Mr. Egnor has asked me a single question: What is a human embryo? Now, I must stop there because this is really two questions. The first is "What is an embryo?" I hope we can safely set aside the question of what an embryo is. Let's say a group of two or more dividing cells that, in placental mammals, is between the zygotic and fetal stages. I don't believe it is the question Mr. Egnor wants answered though. That means there is something about that dangling modifier "human". That would make the second question "What is a human?" Now, perhaps I am wrong, but I believe this is the key question Mr. Egnor wants answered. If that is the question to be answered, why not simply ask that question outright? Only Mr. Egnor knows why. So let me try rephrasing the question to better capture what I believe is being asked. "Is an embryo human?" That, is better, but I'm fairly certain that embryos associated with other animals aren't to be included, only those embryos undergoing gestation in an adult female of the species Homo sapien, commonly referred to as human. So lets use the word human in its common form to distinguish what class of embryos we are discussing. "Is a human embryo human?"
Well, this can't be right. Instead of trying to prove the unborn is fully human, such a question simply assumes the proof is true. This logical fallacy is called, of course, "begging the question". I'm sure such an outcome was unintentional. Now, some will say that I have significantly altered the question. I disagree based on the potential answers offered (especially answer 5) and think that I have clarified the question to better get at what is really being asked. If I offended anyone in doing so, I apologize. Perhaps it is better to move on and look at the possible answers.
But here we run into another problem. Mr Egnor seems to use the terms "human", "human being" and "homo sapien" interchangeably. In previous posts, he has done the same with "person". Now this can't be right because while colloquially they are interchangeable, in the context of abortion discussions Tom Gilson has informed me that these mean vastly different things. I feel either Mr. Egnor has made a mistake (or I have) or that I am being set up for some rhetorical sleight of hand. But let us assume these are equivalent terms for Mr. Egnor and use his previous posts to come up with definitions and answer the questions (1). So to clarify the present definitions:
Homo sapien - an individual, from the moment of fertilization on, with genomic content common to the hairless, social great ape originating on the planet Earth and endowed with certain rights by virtue of being a member of said species (2)Incomplete, I know. But as I've said, space is limited. And if I break into using the colloquial forms of these words I apologize. Now, as Mr. Egnor has said that a human life begins at fertilization and that all humans have at least one right, I'd like to believe that the above definitions are somewhat representative of what he believes. If not, he is of course free to change them. So, using these definitions, the answer to the question "What is a human embryo?" becomes simple to answer. Anything which is human is both a Homo sapien and a person. Answer 5. In fact, the word embryonic becomes superfluous because, as I have tried to show, the assumption has already been made that the embryo is human. In essence it makes the question a non sequitur, like asking "What is a stellar star?" But it is illustrative of at least one thing. Since fertilization is the starting point of human life, without fertilization there is no human life. I can conceive of at least five situations in which these definitions would create an ethical dilemma:
Human - see Homo sapien
Person(3) - see Human
1) Monozygotic twins - Identical twins (or triplets, etc.) arise from a single fertilization event but result in two individuals. Since life begins at fertilization and the separation resulting in twins occurs after this, this must mean that one of the twins did not arise from fertilization and is therefore not human. No doubt such a conclusion makes people uneasy. To resolve this dilemma there are a few solutions. One could concede that fertilization is not the starting point of life. Alternatively, one could maintain that fertilization does give rise to multiple lives in the sense that each cell division creates another potential life. This creates the greater problem of reconciling the fact that each adult human is made up of billions of potential lives. In fact, one could scrape one's cheek with a swab and remove several cells with the potential for life with the express intent of preventing them from reaching such potential. In fact, I just did so and, by the rationale above, performed an abortion. Of course this is ridiculous but it is the logical conclusion using the stated definitions. One potential work around is to claim that fertilization gives rise to multiple lives but that these potential lives lose their potential after a set period of time, let's say after the first six cycles of division. This of course raises even greater problems. Where did the lives go to? Were they the unfortunate victim of spontaneous abortion (aka miscarriage)? If a drug were available that would suppress the the development of monozygotic twins (not a drug that leads to the induced abortion of one but that only suppresses the splitting of one zygote into two) then wouldn't such a drug be morally equivalent to abortion? Alternatively, if possible, wouldn't forcing split eggs back together also be morally equivalent to abortion?
Here's another one. One proposed compromise to the debate on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cells involved taking a single cell from an early ex utero embryo as a source of stem cells but allowing the remaining cells to continue dividing in preparation for implantation. Many thought such a procedure would remove any associated moral dilemma from stem cell use since the DNA unique to that individual is retained and would, assuming implantation is successful, result in the birth of that individual. Assuming that in vitro fertilization is not morally wrong (and I know Mr. Egnor opposes it, but for those who don't), those who would accept this compromise face a moral dilemma similar to that described in the previous paragraph. How is this situation different from performing an abortion on one of a pair of monozygotic twins? In both cases, the embryo is split, one part is allowed to reach its potential and the other is not. What is the difference, in this case, between the embryo removed from the petri dish and the one removed from the uterus?
2) Cloned individuals - This should be self explanatory. Since any adult individual who is cloned from non-gametic cells would bypass fertilization, they are not a human and do not have rights by virtue of belonging to our species. To allow such individuals to be human, a redefinition of the beginning of life is required.
3) Individuals with two parents of the same sex - By this I mean individuals made from the DNA of two men or two woman. This has already been done in mice and could potentially be done in humans. To allow such individuals to be human, a redefinition of the beginning of life is required.
4) Individual developing from a non-fertilized egg - I know it sounds crazy, but it is at least theoretically possible, though highly improbable. Some contend that there is at least one documented case of such an occurrence. So again, without fertilization such an individual can not be human and is not entitled to any rights.
5) Genetically altered individuals - This is the bonus situation since it doesn't involve fertilization (depending on how it is done, it could involve gene addition post-fertilization). This is commonly done in animals and could potentially be done in humans. But how do you deal with an individual who does not have the genomic sequence common to Homo sapiens? If they are not Homo sapiens, they are not human, they are not persons, and they are not entitled to rights. This raises the same issue as above. But it raises an even bigger issue.
In the other four examples, ignoring fertilization as the starting point, one could still argue that the individual is human because of their DNA. But that is not the case here. This may be a matter of the number of altered genes, but at some point the DNA would be so altered that one could not consider such an individual a Homo sapien. If they are not a Homo sapien, they are not human; and if they are not human, then they are an animal. And if they are an animal, then there is no moral dilemma with aborting them. That is a simple logical conclusion. But not because I said so; because the greatest philosopher to ever walk the face of the Earth Thomas Aquinas said so, in Summa Theologica:
According to the Divine ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved not for themselves but for man. Hence, as Augustine says (De Civ. Dei i, 20), 'by a most just ordinance of the Creator, both their life and their death are subject to our use.' ... He that kills another's ox, sins, not through killing the ox, but through injuring another man in his property. (4)It seems that to avoid this dilemma, we must rethink what we mean by Homo sapien.
Now, it may seem to some that I am being unfair, since three (or four) of these situations are currently hypothetical. But hard cases make bad law, and the hard cases arise from the notion that the attribute "human" is a nominal variable. So let's try redefining these terms in a way that removes such a dichotomy.
Homo sapien - an individual, from the zygotic stage on, with genomic content generally common to the hairless, social great ape originating on the planet EarthAgain, incomplete I know, but good enough for the present purposes and much closer to my personal beliefs. As you see, I removed fertilization as it caused so many logical problems, replacing it with zygotic stage. I added 'generally common' to genomic to allow room for some genetic variability. I have also removed rights from 'Homo sapien' and placed it under 'person' to permit denial of rights to human cells with the potential to be cloned but which are not undergoing the cloning process. I also redefined human to make it a continuous variable rather than dichotomous.
Human - An individual Homo sapien with certain cerebral abilities believed to be unique to Homo sapiens including, but not limited to, abstract thought, language, and reasoning*.
Person - A human who is entitled to certain rights, usually by virtue of maturation or reaching a certain age (5)
"But Tantalus, are you saying there are individuals who have more humanity than others?!" Yes. I'm sorry if that makes you uncomfortable (6), but it is not just** me who is saying this. It is assumed in society's everyday vernacular. People anthropomorphize their pets, calling them their children and ascribing them human characteristics. Many have no problem calling mass murderers and suicide bombers "less than human". When children misbehave, we say they are acting like animals. We dehumanize our enemies in war to make it easier to kill them. Brain dead individuals are called "vegetables". In the few recorded instances of feral children, such individuals have been said to behave more like animals then humans. Phineas Gage suffered a horrible accident that caused damage to his frontal lobes and while he lived a decade beyond his accident friends recognized that Gage was "no longer Gage". Why, even Cormac Murphy-O'Conner, a Cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church has stated that:
"Whether a person is atheist or any other, there is in fact in my view something not totally human if they leave out the transcendent ..."Well, as a confirmed (former) Catholic I know that it is frowned upon for Church members to disagree with Church teaching. So, if a Cardinal says there are different degrees of humanity, far be it from me to disagree with him. So, as you see, society has already recognized that humanity is not an either/or trait. Even if people deny this fact, they acknowledge it by their language.
So now, to answer the question "What is a human embryo?" Using the above definitions the answer is once again simple; a human embryo is an oxymoron. The question may as well have been "What is a yellow concerto?"(7) But that isn't any fun, so let's look at possible answers. Number 4 seems to be the best but, oh look, this option isn't really an option because humanity has already been assumed to be a dichotomous variable. Again with begging the question. I am starting to recognize a theme. It's not just that I happen to believe that there is no litmus test for humanity. Based on the number of philosophers and the number of years that this particular philosophical problem has been discussed, without resolution, it appears the most prudent course of action is to assume that the answer to "what does it mean to be human" is not a simple either/or.
"But Tantalus, given that a living being might be involved isn't the most prudent course of action to be as conservative as possible and ascribe humanity to embryos?" I think not for two reasons. First, we are dealing with at least one known, that the pregnant woman is a living human. We also ascribe certain rights to living individuals, of which she is one. We are also dealing with one unknown, whether or not the gestating Homo sapien is a living human. Now, if we assign a probability that the gestating individual is a living human that probability is highest just prior to birth and approaches its nadir at fertilization. Comparing each individuals claim to rights as a person:
p(human) * (rights)
we see that in all conditions the pregnant woman's claim to human rights is greater than the gestating Homo sapien. Now, if you want to assert that the right to life is infinitely greater than other rights, you are free to do so. And many abortion opponents (and abortion proponents too) do assume that. But once more this can't be assumed, it must be proved. In my mind, however, there does seem to be something unsettling to this line of thinking, to this raised reverence of the fetus such that its rights (if any) supersede all rights of the pregnant woman, even to the point at which some insist that death of the woman, who undoubtedly has an equal claim to the right to live as the putative human fetus, is preferable to therapeutic abortion. It reminds me of Ayn Rand's "We the Living"(8), in which bureaucratic worship of the war dead and their ideals led to denial of rights to those who were left alive and needed real help.
But let us take the most conservative approach and elaborate on my second reason. One could use any biological marker and claim that as the litmus test for human life. Implantation, by AMA definition the beginning of pregnancy, is a start. Neuronal activity would be another. How about the production of surfactant? Before this point a fetus is incapable of breathing without intervention. May I suggest my own favorite, the time period during which GABAergic neurons switch from being excitatory to inhibitory, a truly game changing moment in the development of electrical properties of the nervous system? Each of these, I believe, is a fundamental change in the individual and could be used as a marker of human life. So why fertilization?
Is there a fundamental change in the parts before and after fertilization? Not really, unless you count discarding the sperm tail. All the parts were there before and are there after. Adding them together didn't make any new parts. You can add an Airstream to your Ford truck, but it doesn't make it a Winnebago. Can the fertilized egg do anything the sperm and egg can't? It can divide and has all the genetic code necessary for developing an individual. But the sperm and egg themselves have undergone cell division previously and also have all the genetic code necessary to develop a human, if only in haploid form. Does fertilization occur in some privileged place in the reproductive system? No, it occurs in the same place that sperm and egg meet, so it is difficult to argue that the few hundred microns a sperm moves is of significance. Is the support system any different before and after fertilization? No, in both there is little support save for providing a pathway to the uterus. So by these criteria, one could argue that fertilization is not so different from the moments preceding fertilization. And if that is the case then we can (and some would say must) push back the beginning of life, of human life with value, to some earlier time point. There is support for this assertion. After all, if my parents had used contraception, they would have prevented me from being born. If this statement is true, which of course it is, then my unique human life and the value associated with it did not begin with fertilization but extends to some earlier time point. This, logically, would be the most conservative approach.
As I said, these issues are complicated, but I've tried to summarize them as best I can in this format. And this is the short version (9). It would be nice to live in a Manichean world. It would really make a lot of things easier. But few things are simple; most are complicated. I accept this. So does Mr. Egnor, as demonstrated by his uncertainty of the exact moment during conception he believes human life begins, and his qualification that with the right to life some restrictions may apply. I live my life with the understanding that real answers are hard to come by. To live otherwise would be unconscionable.
*This should be taken as a list of examples, not requirements.
**Originally the word 'just' was missing from this sentence, an ommission that changes the implication of the sentences that follow. The sentences that follow are not justification for my conclusion that humanity is not a nominal variable, but confirmation that various members of society, including ones who vehemently deny they think such a thing, are quite comfortable with this notion.
(1) Well, if Mr. Torley can assume to know what other people are thinking, why can't I?
(2) I prefer 'privilege' to 'right' because I feel 'right' carries with it the rhetorical baggage of non-human authority. But as long as that is understood, I will use 'right' here.
(3) I don't like to use the word person but I will. When you live in a society where a corporation can be considered a 'person', you live in a society where the word 'person' has lost all meaning.
(4) Hours upon hours of being forced to study Aquinas during Sunday School and for my confirmation and I thought I was done with him forever. Ugh, I hate reading Aquinas. And yes, I did use a selective quotation.
(5) Note that this does not preclude anyone from extending rights to those who don't meet the definition of 'person'. Animal welfare laws and emancipation for minors are two examples I can think of.
(6) Would it make you feel better if I said this made me feel uncomfortable? The field of quantum mechanics makes me uncomfortable. That however does not mean I can deny its existence and ignore its implications.
(7) Unless you have synesthesia, in which case I would have to come up with a better example.
(8) I really hate to speak positively of Ayn Rand. Bad philosophy and worse prose. She would give the Vogons a run for their money.
(9) Typed out on my phone, no less.