The photo on the right is a picture of Albert Einstein, shortly after receiving the Nobel Prize in 1921. The photo on the left shows how Einstein looked when he was very young (about three days old). The aim of this essay is to demonstrate on purely philosophical (i.e. non-religious) grounds that a human embryo is a person, who matters just as much as you or I do. I shall also attempt to explain exactly why an embryo is just as valuable as you or I. From this it follows that the embryo from which the adult Einstein developed had exactly the same moral worth (or intrinsic value) as Einstein the man, and that an outside party – for instance, the doctor who took care of Einstein’s mother while she was pregnant – would have been morally bound to treat the embryo Einstein as a fully-fledged human person, having the same inherent right to life as the great scientist whom the embryo later developed into. I have written this essay specifically for people with no religious beliefs, so I will be making use of purely secular arguments, based on uncontroversial scientific concepts, which should be familiar to anyone who has spent time studying the emergence and development of biological forms in the natural world. In the interests of full disclosure, I will state up-front that I am a Catholic, and that I am also a member of the Intelligent Design movement. However, I would like to emphasize that I am not claiming to speak on behalf of any group in writing this essay. The arguments put forward here represent my own personal views.
I am writing this essay in response to some arguments recently put forward by the “New Atheists,” most of whom would totally reject the notion that Einstein as an embryo had the same moral value as the adult Einstein. For instance, evolutionary biologist Professor Jerry Coyne has recently argued that a 100-cell blastocyst cannot be as valuable as an adult human being because it lacks thoughts and feelings, and concludes: “A blastocyst is no more what we think of as a ‘person’ than an acorn is the same thing as an oak tree.” For biologist P. Z. Myers, it is the height of absurdity to regard embryos as being just as valuable as adults (see here and here). Philosopher Sam Harris is utterly incredulous that anyone can still believe an embryo is a unique human person, given the fact that early embryos are susceptible to both fission and fusion (see here). Harris argues that “if our concern is about suffering in this universe, it is rather obvious that we should be more concerned about killing flies than about killing three-day-old embryos” – an odd remark for him to make, as neither flies nor three-day-old embryos are sentient (see here). And the evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins, after contrasting his “secular consequentialist” approach to ethics with “religiously absolute moral philosophies,” adds: “One school of thought cares about whether embryos can suffer. The other cares about whether they are human” (The God Delusion, Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, p. 297). It is an ethical axiom for Dawkins that only sentient beings matter: early embryos fall outside the scope of legitimate moral concern, because they are incapable of suffering. And even if some embryos turn out to be capable of suffering, “there is every reason to suppose that all embryos, whether human or not, suffer far less than adult cows or sheep in a slaughterhouse” (Dawkins, 2006, p. 297).
However, I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so I should mention that Christopher Hitchens is a noble exception to the generalization that New Atheists tend to be ardently pro-choice: unlike the other “New Atheists,” Hitchens openly refers to the embryo/fetus as an “unborn child,” although he does not go so far as to advocate the repeal of Roe v. Wade. And while Dr. Richard Carrier is generally pro-choice, he is also on the record as saying that he would oppose elective third trimester abortion as being identical to infanticide (see the Carrier-Roth Debate here).
In this essay, I shall endeavor to show that a strong intellectual case can be made, on non-religious grounds (i.e. without assuming the existence of God or an immaterial soul), for the pro-life view that a human person begins at the exact moment when the sperm cell penetrates the ovum (or oocyte, to use a more accurate medical term), and that a human embryo – even if it is severely deformed – has the same right to life as a fully rational human adult. In other words, I shall argue that if you grant that a rational human adult has a right to life, then you must also grant that an embryo or fetus has a right to life, too. What distinguishes this essay from other essays written in defense of unborn human life is that I shall endeavor to explain precisely why a human embryo is every bit as valuable as you or I. Moreover, my explanation makes no appeal to the merely potential qualities of the embryo; instead, I only invoke actual properties. Thus my argument is invulnerable to the philosopher Peter Singer’s criticism that a potential X does not necessarily have the rights of an actual X – for instance, a prince (who is a potential king) does not possess the same rights and privileges as an actual king. And unlike the philosopher Don Marquis, who argues that an embryo/fetus matters just as much as we do because it has a future like ours, my account of why a human embryo matters is based principally on its present characteristics. Finally, my explanation makes no appeal to the existence of an immaterial soul, although it is perfectly compatible with belief in one.
Later, I shall address the moral issue of abortion. In particular, I shall contend that Judith Jarvis Thomson’s argument for the morality of abortion is flawed, and I will show that the available evidence indicates that abortion harms women’s mental health, even in cases such as rape and incest. However, my principal aim in this online essay is to demonstrate that a human embryo is a person who matters just as much as an adult.
My argument in a nutshell
In brief, the essence of my argument is that a human embryo is a person, because it is a complete organism, embodying a developmental program by which it directs and controls its own development into a rational human adult, and in addition, it has already started assembling itself into a rational human adult. A human adult is not merely something the embryo/fetus is capable of becoming, in a passive sense; rather, it is the mature form of the organism that the embryo/fetus is currently assembling itself into, by executing the instructions contained in its developmental program, which has already started running. (In this respect, the embryo/fetus differs vitally from a potential king, who is legally incapable of doing anything to make himself king, and who has none of the rights that properly belong to a king.) I shall argue that it is reasonable to regard any biological organism which is currently assembling itself into a rational human adult through a process which is under its control, as being just as valuable as the adult it will become, and as therefore having the same right to life as an adult. I shall also contend that nothing is acquired by an embryo, fetus, newborn baby or child in the course of its development which would add to its inherent moral value in any way; hence a one-cell embryo must be just as valuable as you or I. Finally, I shall argue that a severely defective embryo, which has no hope of developing into a rational human adult, has the same right to life as a normal embryo, because the correction of its defects does not require the addition of any new instructions to its developmental program; all it requires is the repair of program flaws, and that this correction would in no way alter its identity as a human individual, or add to its inherent value. Given that a normal embryo has the same right to life as a rational human adult, it follows that a severely defective embryo (which is just as valuable as a normal one) has the same right to life as well.
Dedication and Acknowledgements
I would like to express my thanks at the outset to the Intelligent Design movement for alerting me to the ethical significance of the developmental programs which are found in living organisms. I’ll say more about these programs below.
Read the rest of the essay here.