Bonus Episode #2 – “Are Human Embryos Human Beings? Are They ‘Persons’?” by Dr. Robert George

Dr. Robert George is a Catholic husband and father, an American legal scholar, political philosopher, and public intellectual who serves as the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University.

He also serves as director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, is the Herbert W. Vaughan senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a research fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture, and a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School.

George is also a prolific author of articles and books, including The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Religion, and Morality In CrisisEmbryo: A Defense of Human LifeWhat Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, and Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism.

You can find Dr. Robert George at his Facebook page or at Princeton University.

Dr. Robert George – Lecture at Harvard Law School “Are Human Embryos Human Beings? Are They ‘Persons’?” Outline

I. Introduction

a. These are fundamental questions for the current debate.

i. Controversy erupted when Marco Rubio was running for President and said he believed that the life of a new human being begins at conception.

ii. There was at least the beginning of a debate.

b. There are also other questions.

II. The Scientific Question: Human Embryology – Life Begins at Conception/Fertilization

a. The adult human being, that is now you or me, is the same human being who, at an earlier stage of his or her life, was an adolescent, and before that a child, an infant, a fetus, and an embryo.

i. Robert Edwards, the scientist who pioneered In Vitro Fertilization (IVF)

1. Edwards said the following at the birth of Louise Brown the first so-called “test-tube baby,” recollecting her as two cells in his petri dish: “She was beautiful then and she is beautiful now.”

2. Indicating his appreciation and understanding of the fact that she, the newborn baby, was the same biological reality, the same entity, the same organism, the same being, that was the two cells he looked at in the microscope upon successful in vitro.

3. Edwards and his co-author accurately describe the embryonic Louise as “a microscopic human being, one in its very earliest stage of development.”

4. They say that the human being in the embryonic stage of its development is “passing through a critical period in its life of great exploration. It becomes magnificently organized, switching on its own bio-chemistry, increasing in size and preparing itself for implantation in the womb.”

ii. Even in the embryonic stage, you and I were, quite undeniably, from the point of view of human embryology and developmental biology, whole, living members of the species Homo Sapiens.

iii. We were then, as we are now, distinct and complete, although of course in the beginning we were developmental immature human organisms. The key thing is we were not, even then, mere parts of other organisms and no authority whatever in the fields of human embryology and developmental biology attest otherwise. In fact, all attest to the distinctness of the embryo from the earliest stage.

b. The gametes, the sperm and egg whose union brings into existence the embryo, are not whole and distinct organisms. They are mere parts.

c. The combining of the chromosomes of the spermatozoa and the oocyte generates what every work of human embryology attests and identifies as a new, distinct, and enduring organism.

d. The human embryo possesses all of the genetic material needed to inform and organize its growth. The human embryo is a whole and distinct organism – an embryonic member of the species: an embryonic human being.

III. The Ethical Question: Do embryonic human beings deserve respect? Do humans deserve respect based on the kind of entity they are (human), or on the basis of some acquired characteristic?

a. The human being is a being with a rational nature and you have that nature from the very beginning and you have until the very end.

b. It is the basic root natural capacity for human mental function and not the immediately exercisable capacity for human mental function that provides the justificatory basis for regarding all human beings as ends in themselves, creatures with dignity, and not merely as means, things that can be used for other purposes such as spare parts.

i. We would be rightly opposed to a technology that would enable us to acquire a set of spare parts in the form of a cloned copy of ourselves.

ii. Babies of six weeks old lack the immediately exercisable capacity to perform characteristically human, mental functions.

iii. Some conclude that young infants do not deserve moral respect. Ex. Professor Peter Singer makes the case for infanticide in his article “Killing Babies is Not Always Wrong”

iv. If you take the view that what gives the human being dignity is the immediately exercisable capacity for characteristically human mental function, then you would necessarily see nothing morally wrong with a society in which children were bred for spare parts on a massive scale so long as they were killed in infancy.

v. It cannot be the case that some human beings and not others are valuable based on a certain degree of development.

c. All human beings are intrinsically valuable, in a way that allows us to apply to them equality and human rights, simply because of the kind of being they are.

d. All human beings are of equal value from the point at which they come into existence. Even from the embryonic stage of our lives, each of us was a human being, and as such, worthy of concern and protection.

IV. Objection #1

a. Claim: Every cell in the human body has as much potential for development as any human embryo. Embryos therefore have no greater dignity or higher moral status than ordinary somatic cells (ex. skin cells).

i. Each cell in the body possesses the entire DNA code (that’s true).

ii. Each cell has become specialized (ex. skin, liver, blood, etc.) by most of that code being turned off.

iii. In cloning those portions of the code previously deactivated in the normal developmental process, are reactivated by the lab technician or scientist.

iv. So, if all our cells could be persons, then we cannot appeal to the fact that an embryo could be a person to justify the special treatment we give it. Since we would not regard all of our cells as human beings, we shouldn’t regard embryos as human beings either.

b. However: The somatic cell is something from which, together with other extrinsic causes (ex. the lab technician’s work), a new organism can be generated. The somatic cell is certainly not a distinct organism (a whole, rather than a part). A human embryo, by contrast, already is a distinct self-developing, complete human organism (as every work of human embryology and developmental biology affirms).

i. A somatic cell has potential only in the sense that something can be done to it so that its constituents, its DNA molecules, enter into a distinct whole human organism.

ii. An embryo is already actively, indeed dynamically, developing himself or herself to the further stages of maturity of the distinct organism, the human being that he or she already is.

iii. Somatic cells in the context of cloning then are analogous not to embryos, but to the gametes whose union results in generation of an embryo in the case of ordinary sexual reproduction.

V. Objection #2

a. Claim: The human being, in the sense of a person, comes into being only with the development of a brain (several weeks into embryonic development). Prior to that you have a human organism, but one lacking the dignity and rights of a person.

i. Modern medicine treats the death of the brain as the death of the person.

ii. So if a human being is no longer a person with rights once the brain has died, then a human being is not yet a person prior to the development of the brain.

b. However: Under prevailing law and medical practice, the rationale for brain death is not that a brain dead body is a living human organism, but no longer a person. Rather, brain death is accepted because the irreversible collapse of the brain is believed to destroy the capacity for self-directed integral organic functioning of human beings who have matured to a stage at which the brain plays the major role in integrating the organism.

i. In other words, at brain death there is no longer a unitary organism at all.

ii. Although an embryo has not yet developed a brain (at least not for a few weeks), it’s clearly exercising from the very beginning self-directed integral organic functioning (the thing that’s the actual criterion for life, even in the case of brain death).

iii. An embryo is a unitary organism (which no one can deny): an embryonic human being. It’s capacity to develop a brain is inherent and developing, just as the capacity of an infant to develop its brain sufficiently for it to actually think is not there yet, but is inherent and developing. The capacity is there, but the exercisability of the capacity is not there. It is inherent and developing.

iv. An embryo is a living, growing, developing entity; even though its self-integration and organic functioning are not brain directed at the early stage.

VI. Objection #3

a. Claim: Human beings are different in kind, at least in the earliest stages, from human being at later developmental stages.

i. Although every oak tree was once an acorn, it doesn’t follow that acorns are oak trees or that I should treat the loss of an acorn eaten by a squirrel in my front yard as the same kind of loss as the death of an oak tree felled by a storm.

ii. Despite their developmental continuity, acorns and oak trees are different kinds of things.

iii. Just as acorns are not oak trees, embryos are not human beings, at least not human beings with dignity.

b. However: The analogy fails in making the acorn analogous to the embryo and the oak tree analogous to the human being. In view of the developmental continuity that science establishes, and even this claim rightly concedes, the proper analogate of the oak tree is the mature human being, the adult.

i. We really do feel a greater sense of loss when a mature oak is felled vs. the loss of an acorn. It’s also true that we don’t feel the same sense of loss at the destruction of an oak sapling. But clearly the oak tree does not differ in kind from the oak sapling.

ii. This shows that we value oak trees not because of the kind of entity that they are, but rather because of their magnificence, an accidental quality. Neither acorns nor sapling are magnificent, so we don’t experience a sense of loss when they are destroyed.

iii. If oak trees were valuable in virtue of the kind of entity they are, then it would follow that it is just as unfortunate to lose an acorn as an oak.

iv. But the basis for valuing human beings is profoundly different. It’s not on the basis of the magnificence, or any accidental quality.

v. We may admire a Michael Jordan or an Albert Einstein for their magnificence, but we do not believe they are of greater fundamental and inherent worth than human beings who are physically frail or mentally or cognitively impaired.

vi. We would not tolerate the killing of a mentally disabled child or a person suffering from brain cancer in order to harvest transplantable organs to save Jordan or Einstein.

VII. Objection #4

a. Claim: Because embryonic twinning is possible, at least for the first several days, at least at that stage you don’t yet have a human individual because it could be two individuals.

b. However: We can split one flat worn into two flat worms, but no one would argue in virtue of the fact that you can create two flat worms from one flat worm, that before the splitting of the flat worm, you didn’t have an actual whole, individual, living and complete flat worm.