By any objective, scientific standard, the embryo qualifies as a member of the human race. From the moment of conception the embryo is an individual. The zygote is distinct from mother, father, and other living things, having her own unique genetic fingerprint.
The embryo is living, characterized by metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli, and reproduction (fulfilling the standard scientific definition of life).
The embryo is human, carrying DNA with a human genetic signature.
Finally, the embryo is an individual being: a self-contained, self-integrated living entity with her own nature. She has the innate capacity to proceed through the full series of human developmental stages. All that’s needed is proper nurture and environment, the same as you and I.
The embryo, therefore, from the very moment of conception is an individual, living, human being, a bona fide member of the human family. Her cells are not yet individuated (they haven’t developed unique vocations as bone cells, skin cells, etc.). Yet she is still an individual self (though not yet self-aware), and will remain herself for her entire life until death. She will never become a human; she already is one. That’s incontrovertible science.
The crux of the moral puzzle has to do with value: What gives human beings their worth? There are two general possibilities. Either human value is derived from some extrinsic, changeable quality (size, level of development, location, social convention, etc.), or humans are valuable in themselves because of some intrinsic, unchangeable quality that is part of their created nature.
Classically, western civilization has affirmed the latter, a conviction summed up eloquently by our Foundering Fathers as the cornerstone of our human rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
This one moral conviction has been the impulse for every human rights crusade up to the end of the 20th century, from the abolition of slavery in the United States and England, to child labor laws, to the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, to Dr. Martin Luther King’s crusade for civil rights in the ’60s.
Of course, the Founders may have been wrong, but such ideas have consequences. Remove the moral foundation and the moral edifice built upon it topples.
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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