Tuesday 2 July 2013

The moral status of the human embryo – when is a person?

The moral status of the embryo is one of the key pressure-points in ethical debates about post-coital contraception, therapeutic cloning, pre-implantation diagnosis, artificial reproduction, embryo research and cloning.

The issue, which has profound implications for medical practice as doctors, has divided people for centuries and remains controversial.  
It is a fundamental principle both of Christian teaching and also of natural justice that human beings deserve utmost respect.

Christians believe that human beings have been individually created by God and derive their integrity and worth from the fact that they are made in the image of God - regardless of genotype, age, size, location or degree of dependence and disability.

The presence of a disability, either inherited or acquired, does not detract from a person 's intrinsic worth. All human beings are thereby worthy of the utmost respect. They must never be treated as means to an end. At the heart of the Christian ethic is self-giving love, whereby the strong make sacrifices for, and if necessary lay down their lives for, the weak.

Historical medical ethical codes, recognising the power and strength of doctors, have enshrined a view similar to the Christian one.

The Declaration of Geneva (1948) stipulates that doctors should ‘maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception’.

In like manner, the International Code of Medical Ethics (1949)says that a doctor 'must always bear in mind the obligation of preserving human life from the time of conception until death'.

The Declaration of Helsinki (1975) says that in biomedical research:

 'the interest of science and society should never take precedence over considerations related to the well-being of the subject '.'In any research upon human beings,each potential subject should be adequately informed of the aims,methods, anticipated benefits and potential hazards for the study...'and 'the subjects should be volunteers '. 'It is the duty of the doctor to remain the protector of the life and health of that person on whom biomedical research is being carried out.'

By contrast the emerging view amongst contemporary ethicists (such as Peter Singer) is that human beings are nothing but the product of matter, chance and time; merely highly specialised animals.

The value of individual human beings is determined by their level of rationality or self-consciousness, physical attributes or capacity for relationship. Human life that has fewer of these qualities is of less value and can be disposed of. This 'Darwinian ethic 'with its aim of 'survival of the fittest 'places the demented, mentally handicapped, brain-injured and unborn (particularly the human embryo) in great danger.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act (HFE Act) starts with a presupposition that has never been properly established - that the human embryo is not a human being with rights, and can therefore be treated as a means to an end.

In keeping with this foundation the Act sanctions embryo freezing, research and destruction along with abortifacient contraception and the disposal of abnormal embryos after genetic testing -practices that we would not countenance for human beings at any other stage of development.

Any biology textbook tells us that human development is a continuous process beginning with fertilisation; essentially the only differences between zygote and full term baby are nutrition and time.

Biologically the human embryo is undoubtedly human; it has human chromosomes derived from human gametes. It is also alive, exhibiting movement, respiration, sensitivity, growth, reproduction, excretion and nutrition.

It is therefore most accurate to speak of it as a human being with potential, a human being in an early stage of development or a potential adult; rather than a potential human being.

Philosophers, biologists, politicians and even theologians, however, have advanced arguments to undermine the status of the human embryo.

Here are three of the main ones with my responses:

1. Human embryos are not human beings worthy of respect because they lack rationality or capacity for relationship

This was the thinking behind the Warnock Committee’s recommendation of no embryo research beyond 14 days, as the neural crests first form 10 days after fertilisation. Others have suggested that breathing movements (12 weeks), or 'quickening' (20 weeks), or even the first breath of air should be the end point. It has even been argued that newborn babies are not persons since they lack 'self-awareness'.

But the development of the nervous system is a continuous process beginning at fertilisation and choosing an arbitrary point on this continuum discriminates between human lives on the basis of neural function. It is therefore 'neuralist '. Neuralism varies from racism and sexism only on the basis of the non-morally significant quality selected as the basis for discrimination. It is simply another form of ageism.

Our value as human beings does not consist in our capacities or attributes but in the fact that we are human. Arguing that the value of any human life depends on its place of residence (uterus, fallopian tube or petri dish) or degree of independence similarly discriminates on the basis of non-morally significant characteristics.

2. Human embryos are not human beings worthy of respect because they have a high mortality; about 40-70% don't reach maturity

But the value of human beings is not contingent on their survival rates. We don't say that refugees in Africa, flood victims in Asia or people with cancer are less important simply because they have a high mortality. 

Similarly, if survival rates at any stage of development are low this does not justify us actively ending life. The general strategy of medicine is rather to save and preserve life. The figure of 40-70%may well be an overestimate anyway. No one really knows how many early embryos die as there is no biochemical marker for fertilisation, as opposed to implantation.

3. Human embryos are not human beings worthy of respect because many embryos that do spontaneously abort have a high incidence of genetic (particularly chromosomal) abnormality

But all of these abnormal embryos have formed from the union of two human gametes. Aren't they therefore just human lives with severe disabilities, human lives with special needs? We would not argue in any other sphere that the value of any individual human life was contingent on how ‘normal’ it was; far less that abnormality justified killing by 'disposal '.


The arguments used for devaluing the status of the human embryo are both unconvincing and discriminatory. The human embryo should instead be given the benefit of any doubt regarding its status.

We have a choice: we either act to ensure the protection and survival of the most vulnerable members of our society by endorsing the Christian ethic of the strong making sacrifices for the weak; or we continue to ensure the ‘non-survival of the weakest’ by politicising the 'Darwinian ethic '.

The HFE Act has politicised Darwinism by enshrining in statute law discrimination against the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human race. It is built on a fundamental presupposition that has never been established logically, philosophically ethically or morally.  


  1. Consenting to sex is not the same as consenting to pregnancy. If you want abortions to fall drastically, I suggest you fund artificial womb technology.

    1. Consenting to sex without considering the real possibility of pregnancy is rather foolish.

    2. It strikes me that, given the fact the sex is designed by God to lead to pregnancy, consenting to sex is exactly the same as consenting to pregnancy.

    3. Unless you're lucky enough to be a man. Or a sterile lady. Or you happen to be past menopause. Or in a same-sex relationship. Or... (etc).

      In any case, if you don't think blood and organ donations should be mandatory for all eligible donors, you're a hypocrite.

  2. The three arguments put forward amount to the same viewpoint - namely that "human-ness" is a quality that can be decided by humans, and is therefore a status that is bestowed upon us by society/law.

    Essentially, they are the belief that humans begin life as "less than human", and that our full human-ness is acquired. This means we begin in a negative state and can only achieve a positive state by passing through man-made law. Our human-ness, then, has been captured by the sphere of positive law.

    1. Even if we gave embryos all the rights of human beings, that would not give them the right to use a woman's body without her consent.

    2. So everyone should be mandated to donate blood, half of their liver, and a kidney while alive, Andre?

    3. How is choosing to not donate blood or an organ the same as deliberately ending the life of another human? A person choosing to not donate their blood or organs is not the cause of another person dying, the root cause is the disease or illness that the other person has. Whereas with abortion, the act in and of itself is the cause of another human life dying, that is the root cause.

      Also, you are confusing organs with that of personhood. The two are not even remotely the same. A human fetus is not part of a woman's body like that of her liver or kidney. It has its own unique DNA, with its own physical features, sometimes with even a different blood type, and most importantly, half the time it's of the opposite sex of the mother. It is therefore a unique human life (with potential) that is just as valuable as any other. I find it almost comical that you even attempted to equate the two in an effort to protect abortion.

    4. Two points: either way, someone dies prematurely. It really is that simple.

      Should I be permitted to use your body if I need it to live? Or is that too socialistic for you, Chris?

      Acts 5:1-11 - 5:1 But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession,

      5:2 And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet.

      5:3 But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land?

      5:4 Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.

      5:5 And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things.

      5:6 And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.

      5:7 And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. (5:7) "Three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in."

      5:8 And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much.

      5:9 Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. (5:9) "Peter said ... How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out."

      5:10 Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.

      5:11 And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things.

    5. Again you're mistaken. This is going to be a long one, so stay with me here. To your first point, you are confused with the idea of causality. Take the case of action vs. non-action, the two situations are actually opposite of each other. Here's how. If you take action (say by donating an organ), that could potentially save a life. If you take non-action and don't donate, that person could potentially die prematurely (however it is not your non-action that is the ultimate cause for the person dying). Whereas with abortion, you have to take action to end the life (just as with murder, it's the act that kills). If you take non-action, presuming it's a healthy pregnancy, that baby WILL live. So, as you can see, they are not the same situation. In the case of abortion there is nothing wrong with the human life inside the mother, and if left alone (non-action), it will survive.

      To your second point, the baby is not an intruder in the woman's body. It did not barge its way in without the mother's consent. Taking aside cases of rape (which I'd be happy to discuss with you later), the woman knows what the possible results of having intercourse are, and by engaging in that act, is therefore allowing the possibility of having a life inside her. A child doesn't get to choose how it is conceived, and situational circumstances should not be a factor whether a child gets to live or die. Aside from using the woman's body for warmth, protection, and nutrition (food is regularly entered and discarded from the mother anyway whether pregnant or not), the baby in no way takes anything away from the mother. It has its own developing organs. Lastly, pregnancy is temporary, and presuming a typical one, does not take away from a woman's body in any way. Donating an organ on the other hand is permanent, and does have negative repercussions on the body. Remember, Winston, you were once a zygote, then a fetus, then a baby, so on and so forth. Let me use your logic here. Are you saying that you would have been fine if your mother "chose" not to allow you to live during her pregnancy and decided to have an abortion, whatever her reason? If that's the case, what if she decided not to want to have you anymore when you were 2 months old, or 1 year, or 5 years old? Although you are no longer "using her body", you are using other things of hers. Do you have the "right" to use her money and her house to survive? Do you have the right to keep her up all night crying causing stress on her body by not allowing her to sleep? What if she no longer wants the responsibility of having you then, just like she wouldn't want you when you were a baby in her womb? Should she be legally allowed to end your life prematurely with no consequences? Hmm...interesting how those cases would be tried in court and seen as murder, and yet during pregnancy, these laws disappear. In short, abortion is a way to legally allow women not to face the responsibility of the result of their actions, and it's just unfortunate that another human being has to die for this cause.

    6. But if I refuse to donate an organ or blood to someone (say, half a liver), they are certain to die. If refusing to act is not immoral, in your estimation, then would it be acceptable to you if I refused to give you morphine if you were in a hospice?

      Consenting to sex is not tantamount to consenting to pregnancy. Even unprotected sex does not always result in pregnancy (and it is less than 1% likely to occur when precautions are taken).

      Pregnancy can also have permanent consequences. Given the vast differences in mortality rates for medical abortion vs childbirth, every abortion could be viewed as an act of self-defense.

      If someone causes a traffic accident, and is a blood type match for one of the victims, should he or she be required to donate blood to save the victim's life?


      Being religious is no impediment to choosing abortion:


  3. There really is no winning with this issue. Both sides seem to have the point nailed down and there is an answer for every scenario. I do think that limiting the freedom of a person based on someone else's religious views is an abuse of legal power. There is separation of church and state for a reason. Forcing someone to get an abortion that did not want one would be viewed as barbaric. Forcing let's say a prostitute drug addict to carry an unwanted child to full term, which gives this child little to no chance at success on this earth is borderline child abuse, not to mention the fact that the law in this case is stripping the woman of something she does not believe in based on an others religious view. Hence an abuse of power. The pro choice view seems to take into account the future of the child, true by erasing all existence of the future, but it does consider it. Pro life doesnt care if its a drug addicted prostitute, the answer is just give it up for adoption. So a brain damaged baby in the system hoping to win the lottery and get a loving home is the answer? Considering that 17 years after Roe V Wade went into effect Crime dropped SIGNIFICANTLY all over the nation and was glorified mostly in NYC which they attributed to Rudiani's policy changes. But consider that Because these unwanted pregnancies were terminated, the unwanted children that were destined for a life of hardship and criminality simply weren't there to perpetrate the crimes. Morally I don't agree with abortion. My girlfriend at the time and I thought about it as it was unwanted, and we did not. I can't imagine this earth without my wonderful daughter. However I don't believe in forcing my religious or moral views on others that may benefit from the freedom.

  4. another human? A person choosing to not donate their blood or organs is not the cause of another person dying, the root cause is the disease or illness that the other person has. Whereas with abortion

  5. Essentially, they are the belief that humans begin life as "less than human" , and that our full human-ness is acquired. This means we begin in a negative state and can only achieve a positive state by passing through man-made law. Our human-ness, then, has been captured by the sphere of positive law...!!!


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