The rapid march of technology has outpaced our ethical judgment. We have blundered into a confusing world of in-vitro fertilization, human cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. We ask ourselves: what is the human embryo, and how should we treat it?
Into this disputed realm strides Colorado's Amendment 48, which would grant legal personhood to every human being from the moment of fertilization. Whatever the merits and flaws of the proposal, it certainly presents us with an occasion to look at the ethical problems our society has ignored in its pursuit of worthy goals like increasing knowledge and inventing new medical treatments.
Who counts as a person in our society? This isn't some egghead's question above our pay grade; it's a vital topic of political life.
People have the bad habit of denying other people's personhood, ignoring their moral status as creatures whom we should respect. Different societies across time have refused legal protection to people based on criteria like race, sex, or disability.
Proving that somebody who is excluded should instead be included in society can be a difficult task, especially in the case of early human life.
Many people defend the personhood of each human being from the moment of conception by appealing to religion, often Christianity specifically.
This religious argument is nothing to be ashamed of, as religion is perhaps the best way to communicate to all men the content and the gravity of our complicated moral world. However, this kind of argument leaves out people who lack the same kind or the same level of religious commitments.
Fortunately a non-religious case can be made for the ethical worth of the human embryo. Professors Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen have made that weighty case both in their many magazine columns and in their 2008 book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. (See this excerpt in the Jan. 26 Denver Post)
While the promises of science ask us to look forward, we must not forget to look backward as well -- backward, that is, to the point at which we each came into being.
In Embryo, Professors George and Tollefsen begin with the story of Noah, who was saved from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when rescuers retrieved the container that contained his embryonic self from a flooded New Orleans hospital. His embryo was later implanted into his mother's womb, and Noah was born sixteen months after his rescue.
Noah's continuous existence since his laboratory conception is proven in a chapter which rivals a biology textbook in detail, ably recounting the conception and the intricate development of the human embryo.
From conception, the embryo acts in a way quite different from the sperm and egg whose union created it, but quite similar to the organism's behavior later in life. Studies of the embryo show its self-directed growth and its continuous bodily unity as it matures. In George and Tollefsen's view, this is evidence that the embryo is itself a human being, who is a human person.
An obvious reply to this claim states that the capacity for, say, consciousness, only begins with the formation of brain structures weeks into an embryo's development. Since only conscious organisms can be persons, a critic might argue, the embryo can't be a person.
But this argument raises objections. For instance, people who are asleep or in comas lack consciousness, but we don't deny that they are persons. The consciousness of infants is in some ways more limited than that of animals, but obviously we consider infants to be persons too.
The authors of Embryo also claim such critiques about consciousness and personhood untenably split the body from the person, in a theory they call "person-body dualism."
In ordinary life we sense that the person and the body are intimately united. When we cut a finger, we say "I am hurt," not "my body is hurt." If we claim that the person somehow enters the human body at a time after its conception, we have to think in that latter, counterintuitive way.
Instead of accidental characteristics like possessing a state of consciousness, the authors argue that a human being has a set of essential "capacities" that are in development at the embryonic stage but still merit calling that being a "person."
As law professor Richard Stith suggests, imagine taking a priceless picture with an old Polaroid camera. Its photo produces a full image after minutes of waiting, but that image is present within the developing photograph since the click of the camera shutter. Destroying such a photograph still destroys that worthy image, even though we can't yet perceive its full nature.
In a similar way, the human embryo is a person even at its beginning, which is our beginning. As George and Tollefsen write, embryos aren't "potential lives," they're "lives with potential."
(Cross-posted to YourHub.com)