Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Moral Status of the Human Embryo

Readers in my neighborhood of the blogosphere might be familiar with the discussion over the last several weeks at Mirror of Justice regarding the moral status of the human embryo (you can go to September's archive page and scroll up from the bottom -- beginning with this post on embryonic stem cells -- and continue into October's page, where it really gets going).

The issue has more recently surfaced in the media, in the aftermath of Michael J. Fox's unintentional support of a proposed amendment in Missouri that would establish the right to clone [sic] as part of the Show Me state's constitution (Fox and others think the amendment would just strengthen the legality of embryonic stem cell research [ESCR]).

Trying to make a dispassionate case in recognition of the inherent dignity of the human embryo, I offered the following comment at a liberal blog:

    One of the things that amazes me about the discussion of embryonic stem cell research is the inability to find any common ground whatsoever, as well as the inability to agree on certain basic facts.

    The anti-ESCR position is fairly simple.

    It begins by recognizing that embryos are human organisms. Now, if there is going to be any rational and civil debate on ESCR, this has to be acknowledged from the get-go. This is neither philosophy nor religion: it’s a fact of embryology.

    The anti-ESCR position goes on to assert that every human organism possesses inherent dignity, and hence cannot be killed and its cells harvested for ESCR. NB: the key term is “organism”: we’re not talking about oocytes or any other simply human cell (which, in some sense at least, has human life); we’re talking about a human organism, which—again, according to science—an embryo is.

    The only coherent way, then, to argue in favor of ESCR is to posit that not some human organisms do not possess inherent dignity. This argument, however, presents a new difficulty, in that that ESCR proponent must now develop a criterion by which to determine which human organisms possess human dignity and which do not. And presumably (Peter Singer et al. excepted), most ESCR proponents are going to try to tailor this criterion in a manner that does not exclude other classes from that which possess inherent dignity. But doing so in a non-arbitrary fashion is difficult as well.

    What I find appealing about the anti-ESCR position is that it simply identifies dignity with being a human organism. It doesn’t tread down that well-worn path which seeks to grant dignity to some but not others; rather, it is all-inclusive: if you are a human organism, you possess dignity, not because I grant it to you, but simply because you are a human being.

    My $.04.

If you go to the link to my comment and scroll down, you'll find replies made by those who (apparently) deny that embryos have the same dignity as other human beings.

I've decided to reply to a number of these comments in a series of posts. I do this not so much with the expectation that I'll convince my interlocutors at that blog, but with the hope that undecided parties might weigh my arguments and either find them convincing or help me see my erroneous argumentation. But I welcome and encourage thoughtful interaction with anyone, be they my interlocutors, those who agree with them, or anyone else.

NB: I've published these posts in opposite order of when they were written... while normally, the newest post is at the top of the page, for this series of posts, the newer ones are the lower ones, so the first post below responds to the first comment made to me, the second post below responds to the second comment made to me, and so on. There is a "bookend" post at the end to indicate the final post in this series.
Response to Pb's comment

Pb commented:
    if you are a human organism, you possess dignity, not because I grant it to you, but simply because you are a human being

    And therein lies the problem—the claim that embryos are equivalent to human beings at any or every other development stage—a claim which I and many others find to be simply laughable.

    All pro-life conclusions are based on the foundational belief that a human life begins at the time of fertilization of the ovum. Thus, an embryo is viewed as a human being with all of the rights of an adult. Experiments which subject an ovum to any significant risk are the ethical equivalent of the infamous medical experiments that were inflicted on unwilling and uninformed victims in Nazi death camps. Ends do not justify the means. Thus, no matter how helpful to mankind embryo research might potentially be, it cannot be done if the embryo is eventually killed or subjected to a significant risk.

    Their bizarre interpretations would also raise all sorts of other problems, such as with fertility clinics and the hundreds of thousands of embryos they create, or with taxation and claiming dependents—you name it. But their arguments are really just faith-based, and grounded in ignorance, not science, like most of their positions. On the other side:

    At this early stage of development (before 14 days) the embryo does not have human form or genetic uniqueness. It is a growing collection of cells which can divide into two and naturally produce identical twins. It is unable to survive outside of the womb, does not have any organ structures including even a primitive brain and it has no degree cognitive development. After conception following intercourse some 60 percent of human embryos are discarded by nature at this stage of development, before the mother ever realizes that she was pregnant. It would be difficult for society to ascribe “rights” to something that has such a high natural mortality.

    I find all of that to be entirely reasonable and rational, which is probably why the pro-life crowd doesn’t want anyone talking about it in the first place.

Pb doesn't really substantiate his (or her) objections to my position... he posits that morally equating an embryonic human being with an adult human being is laughable, but doesn't elaborate. He also says that such an equation would create all sorts of practical problems, but considering the fact that most abortions were illegal until 1973 and none of these problems were present, that seems a fairly hollow objection.

He also states that pro-embryo arguments are faith-based, not science-based, but offers no proof this assertion. He does attempt to provide an argument in defense of his position in the last citation. That citation, however, is flawed in many ways. First, it posits that the embryo prior to 14 days does not have human form. Of course it does: it has the form of a 10-day old human being. Does it have limbs or organ systems? Obviously not; but the citation does not explain why limbs or organ systems are essential to being human (more on this argument in subsequent posts).

Second, the citation posits that because the very young embryonic human being can twin. But this does not prove that the embryo is not a human being. The fact that an identical twin can originate from a pre-existing embryo does not mean that that embryo wasn't a human being. While most human beings originate when a sperm fertilizes an ovum, some human beings originate later, in the process of twinning. Again, there is nothing here which demonstrates that an embro prior to 14 days of age is not a human being.

The citation then offers some standard objections to the humanity of the embryo: it cannot survive outside the womb; it doesn't have any organ structures; it doesn't have a brain; it has no cognitive development. None of these ultimately holds water. The fact that an embryonic human requires a particular environment to survive is no different than the fact that an adult human requires a particular environment to survive. If you put me in under water without a breathing apparatus, I will die. Does that mean I wasn't human? Of course not.

Regarding organ structures: why are they essential to what it means to be human? There are obviously some of us who lack certain organs... are we not human? What is it about organs that make there existence essential to being recognized as a human being? In fact, our organ systems serve to keep us (the individual human being) alive; that is their purpose. The youngest human beings -- embyros -- do not yet require complex organ systems to sustain themselves.

A similar argument demonstrates the irrelevance of the presence of the brain. The fundamental purpose of the human brain is to coordinate and integrate the various organ systems of the human being, such that the human being is a single, integrated organism. Again, the human being at the embryo stage is not yet so complex that he requires a brain to integrate himself.

Cognitive development could plausibly be proferred as a criterion for personhood, but it has no bearing on the fundamental fact that human embryos are human organisms. The author cited by Pb apparently believes that being a human organism is insufficient, and that some cognitive development is necessary to be deemed morally worthy, but -- once again -- no argument for this position is presented.

Finally, the citation asserts (without reference) that 60% of human embryos die at this early stage, and posits that therefore the embryo must not have rights. Even if the statistic is accurate, the error of this position is easily seen by noting that the mortality rate of adult human beings is 100%, yet we do not deny that they have rights.

So in this comment and its citations, we seem to have a number of unproven assertions. Perhaps Pb or someone else who agrees with him could prove some of these assertions in the comments.
Reply to Bruce Moomaw

Bruce comments:

    Chris, a brain-dead human being is a “human organism”, and he is most certainly alive. But no one with any sanity objects to turning off his life support machines and thus killing him, because everyone recognizes that he has no consciousness and is therefore not—by any conceivable stretch—a person. In fact, he is far less of a person than a conscious animal is. And the same thing is true of an embryo—or an early-stage fetus—which has not yet developed any functioning brain cells, or has not yet started growing the interconnections between them in its cerebral cortex (which doesn’t even begin to happen until the 5th month). Therefore it is not only wrong, but downright ridiculous, to claim that there is ANY risk that we are killing a human person when we kill an embryo, or a first-trimester fetus. Not a one-in-a-million risk, or a one-in-a-billion risk. NO risk. And this is not fancy logic-chopping to try to justify abortions; it is plain, simple, common-sense physical fact.

    Anti-abortionists and opponents of stem-cell research sometimes argue that, by killing embryos or first-trimester fetuses, we are keeping “potential” human persons from coming into existence. But by that same reasoning, any woman who doesn’t stay constantly pregnant is immoral—just think how many potential people SHE’S keeping from coming into existence!

First, I have to note that Bruce was one of the more polite and reasonable commentors; I thank you for that, Bruce.

Bruce begins with the example of a brain-dead human being. I obliquely addressed this issue in my reply to Pb: a brain becomes necessarily for life at a certain point because the complexity of the developing human requires integration and coordination, which the brain provides; without the brain, you do not have an integrated, self-directed organism. And so if you have a person who is completely brain-dead, you in fact do not have an organism, in the scientific sense of the term (an integrated, self-directed biological entity). The life-support systems are merely keeping the various organs alive, but the human being is already dead.

But this is not Bruce's position; instead, he argues that the brain-dead human being is dead because s/he is is not conscious. I imagine that Bruce would probably reconsider, if he noted that there are all sorts of people who are unconscious yet not dead: the comatose (reversible or not), as well as the sleeping! Lack of consciousness -- temporary or permanent -- therefore cannot be the criterion for human dignity and its concommitant rights.

In the remainder of Bruce's first paragraph lies a somewhat-hidden distinction, between a human organism and a human person. Bruce apparently holds that not all (living) human organisms are human persons, and this is a fairly common position among those who deny the dignity of the embryonic human being. But the criteria which he offers are problematic, as seen above: the brain simply isn't necessary in the very young human being (the function it provides is already present), and consciousness is obviously not required for human dignity.

In his concluding paragraph, Bruce makes a claim which is also very common, and frankly, demonstrates to me that those who deny the dignity of the embryonic human do not read opposing materials very closely. Bruce thinks that people like me hold that killing a human embryo kills a potential person (he actually says that he thinks we hold that killing an embryo prevents a potential person from coming into existence, but I think he meant it as I stated it here). This is not so: the "pro-life" position holds that killing an embryo kills an actual person, not a potential person. An actual person came to exist at the moment of conception (or twinning or cloning), when the human organism came to exist. While I grant the distinction between human organism and human person, I also recognize that there is no human organism that is not a human person. And hence Bruce's attempt at an argument ad absurdum is rendered invalid: I oppose abortion and embryonic stem cell research because they entail the killing of a human being, which is not the case if a woman does not become pregnant.
Reply to Steve

Steve commented:
    What I find appealing about the anti-ESCR position is that it simply identifies dignity with being a human organism. It doesn’t tread down that well-worn path which seeks to grant dignity to some but not others; rather, it is all-inclusive: if you are a human organism, you possess dignity, not because I grant it to you, but simply because you are a human being.

    Yeah, but doesn’t it bug you a little bit, believing that every single day there’s a massive embryo Holocaust as the fertility clinics take out the trash? If you could somehow know that you had successfully fertilized your wife’s egg, but the egg had failed to implant in the uterine wall (which happens about half the time), would you really mourn the loss of that embryo the way you’d mourn a baby, or even a miscarriage?

    Really, this “you have to draw the line somewhere!” argument might have scored points in college debate class, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that it actually proves anything. You’re drawing a line too, you know – the fact that we have a word like “organism” to neatly describe where your line is drawn doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a line. Somewhere out there, someone is disgusted that you won’t stick up for the inherent dignity of every sperm cell.

    For my part, I wouldn’t presume to know exactly where the line is drawn, but I’m pretty confident that you and I are way the f*** on one side of the line, and embryos in a Petri dish are way the f*** on the other side of the line. If you want to believe that embryos should be treated as if they’re actually little persons, then be my guest, it’s a free country. But the reason you take that position should be because you truly believe it, not because “it’s impossible to draw the line otherwise,” which is just a rhetorical jibe.

Steve's opening paragraph addresses the fact that people -- like myself -- who hold that the embryo has inherent dignity (apparently) do not mourn the destruction of human embryos in fertility clinics or miscarriages. In fact, plenty of women mourn when their pregnancy ends in a miscarriage. That aside, though, Steve seems to hold that we are to determine ethical truths on the basis of emotional responses. Supposedly, the fact that I don't weep over the killing of embryos in a fertility clinic somehow proves (in fact, it does not) that embryos are not morally equivalent to older human beings. Such a position is extremely vacuous. Prof. Robert George of Princeton does an excellent job of demonstrating this vacuity in this (lengthy) post.

I have to admit, I'm not sure what Steve's point is in the second paragraph, with his references to line-drawing. I agree, I do draw a line: human dignity is found in a human organism at the very beginning of that organism's existence. The line is at the first moment of that existence. I'd also challenge Steve, incidently, to find someone who holds that a sperm or ovum cell has the inherent dignity proper to human beings.

Finally, I do hold the position because I truly believe it, and I believe it because it's the only coherent stance. To "draw the line" later than the beginning of the human organism's existence (i.e. to assert that dignity is not possessed by the organism from the first moment of its existence) is either arbitrary or results in denying the dignity of human beings whose dignity is recognized by people on both sides of this issue (e.g. the severely mentally handicapped or the comatose).
Reply to scarshapedstar

scarshapedstar comments:
    Well, gang, it’s time for Chris to answer everyone’s favorite question.

    For whatever reason, you suddenly find yourself in a burning fertility clinic. One one side of the room is a crying toddler. On the other side is a petri dish with one hundred zygotes (or, as you call them, “human organisms”). You only have time to grab one of them and escape. Which do you choose, and why?

First of all, it's not me who calls zygotes (and embryos) "human organisms"... it's embryologists and the textbooks they write (and yes, I can get the citations if you'd like; just ask in the comments).

Again, we have here a hidden premise that ethical truth is found by examining emotional reactions. I refer the reader to the link to Prof. George's thoughts as found in the reply to Steve, above.
Reply to lard lad

In a fairly crude and adolescent comment, this fellow mockingly claims that masturbation must result in the death of trillions upon trillions of innocent souls. I'm only responding here because I'm making an attempt to reply to every response to my original post, no matter how assinine.

Obviously -- as I've already said -- a sperm cell is not a human organism, therefore not a human person, and therefore does not possess inherent human dignity. But I'm sure the reader knows that.
Reply to jcricket

jcricket commented:

    Shorter Chris:

    There’s no way to argue in favor of ESC research because there’s no way to argue with my unassailable logic that if I lump everything within the “organism” label, everything done to each organism is now morally equivalent.

    Congratulations Chris, you’ve failed your high school logic class and I’m kicking you out of debate club. For one you’ve committed a couple of basic logical fallacies, including what’s known as “false dilemma“. I’m sure there are others, why don’t you go to this site and find out?

    Push your logic even a teensy bit further and the other posters and the Monty Python song isn’t far fetched. Masturbating is destroying 1/2 of a human organism and millions of potential human lives. Using condoms is a cruel joke on those 1/2 human organisms. Taking the birth control pill can keep fertilized eggs that would otherwise implant and grow into babies, making them even more of a human organism (they’re in a womb), so it should be outlawed too, right?

    Anyone who seriously thinks that there’s no room for a logical, rational support of the other sides position is fooling themselves. Even on this issue.

    Despite the fact that I am strongly pro ESC research I can can see a possible logic within the arguments of some ESC opponents. But only for those that also oppose IVF, because they are also as irate about the ongoing embryo holocaust occurring every year within IVF clinics. It’s the same destruction, and it’s been going on without complaint for the most part.

    So, while there is a group of supporters who can claim logical opposition to ESC research, I doubt Chris is in it. The only people who are in it must also oppose IVF, contraception and probably masturbation.

    The poll done around the Michael J Fox ad shows that the public largely supports ESC research (something like 70-75%) and doesn’t oppose federal funding when it understands that federal funding is the only source for this type of work. When you see the potential people who could benefit from ESC research up close, it appears that support goes even higher (83% after the MJF ad). It would appear that most people are quite comfortable with this issue and don’t buy the line of reasoning that makes 5-cell clumps in a vat the equivalent of living human beings.

First of all, I'm not the one who claims that embryos (and zygotes, and blastocysts) are human organisms; as I noted previously, embryologists and their textbooks do that (cf. the references provided by Prof. Robert George in the footnotes of this article and by Dianne Irving, M.A., Ph. D. in this article).

Second, j doesn't demonstrate how I've actually committed any relevant logical fallacies; he merely claims that I have. Obviously, that's insufficient and hardly constitutes a valid argument against my position.

There are numerous errors in j's second paragraph. My logic on this is hardly complex: every human organism and only human organisms possess the intrinsic dignity proper to human beings. For a being to possess human dignity, it must be human, and it must be an organism. That's all there is to it. But the things which j thinks follow from my logic simply do not. Oocytes (sperm and egg cells), for instance, are human, but they are not organisms (there is no such living thing as "1/2 of an organism", human or otherwise). And as I've said in a prior post, the issue is not the destruction of "potential human lives", but the destruction of actual human lives, something which occurs in abortion and embryonic stem cell research.

j goes on to make the same argument others have made: the lack of outrage against fertility clinics somehow invalidates the claim that all human organisms have inherent dignity. Again, I've addressed this issue previously.

He also erroneously asserts that someone who holds that all human organisms have inherent dignity must also oppose contraception and masturbation. This does not follow; as already noted, masturbation does not destroy human organisms; nor do contraceptives (except in the case of abortifacients). He is correct, though, that such a position entails the opposition to IVF, at least insofar as IVF commonly results in the destruction of embryonic human beings. If, however, IVF did not have that result, there would be no contradiction in supporting it while supporting the position that all human beings have inherent dignity. (I'm using human being and human organism synonymously.)

Finally, j points to polling data which supposedly demonstrates broad public support for embryonic stem cell research and for its federal funding. Polls, though, are tricky things... it all depends on how the questions are phrased. For instance, if I didn't know that what exactly ESCR entails, and someone said to me, "many scientists believe that ESCR holds great potential for curing dozens of painful and grave illnesses; would you support federal funding for ESCR?", of course I'd support it. But if I was told the ESCR requires the destruction of human embryos, I'd oppose it, and according to a 2004 poll, more Americans oppose ESCR than support it when they're told such. But even if that were the case, would that prove that embryos do not have inherent dignity? I think our nation's history -- and indeed the history of humankind in general -- demonstrates that dignity is not dependent upon what people -- even most people -- think.
Reply to demimondian

demimondian commented:

    A human fetus—much less a human embryo—is, in fact, not an organism. Wiki has a nice suymmary of the definition:

    In biology and ecology, an organism (in Greek organon = instrument) is a living complex adaptive system of organs that influence each other in such a way that they function in some way as a stable whole.

    An organism is in a non-equilibrium thermodynamic state, maintaining a homeostatic internal environment, and a continuous input of energy is required to maintain this state.

    The key word is “stable”—neither an embryo, or a human fetus before a certain stage of development, is capable of functioning as a stable whole. The “mother + zygote” pair is an organism, but the zygote itself is emphatically not.

    Your core hypothesis is, therefore, not true. That doesn’t invalidate your conclusion, but it does rubbish your argument.

This is the easiest to refute: according to embryology -- and what field of science is more relevant? -- the conceptus at every stage is a human organism. Consult the texts cited by Prof. George as found in the previous post.

Apart from that, demimondian errs in stating that the the fetus and embryo are not stable: the human being at both stages is an integrated, self-directed entity. Can it survive outside a particular environment, in which it finds sustinance? Of course not, but neither can any organism. I think he's misunderstanding the contextual meaning of stability.
Reply to Punchy

Punchy commented:

    A human fetus—much less a human embryo—is, in fact, not an organism

    Oh boy, here we go. By every biological definition, a embryo/zygote/fetus prior to the gestation period of 6 months (when it could theoretically live on it’s own) is a parasite. Yes, it robs the host of nutrients, it robs the host of oxygen, and it produces toxic waste withing the host. Most importantly, it cannot survive on it’s own—it’s wholly dependant on a host to live. By every biological aspect, it’s a parasite.

Punchy needs to reconsult his biology and parasitology. Biology and parasitology professor Thomas L. Johnson demonstrated some thirty years ago that the embryonic and fetal stages of human development are not parasitic.

End of replies to comments regarding embryonic human life

This post just serves as a bookend to indicate the end of my short series of posts responding to some rejoinders made to my comment at this post on a liberal blog regarding the moral status of the human embryo.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Prairie Rome Companion

Time for a plug for goings-on at work...

As many of you know, I'm the Director of Adult Faith Formation for the Diocese of Sioux Falls (in South Dakota). One of the things I'm working on is developing a regular podcast which will explain Church teaching, give a Catholic perspective on issues of the day, etc. etc. The name of the podcast is that found in the title of this post: Prairie Rome Companion (PRC).

While the formal episodes haven't been produced yet, the feed for the podcast is now active, and does have content. For the last two years or so, the audio of the Sioux Falls Theology on Tap presentations have been available via webstream at our diocesan website (see the second link under the Audio/Video Media heading in the right hand column). Those presentations are now also available via the PRC feed.

So, if you use iTunes or some similar program for podcasting, you can enter the web address for the feed, and it'll give you the available presentations, plus update it when I upload more Theology on Tap presentations, PRC episodes, and other presentations. (I've submitted the podcast to iTunes, so once it's approved, people will be able to find it via the iTunes Podcast Directory.)

If you don't use a program like iTunes but you'd still like to listen to or download the presentations, go to the feed's webpage and click "Play Now" under the presentation you'd like to listen to, or right-click on that "Play Now" link, select "Save As", and chose where you'd like to save the presentation on your computer; you'll then have a copy of the presentation to listen to whenever you'd like. Warning: while the regular PRC episodes will be smaller, the Theology on Tap presentations are almost all at least 50 MBs, so if you have dialup, it'll take a bit to download a presentation.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me (you can use my personal email address: chris.burgwald-at- And I'd appreciate it if fellow bloggers could spread the word.

Update: As those of you who read this post over the weekend know, the name of the podcast as already (but for the last time) changed; St. Blog's wizard of witticisms, Jeff Miller (a/k/a The Curt Jester) proposed the new name, and I could hardly pass it up, especially considering that originally hail from Minnesota (the home of the Prairie Home Companion radio show), as well as the fact that I am a member of Minnesota Public Radio (for the classical music, mind you). So a hearty thanks to Jeff! (Oh, one more note: the feed has not changed.)

Monday, October 16, 2006

Yunus and Usury

Last week Bangladesh economist Muhammed Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for pioneered the idea of "micro-credit" -- giving small loans to help poor people start a business. He shared the prize with the Grameen Bank he created for the purpose. Some 100 million people have been helped by these efforts.

Reaction among conservative commentators has been generally positive... as one Cornerite put it, "I am glad the Grameen Bank won; they have done real work rather than just posturing. And, unlike Jimmy Carter, Muhammad Yunus has empowered democrats rather than dictators." Sounds good to me.

Then I came across this post, which points out that the Yunus' bank give these small loans at a twenty percent interest rate! The blogger notes, "I can't believe we live in an age where we are rewarding a man with a $1.4 million peace prize for usury. If he wants to help the poor give them loans with no interest or maybe up to 5%, but 20%?" and continues, "People can argue his banks have helped millions of people. Fine, that's great, I'm glad there are borrowers in India who can manage small amounts of credit. But it is a slippery slope and when it comes to usury, something the Church has always spoke against, things tend to head downhill fast."

This is compelling to me... how is a 20% interest rate not guilty of the sin of usury?


(HT: C-L-S)