Friday, August 21, 2009

Embryo Ethics: Justice and Nascent Human Life

A Review of Robert George lecture in Murray Hill Institute. Reviewed by Glenn Statile, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, St. Johns University, Queens, New York

Almost forty years have passed since Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae in the summer of 1968. Since then the culture of death has been in the ascendancy in matters pertaining to sexual ethics, reproduction, abortion, contraception, and a whole range of related issues having to do with the status and dignity of the human person. The Irish playwright Oscar Wilde once suggested that by the age of forty we all get the face that we deserve. Fortunately for us there are vigorous thinkers like Robert George who are doing their utmost to prove Wilde correct. For the culture of life, spearheaded by Humane Vitae and defended by Pope John Paul II, is finally beginning to realize the respect that it so richly deserves.

Professor George’s paper deals with the topical issue of embryo ethics. Readers would do well to bear in mind two important features from the outset.

1) The recurring use of analogy in the ethical literature. (e.g. #10 below)

2) The claim that science, reinforced by careful philosophical reasoning, and not theology −more specifically the theology of ensoulment−should form the basis of establishing the following claims, both of which are contested by the supporters of embryo-destructive research.

2a) Embryos are human beings.

2b) Embryos are persons who merit all the rights which justice confers upon them.

As for analogy, it is important to note that, logically speaking, analogies allow for only probable certainty at best; whereas the aim of the ethical arguments which employ them is to deductively persuade us beyond the shadow of a doubt. Nevertheless analogies do facilitate understanding and bring complex ethical matters into a kind of conceptual relief. And while it is true that the Catholic Church does not doctrinally declare conception as the moment of ensoulment, many of our root ethical assumptions and values cannot be severed so easily from our overall religious convictions and outlook. Professor George urges the scientific strategy as best suited to the subject matter of embryo ethics since any proclamation concerning the onset of ensoulment would itself need to be previously informed by the best scientific evidence available. Pope John Paul II demonstrates a similar respect for the role to be played by science in this matter in paragraph 60 of Evangelium Vitae in the context of his own ethical analysis of abortion.

With these things squarely in mind let us now look at how Professor George reaches the claims articulated in (2a) and (2b). He does so in the form of answers to two fundamental questions.

3) Who or what is an embryo?

4) What is owed to the embryo as a matter of justice?

As to the nature of an embryo Professor George contends that a genetic causal continuity exists throughout each stage of genetic development from the moment of conception onwards. He documents this claim with embryological evidence and by demonstrating the extent to which the developmental immaturity characteristic of the embryo still does not demand that it be viewed as different in kind from a human being. Embryological evidence convincingly shows that the maturation and development of the embryo is driven from within and proceeds along a pathway best described as the “gapless continuum” of a human life. The embryo, according to Professor George, is not an intermediate form on the way to human status. It is already human life, whether resulting from fertilization or Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (cloning). This is in contrast to the status of the gametes which serve as but parts contributed by potential parents.

Professor George now turns to the second of his two questions. Any claim to the effect that embryonic human beings can be denied full respect entails that “not every human being deserves full respect.” And this in turn leads to the inference that those who do merit full respect do so for reasons in addition to the type of being they are. Professor George stresses that such additional features for conferring full respect on the embryo, such as conscious reasoning and the capacity to make choices, need not be fully actualized as they lie dormant in persons who are asleep or incapacitated by a reversible coma. And surely people in such situations merit full moral respect. While it is true that embryos lack these higher mental capacities in any actual sense, they possess them in root form because of the kind of beings they already are.

This leads Professor George to distinguish between two meanings of the term “capacity.” A capacity can be “immediately exercisable” or a “basic natural capacity” which emerges over time. It is the second of these two meanings which, according to Professor George, provides the justificatory basis for regarding embryos as worthy of full moral respect and the rights which follow from it. It is our rational nature as humans, which embryos possess in full as a basic natural capacity, and not its mere application or exercise that is sufficient to procure full moral status. Professor George offers three main reasons in support of this claim.

5) Humans reach maturity gradually. If complete maturation was required for achieving full moral status then six-week-old infants would not qualify.

6) The difference between the two types of capacities is only one of degree. Having more of what already qualifies as worthy of full moral respect does not come with any additional moral cachet.

7) If the degree to which the rational capacity is exercised were to be the basis for allocating full moral respect then the basic rights of humans would be accorded in varying amounts. This is not the case.

Professor George concludes by addressing and countering four of the stronger arguments in favor of denying human embryos their full quotient of rights.

8) Argument — Every cell in the human body has as much potential for development as any embryo. Therefore, embryos have no greater moral status than ordinary cells. (Ronald Bailey)

Response — While a somatic cell can be used to generate a new organism, it is not already such. Both somatic cells and embryos possess the potential to develop into a mature being, but the potentiality of the former is passive, requiring something to be done to it, while the potentiality of the latter is self-directed.

9) Argument — While the embryo possesses the full human genome, it lacks personhood and hence full moral status since personhood requires full development of the brain. If modern medicine equates the death of the brain with the death of the person, then no person can pre-exist the development of the brain. (Michael Gazzaniga)

Response — What brain death signifies is loss of the ability for self-directed integral organic functioning. Prior to full brain development the embryo nevertheless is a unitary organism which directs its own development. It is not a potential life, but a “life with potential.”

10) Argument — Embryos differ in kind from human beings, just as acorns differ from oak trees despite their developmental continuity. (Michael Sandel)

Response — To defend the killing of an embryo by analogy with the felling of an oak tree, or sapling, misconstrues the kinds of entities they are. While the embryo possesses inherent worth and dignity, the oak tree or sapling only furnishes instrumental value on the basis of accidental properties.

11) Argument — Monozygotic twinning demonstrates that the embryo in the first several days after gestation is not yet a human being.

Response — Such a claim does not establish that the embryo was not a self-directed and fully integrated mass of cells prior to fission. One example showing this is the case of the flatworm in which an acknowledged whole organism can split into multiple organisms. Sometimes it is argued that the embryo does not become a human being until implantation in the womb of the mother, as it does not achieve self-directing status, or even a basic body plan, until it receives the requisite set of maternal signals. Such signals are thus said to transform the disparate bundle of cells into a unitary organism. But medical evidence about the onset of such maternal signaling is in dispute. Moreover, if the individual cells within the embryo before twinning were each independent of the others, there would be no reason why each would regularly develop on its own. The case of twinning thus backfires on those who use it to deny the human and humane status of the embryo.

The presentation summarized in this review will appear as an article by Prof. George in a forthcoming issue of Daedalus.

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