Here’s the problem. If humans are valuable because of some transcendent quality, then human value is intrinsic. It exists regardless of any physical or functional changes—size, location, abilities, etc. Conversely, if any physical or functional change affects human value, then that value can only be extrinsic, dependent on external factors. Human value becomes conditional. The danger is, when value is functionally defined, there is no basis for inalienable human rights. Whatever can be functionally defined, can be functionally defined away.
“Personhood” and Value
To say that an embryo is human but not a human being is shorthand for saying the embryo is property, not a person, and therefore has no privileged status. But what is the relevant moral difference between human beings and human persons? If the standard is sound that has always grounded human rights—transcendent human value—then this is a false move.
If humans beings are intrinsically valuable because of something innate—something non-physical —then their physical status has no bearing on their membership in the human family. Humans are valuable simply in virtue of their shared humanity. They do not become valuable only if they satisfy some additional “personhood” requirement.
It turns out that personhood language is a ruse. As a rule, it has merely been legal terminology used to exclude certain human beings from protection under law. Historically, this subterfuge has consistently disenfranchised the weak and vulnerable: Black slaves in the Dred Scott decision of 1857, defective children and the elderly under the Third Reich, the unborn since Roe v. Wade in 1973, and now ESCR on the threshold of the brave new world of the 21st Century.
The Horns of a Dilemma
These facts place both groups supporting ESCR—pro-lifers and pro-choicers—on the horns of a painful dilemma. For the pro-life crowd, every reason offered for affirming the sanctity of human life at later stages of development applies to human life at the earliest stages. The same continuity of moral logic decides both questions.
Similarly, pro-choicers can only succeed in their task by denying intrinsic human worth, valuing only those humans they deem to have the right size, to be in the right location, or to have the “proper” functional capabilities. But this undercuts all the human rights campaigns they hold so dear. The objection of some to creating embryos for the purpose of ESCR (as opposed to limiting research to IVF discards) is equally confusing. Why not create embryos for research if they have no intrinsic value anyway?
Further, some proponents of ESCR have distinguished between therapeutic cloning (cloning done for research), and reproductive cloning (that done to eventually produce a human baby). They affirm the first, but oppose the second, (for the moment). But what moral argument distinguishes the two that still keeps any commitment to inalienable human rights intact?
To be continued…
Gregory Koukl is founder and president of Stand to Reason, an organization devoted to a thoughtful and engaging defense of classical Christianity in the public square. He is also a radio talk show host and author of Relativism—Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air.
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