Biotechnology: what we don’t know tells us what we can’t do

by John Henry Crosby

At the heart of the ongoing debates on embryonic stem cell research and human cloning is the question of the ontological and moral status of the human embryo. While the debate has been multifaceted, the central questions have ultimately concentrated on the treatment due the human embryo brought into existence by in vitro fertilization (IVF) or cloning. There are those who have denied that cloning produces an embryo (no one doubts that IVF creates an embryo.) Some, often with ulterior motives, claim that the “product of cloning” is not really an embryo but a “pre-embryo” or an “activated egg.” Yet in the scientific establishment as a whole there seems to be little doubt that successful cloning would produce a human embryo, that is, a new living human organism.

In all of this, however, there remains a question which neither those who defend nor those who would exploit the embryo for its stem cells can really answer, namely, whether or not the embryo is a person. The personhood of the embryo is ultimately the crucial question. While there are those who grant the personhood of the embryo while arguing for the legitimacy of killing in certain instances (as in abortion), still the starting point for any philosophically adequate defense of the moral inviolability of the human embryo must begin with a defense of the personhood of the embryo, or, at least, a defense of the strong and morally binding likelihood that the embryo is indeed a person.

Defenders of the inviolability of the embryo, however, will often consider the question superfluous, saying that to be a human being is to be a person. In their view, to be a person is nothing other than to be an individual member of the human species, an individual instance of human nature. Yet this approach really only hides the question, since whether or not the human embryo is in fact a person is precisely what is in question. Being human and being a person may very well be inseparable for human beings. Yet they are distinct terms conceptually, and the question of whether or not the embryo is a person can quite meaningfully be asked. Non-human persons are entirely conceivable (there is nothing intrinsically impossible in the idea of a non-human person), which is reflected in most of the world’s great religions by the belief in divine and angelic beings who are eminently persons without being human.

The Christian tradition also offers reasons for taking seriously the question of the inception of human personal life. St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, was a proponent of the so-called “delayed animation” theory (also known as delayed “homonization”), which teaches that God infuses the rational or intellectual soul at a point after conception has taken place. If so great a thinker as Aquinas can deny the personhood of the embryo, we cannot just take for granted the opposite position.

Yet what does it mean to be a person? Why does it matter whether or not the embryo is a person?

The meaning of “person” is difficult to come by, and certainly not uncontroversial. A simple way of getting at it, though, is to consider the contrast between being something and being someone. We all know on a primordial level what it means to be “someone,” a “somebody.” I suppose that I am someone, just as I suppose that you, the reader, are someone as well. Already my addressing you in this article presumes that you are the kind of being I am calling a someone. No one, except for the purpose of deliberate degradation, would consider someone a something. Imagine being in a room full of books or tools, clearly just different kinds of things. Now imagine that a friend comes to the door and addresses you; the difference between the friend and the book immediately flares up, indicating the great divide between persons and things, between being just something and being someone. Again, the difference between something and someone is also revealed in the fact that we can be alone, even when surrounded by many things, not because a thing is nothing but because it is not someone. Togetherness, even disinterested togetherness, requires at least two “someones.”

The question of personhood is crucial because of its ethical implications. Although non-persons, “non-someones,” are not without their value, no one considers them morally inviolable. While most do not think that we should torture animals, most also think that we can legitimately use animals for food or transportation—and this without an affront to their dignity. On the other hand, it is almost universally acknowledged (and fundamental to the entire Western ethical tradition) that persons, someones, should not be used or exploited.

Now the difficulty with the embryo is that it does not reveal itself as a person, a someone. It reveals itself as a living organism (that is, capable of directing its own growth and integrating nourishment into itself), and yet this is not tantamount to being someone. The world is full of living organisms. As organisms, they behave quite in the same manner as the developing embryo, and yet we would never say that they are persons. We all somehow understand that personhood is a “new” reality, irreducible to being biologically alive. We may presume that the embryo is a person, even love the embryo as a person, albeit a “slumbering person.” Still, deep as these convictions may run, the personhood of the embryo is not manifest in any indubitable way.

Given how often pro-life thinkers disagree with this view, because they fear that it undermines the very pro-life position itself, it cannot be emphasized enough that the embryo, if indeed it is a person, does not reveal itself as person. It seems that there is a great tendency to misidentify personhood with simply being an individual of a human genetic type. The pro-life movement is full of scientists and philosophers who insist that personhood is just another term for a “human individual,” or worse, for “human life”—a most ambiguous term. As I have tried to emphasize in my distinction between being someone and something, the biology only captures the objective, thing-like side of human life. Yet to be a person is to be a someone, and the embryo simply does not show itself in this way. Consequently, the crucial question of whether or not the embryo is a person, a someone, is not something that can just be answered by pointing to the scientific facts. On the contrary, the question remains undecided by all that science has to say.

Is the embryo a person, a someone? The question can be concretely put—was I, the someone who exists today, already present from the earliest moments of my being as a living organism, or did I begin at some point after the embryo came to be?

The truth of the matter is that we really cannot know, at least not with any demonstrable certainty. Doubtlessly, we can know when human life begins biologically, that is, when a new living organism has been generated. This, as everyone knows, happens either at fertilization or (as in cloning or parthenogenesis) through asexual reproduction—the moment at which a new living organism is generated. Yet whether or not this organism is a person, a someone, is in the final analysis (and much to the discontent of those who defend the embryo) shrouded in mystery.

Some have taken this ambiguity about the onset of personhood as a reason to go ahead with lethal research. This is the view that one encounters whenever one hears someone saying, “How will we know what embryonic stem cells can do if we don’t try using them?”

Such reasoning, however, is entirely indefensible from a moral perspective. Does our ignorance on a matter so fundamental entitle us to a carte blanche for whatever research we wish to pursue? Or, on the contrary, does what we don’t know tell us what we in fact can’t do?

In reply to this moral permissiveness, there are two distinct points to be made, the first is ontological, the other, moral. The ontological proposition holds simply that there is a real (as opposed to an improbable) possibility that the human embryo is in fact a person. The moral point, which follows upon this ontological proposition, simply draws the conclusion that Western moral discourse has drawn from the beginning, namely, that this real ontological possibility demands that the human embryo must be treated with the same inviolability with regard to deliberate killing as does the human being who is clearly a person.

As for the ontological proposition, there are actually two distinct arguments to be made for it. The first one, which is positive, argues that it makes eminent sense to believe that I existed as a person from the first moment of the existence of the embryo. (I hesitate to call the embryo “my body,”,since this would beg the question at hand.) Given the closeness of my embodiment as a conscious adult human being, it seems highly probable that my being as person coincided with the start of my physical being following upon the completion of the process of reproduction.

Yet even if this positive argument proves inadequate, there is a further negative argument that cannot so easily be overcome. This is the fact that there is no point after the process of reproduction has taken place which seems a more likely point for the onset of personhood than the very completion of reproduction itself, namely, the coming into existence of a new living organism. No one would want to say that I pre-existed the completion of reproduction, since even the embryo does not exist prior to this, and yet no point subsequent to reproduction, be it implantation, the formation of the primitive brain streak, viability, and so on, is by any means as radical and complete a beginning as the point at which the embryo comes into being.

Consider the following “thought experiment.” Take any adult human being who is incontestably a person and start to work backwards. Go back to birth; unless you are ready for infanticide, you have to say that at birth he or she was already a person. Go now back to one week before birth; you cannot find any reason why that human being is a person at birth but not one week earlier. Keep going back; no one can point to some one definite step in fetal development that is clearly the dividing line between being a person and not being one, between being a someone and a something. Hence, what is more reasonable than to assume that the human organism, which is the same as embryo and as adult, is also a person throughout its whole career?

The upshot of this “thought experiment” is a rather straightforward confirmation of my ontological proposition, namely, that there is a real possibility that the embryo is a person. Together, these two ontological arguments have the merit of being modest: they do not claim to prove incontrovertibly that the embryo is a person, only that it has to be assumed to be a person, because no other assumption (of some later beginning of personhood) can with any certainty be demonstrated.

Numerous and predictable objections can be raised to this view, the most popular of which, is the frequency of embryo twinning (when one embryo apparently divides to form two distinct embryos) and fusion (when two embryos either revert or combine to form a single embryo). The objection, in effect, argues from the indeterminacy of early biological individuality to the impossibility of attributing personhood to the early embryo. After all, no one would consider a pile of rocks, or for that matter, a “clump of cells,“to be a person. Consequently, this view can only reasonably attribute personhood to a developing human being after the human organism has attained a certain level of biological individuality.

This objection certainly has its point. Clearly, embryonic life is not as unassailably individual as, say, a human organism is, even at the fetal stage, let alone at any point in the adult stage. The objection is also correct in recognizing that personhood entails a certain level of individuality. The famous Boethian definition of personhood, for example, makes individuality central: “A person is an individual substance of a rational nature.”   Individuality, then, is a sort of condition for the possibility of personhood, essential but not identical to it. This is as far as the objection has any merit.  

For one, the remarkable biological individuality of the early embryo is displayed in the way in which it consumes nourishment and integrates this into its rapidly growing body. Most fundamental, however, is the fact that the organism produced by reproduction, even while undergoing early cell division, from the very beginning acts as a single organism. Contrary to the idea of a vaguely united cluster of cells (which may have nothing to do with one another save proximity, as in a petri dish), the rapidly dividing cells of the embryo act in tandem and with remarkable cohesion.

For another, the objection fails to do away with the very real possibility that the embryonic human being from its first moments might very well be a fully human person—albeit, as I have already emphasized above, a “slumbering” person. If anything, the objection only shows that the early and somewhat weaker individuality of the embryonic human being becomes increasingly more resilient and unlikely to suffer dissolution. In the end, there is no compelling reason not to identify the beginning of personhood with the beginning of the living human organism.

The same line of argumentation can be employed to counter other suggestions for the onset of personhood, whether it be implantation, the development of the primitive streak, or viability. While the various biological markers may increasingly tell of the kind of being one would expect to be a person, there is no moment along the continuum of embryonic and fetal human life that definitively points to the “onset” of personhood. The only clear line is the completion of reproduction, both since it represents the radical coming into being of a new, living organism, and since no one would suggest the existence of a person prior to the coming to be of the embryo.

Yet what does it say about the moral status of early human life?

It says, in effect, that since the embryo might well be a person, killing it might well be the killing of a person, bringing with it the obligation to treat the embryo as if it were a person. At the same time, this argument is of tremendous moral gravity: to contest a total moral ban on the killing of the embryo is to express oneself willing to kill (or at least willing to risk killing) a human person.

Ignorance about the exact details of the origins of personal life may seem a flimsy justification for such a stringent moral ban. Yet who would have any difficulty recognizing the commonsense quality of this line of argument if the ignorance was in regard to adults rather than embryos? No one, for example, would question that ignorance over even the possible presence of people in a mine would entail an obvious moral prohibition on blasting. That this is so is self-evident.

The argument throws the burden onto our opponents, saying to them in effect: Try to find a later and morally safe beginning of the human person; you will see that it cannot be done in a conclusive way. The only morally responsible course is to go back to the point before which no one thinks there can be a person—for no one thinks the new human being exists before fertilization—and to assume personhood from that point forward. n

John Henry Crosby received his BA from FUS in 2000, and is presently completing his MA in philosophy. He resides in Virginia and works in the Life Studies Department at the Family Research Council in Washington, D.C.