Adult Reasoning About Embryos

August 27, 2010

Just when you thought it was safe … embryos are back in the news. A federal district court judge has issued an injunction blocking federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells . The judge ruled that federal funding would violate a 1996 law (the so-called Dickey Amendment) which prohibits funding of research that results in the destruction of embryos or subjects embryos to a risk of injury.

I’m not going to analyze the judge’s ruling in this case, other than to note that I believe it stands a good chance of being overturned because the judge did not give proper deference to the government agency (in this instance, the National Institutes of Health) responsible for interpreting and implementing the relevant law.

I’m more concerned with the beliefs of those who continue to oppose embryonic stem cell research. Those opposed to such research typically argue that the embryo is entitled to the same rights as an adult human being, which is why it should not be harmed in any way. They claim the embryo has the potential to develop into an adult human. Some even argue that the embryo has the inherent capacity to develop into an adult and will do so only if we leave it alone.

This is just religious dogma dressed up in pseudo-scientific garb. There are so many flaws in this reasoning that it is difficult to know where to begin, but here are some examples:

The early embryo is not an individual . Until about 14 days after conception, the embryo can divide into two or more parts. Under the right conditions, each of those parts can develop into a separate fetus. This is the phenomenon known as “twinning.” Twinning shows that adult human beings are not identical with a previously existing zygote or embryo. If that were true, then each pair of twins would be identical with the same embryo. This is a logically incoherent position. If A and B are separate individuals, they cannot both be identical with a previously existent entity, C.

As the early embryo is not an individual, it cannot be the moral equivalent of an adult human. To claim that someone is harmed, there must be “someone” there. We do not and should not grant moral rights to mere groupings of cells.

The potential of the embryo does not make it a human person . Those who rely on the potential of the embryo to support their claim that it is morally equivalent to an adult human conveniently ignore the important role that extrinsic conditions play in embryonic and fetal development. An embryo in a petri dish is going nowhere. An embryo needs nutrients provided by the mother through the placenta in order to develop into a fetus and beyond. These nutrients regulate the epigenetic state of the embryo. The embryo does not have the inherent capability of expressing its potential on its own.

Additionally relevant to this discussion is the fact that embryos used in research are spare embryos from in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures. In other words, they are embryos that are destined for the trash can, unless they are used in research. Therefore, they have no prospect of developing into a fetus. Their potential is no more than a theoretical construct.

The claim that the embryo is the moral equivalent of a human person is implicitly rejected by everyone . One important fact about embryonic development that is often overlooked is that between two-thirds and four-fifths of all embryos that are generated through standard sexual reproduction are spontaneously aborted.  If embryos have the same status as human persons, this is a horrible tragedy and public health crisis that requires immediate and sustained attention.  Not only should we abandon stem cell research, but we should reallocate the vast majority of our research dollars from projects such as cancer research into programs to help prevent this staggering loss of human life.  Interestingly, none of the opponents of embryonic stem cell research have called for research programs that might increase the odds of embryo survival.  Their failure to address this issue is puzzling if the embryo deserves the same moral respect as human persons. 

Similarly, IVF, at least as currently practiced, would appear to be morally objectionable regardless of whether some embryos produced by this procedure are used in research.  Those who utilize IVF intentionally create many embryos that they know will be discarded eventually.  How can we accept a process that consigns entities that supposedly have the status of human persons to the rubbish bin? 

Finally, it is worth noting that the focus of the controversy over stem cell research is whether it should be federally funded, not whether it should be banned entirely (although there are some who have called for a ban).  That we are even debating the wisdom of federal funding demonstrates that most of us—including the opponents of funding embryonic stem cell research—do not consider the embryo to have the same status as a human person.  We do not debate the pros and cons of federal funding of research that would destroy adult humans. 

Consideration of these implications of the position that embryos are entitled to the same rights as human persons demonstrates that this position cannot be reconciled with widely accepted views—including the views of opponents of funding embryonic stem cell research. Of course, this does not “prove” that this position is morally unsound. It merely establishes that the moral views of opponents are incoherent.

At the end of the day, we know what is at work here. Those holding the embryo sacred are implicitly making use of religiously inspired ensoulment doctrines, that is, a soul is what makes us special and a soul enters the zygote at the moment of conception. Unfortunately, in the 21st century we still find ourselves in thrall to religious dogma on an important public health issue.

We can only hope that some day humanity will grow up, leave its religious infancy behind, and reason as adults about moral issues.