation of the law of the excluded middle since the human embryo must necessarily be either human or not human. On the basis of first principles this therefore is a non sequitur. Since no other options are possible the designation of "intermediate" is invalid on a biological basis.
Second, there is no philosophically valid way to treat the human embryo as anything other than a full human person. We violate Occam's razor if we posit two entities where only one is necessary to account for the observed facts that is, "entities are not to be multiplied without necessity". The early embryo is capable by virtue of its very nature and essence of having personhood attached to it. Every argument that attempts to deny full personhood to the human embryo results in denying it to other members of the human species as well. Ultimately this is because they are grounded either in a Cartesian or false physicalist dualism or in an "acquired" theory of human personhood which can not be defended once submitted to rigorous philosophical analysis. Despite the potential good reason for which one might wish to "assign" the human embryo a "special", "intermediate" or incomplete moral status, intellectual honesty and integrity prevents it.
With respect to moral decision making in CBR which remains hotly contested, in light of the invalidity of the "intermediate" moral status of the human embryo, the writings of Aristotle, Aquinas, and others are instructive23 in that they perceive morally licit acts as those which take into account not only the motive, end or intent, but the object freely chosen as well as the circumstances involved. Any "duty" to do so (in strict Kantian terms) eliminates the Platonist, Hedonist, or Utilitarian ethical systems which rely on the search for pleasure (known today as preference) alone, the motive alone or a simple balancing of perceived goods i.e., the greatest good for the greatest number. The teachings of Socrates, Aristotle, and Aquinas are also important in elucidating the need to accurately determine the nature, essence and being involved in identifying the moral status of the human embryo, the basic structure of the moral act and decision, as well as the duty and virtue or character of the moral agent in question. While all of the aforementioned are important in determining whether CBR is morally licit, the analysis can not even be undertaken in the absence of a valid determination of the moral status of the human embryo to begin with, i.e. the "cart must be placed after not before the horse". The nature of the moral object freely chosen can not be accurately identified in the absence of a determination as to what the human embryo is in fact quite apart from the intent or moral end which any moral agent(s) have in mind or of the circumstances involved which would complete the moral analysis in classic fashion.
The categorical imperatives of Kant are useful but less than complete in consideration of the moral dilemma posed by the status of the human embryo and its relationship to the moral licitness of CBR. If the embryo is afforded full moral status (as a careful review of the relevant biological and philosophical data would suggest it should be) then to destroy human embryos for any reason is morally illicit, is to violate: Kant's 2 categorical imperatives; that we 1. that we only perform those moral actions which we are willing to have universalized, 2. "never treat persons as means to an end", and the civil law and teaching of holy writ as well, which also holds that one may never engage in evil (perform a moral wrong) so that good may come of it, (Romans 3:8). Similarly the first principle of medicine "do no harm" is noteworthy in that it proscribes the performance of acts which in themselves are harmful to the individual on whom they are performed quite independent of any consideration of informed consent. One hopes that advocates of the "intermediate" or "special status" position would admit that in the absence of absolute cognitive certainty or certainty beyond a reasonable doubt (which their position does not enjoy); prudence, beneficence, justice, and duty require that one error on the side of caution in treating the human embryo as a person deserving of full moral respect.
Lastly, even if a bioethic grounded almost exclusively in the secular or so-called Principle based bioethic is appealed to (in the absence of a Natural Law approach, a Virtues or Covenant based bioethic as is largely the case with the President's Council on Bioethics and much of the public debate), the "intermediate" or "special" moral status of the human embryo represents an unacceptable moral choice rife with rigid notions of autonomy "couched" in utilitarian arguments in the absence of appropriate degrees of beneficence and justice. Even if it were granted for the sake of argument that the human embryo is not fully a human person (an argument which is metaphysically bankrupt), it is difficult to envision how (absent complete deconstruction of language and terminology as well as reassignment of the moral object freely specified), one can allege that destroying the embryo for research purposes is compatible with its "special" or intermediate "moral" status. The treatment or lack of same, given to the embryo is clearly worse than what we would give to any other member of the animal kingdom with respect to whom we have even lesser regard such as "pet" mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, or birds whose lives we commonly protect.
In conclusion the evidence is simply overwhelming that the human embryo is in fact a human being, and deserving of full moral status and protection, beyond reasonable doubt. In the absence of divine revelation (for the purposes of this essay, although it is in complete agreement with the conclusion) and in-keeping with the first principle of medicine "Do no harm", the first and second categorical imperatives of Kant, and the over 3000 year old moral and civil law tradition that one must never knowingly do evil that good may come of it, we must reject the "intermediate" or "special" moral status for the human embryo as invalid and afford it the full moral value it rightly deserves. Justice requires no less.
1. Bruce Carlson. Human Embryology, (Livingston, New York: Churchill, 1994); C. Ward Kischer, PhD. "When Does Human Life Begin? The Final Answer," The Linacre Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2003), pp 327-331, "Virtually every human embryologist and every major textbook of human embryology states that fertilization marks the beginning of the life of the new individual human being"; Scott Gilbert. Developmental Biology, 5th edition, (Sunderland Mass.: Sinnauer Associates, 1997; Msgr. Jeremiah J. McCarthy PhD. "Invoking Embryonic Development and the Notion of "Personhood" to Justify Early Abortion: A curious Argument," The Linacre Quarterly 70, no. 4 (2003), p.348.
2. The President's Council on Bioethics, January 2003 meeting, remarks of Dr. Opitz, www.bioethics.gov.
3. The President's Council on Bioethics, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, New York: Public Affairs, 2002, p. 69.
4. Ibid. pp. 52-62.
5. William E. May. Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, Huntington Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000 p. 157; Patrick Lee. Abortion and Unborn Human Life (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997).
6. Peter Kreeft. The Unaborted Socrates, Downer's Grove Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1983, pp. 12-73.
7. The President's Council on Bioethics, January 2003 meeting, public commentary remarks of Dr. John Hubert, www.bioethics.gov.
8. The President's Council on Bioethics, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, New York: Public Affairs, 2002 pp. 294-306.
9. Germain Grisez. The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, Il: Franciscan Press, 1993), pp. 494-495.
10. Stephen. Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990, p. 73.
11. Ibid. p. 348.
12. William E. May. Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, Huntington Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000 p. 157.
13. Marjorie Reiley Maguire. "Personhood, Covenant, and Abortion," in Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate, ed. Patricia Beattie Jung and Thomas A. Shannon (New York: Crossroad, 1988), p. 109.
14. William E. May. Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, Huntington Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000 p. 157.
15. William A. Wallace. The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis. (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996), pp. 157-189,
16. William E. May. Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life. Huntington Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000 p. 200 & 204.
17. The President's Council on Bioethics, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, New York: Public Affairs, 2002 p. 305.
18. See the Eugenics experiments carried out on Jews by Nazi doctors because of the belief that they were non-persons, the precedent in slavery wherein human persons of the African-American race were declared non-persons by virtue of being deemed private property, and the case of the Tuskegee Airmen who were denied proper medical treatment for syphilis in order to immorally obtain medical data about the "natural history" of patients with untreated syphilis. All three examples amply illustrate what transpires when certain members of the human race are arbitrarily declared "non-persons" by the will of those in power.
19. Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Veritatis Splendor and Bioethics, William E. May, John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, July 28, 2002.
20. Joseph Donceel, S.J. "Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization," Theological studies 31 (1970) 76-105; Donceel, "A Liberal Catholic's View," in Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate, pp. 48-53; Thomas A. Shannon and Allan B. Wolter, OFM, "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo," Theological Studies 51 (1990) 603-636.
21. The President's Council on Bioethics, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, New York: Public Affairs, 2002, p. 304.
22. Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 173, 202-206.
23. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated, with introduction, notes, and glossary by Terence Irwin, second edition, Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc.; St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, 94, and 2; Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hachett Publishings Co., 1981); Paul Ramsey, The Patient as Person, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970; Paul Ramsey, Ethics at the Edges of Life: Medical and Legal Intersections. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978; Edmund D. Pellegrino and David C. Thomasma, The Virtues in Medical Practice, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993; Leon R. Kass and James Q. Wilson, The Ethics of Human Cloning, Washington D.C.: The AEI Press, 1998; Patrick Lee, Abortion &Unborn Human Life, Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997.
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, translated, with introduction, notes, and glossary by Terence Irwin, second edition, Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc.
Donceel, "A Liberal Catholic's View," in Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate.
Donceel, Joseph S.J. "Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization," Theological studies 31 (1970) 76-105.
Grisez, Germain. The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. 2, Living a Christian Life (Quincy, Il: Franciscan Press, 1993).
Kant, Immanuel. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. James W. Ellington (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hachett Publishings Co., 1981).
Kass Leon R. and James Q. Wilson, The Ethics of Human Cloning, Washington D.C.: The AEI Press, 1998.
Kreeft, Peter. The Unaborted Socrates, Downer's Grove Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 1983.
Lee, Patrick Abortion and Unborn Human Life (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1997).
Maguire, Marjorie Reiley "Personhood, Covenant, and Abortion," in Abortion and Catholicism: The American Debate, ed. Patricia Beattie Jung and Thomas A. Shannon (New York: Crossroad, 1988).
May, William E. Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life, Huntington Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000.
Pellegrino Edmund D. and David C. Thomasma, The Virtues in Medical Practice, New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.
Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Veritatis Splendor and Bioethics, William E. May, John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, July 28, 2002.
Ramsey, Paul. Ethics at the Edges of Life: Medical and Legal Intersections. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.
Ramsey, Paul. The Patient as Person, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970.
Schwarz, Stephen The Moral Question of Abortion, Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990.
Shannon Thomas A. and Allan B. Wolter, OFM, "Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo," Theological Studies 51 (1990) 603-636.
Singer, Peter Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, pp. 173, 202-206.
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I-II, 94, and 2.
The President's Council on Bioethics, Human Cloning and Human Dignity, New York: Public Affairs, 2002.
The President's Council on Bioethics, January 2003 meeting, remarks of Dr. Opitz, www.bioethics.gov.
Doctor Hubert is a Biomedical Ethicist and Health Care Policy Advisor to Common Good and its Catholic Way project.He is a retired Cardio-Thoracic surgeon with a long interest in ethics particularly bio-medical ethics. As a "high-tech" heart surgeon he was frequently confronted with complex and difficult medical problems and resultant ethical decisions. Dr. Hubert has written extensively in the area of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning for biomedical research including an extensive philosophical treatment entitled; "Justice and Freedom for the Human Embryo: The Philosophy of the Human Person, the Body/Soul issue and Ethics." He has also written on other ethical topics including Euthanasia and issues involving War/Peace and Suicide Terrorism. His other academic interests include the "Creation/Evolution" debate. Recently, he completed a work entitled; The Contemporary Origin's Debate in which he proposed a testable "Origin's model. Dr. Hubert has a special interest in Catholic apologetics particularly as it concerns the evangelization of non-believers with a background in the natural and biological sciences. He is a "revert" to orthodox Catholicism from scientific naturalism with an avid interest in the fusion of faith and reason. Dr. Hubert has become a regular contributor to Catholic Way.
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