Monday, May 30, 2005

Are embryos persons?

I've double-posted this to Fake Barn Country. I've been blogging about stem cell research recently, and last week I expressed some sort of standard derision at the idea that leftover embryos from IVF have the moral significance of persons. I pointed out that President Bush & co. do not seem to have a problem with the widespread destruction of leftover embryos, so it's inconsistent of them to oppose research on them instead. An anonymous internet-user asked the following in the comments thread:
Can someone explain to me why, exactly, it is so obviously absurd to grant human rights to a human embryo? I've had people explain this by means of reiteration, as though mantric repetition would prove persuasive, but it hasn't. I don't hold that view, but I'm at a loss for any really good reason why I can reject it. President Bush's inconsistency on this is, quite frankly, irrelevant. We don't oppose him when we agree with him simply because he's inconsistent; we oppose him because we disagree with him. So, leaving ad hominem arguments and mantric repetition behind, can someone explain to me why, exactly, an embryo is so obviously not a candidate for moral consideration?
I think that this is a very important question, and deserves more exposure than it'd be likely to get deep down in a comments thread on my blogspot blog, so I thought I'd bring it up as a new post. Admittedly, I haven't yet thought this one through as rigorously as I might like. So, following are a few considerations I think are relevant. I'd like to see discussion of these, and more considerations on both sides as well.
  • The most important argument for me against the personhood of embryos relies on a burdon of proof sort of move: why should we think they're persons? And no response to that question seems compelling. Every instance I've encountered of an argument from "potential to become a person" seems to be very metaphysically confused. And I really haven't seen many other arguments.
  • Embryos are not sentient. They have no experiences, and there's "nothing that it is like" to be an embryo. One can make arguments to this effect, if need be, but for now I'll assume that we agree about this claim.
  • Destroying an embryo hurts no one. This is formally question-begging, but it seems to me at least to be obviously true.
  • Here's an attempt to turn my ad hominem argument into an argument on the merits of the view: President Bush & co. are not morally concerned about the widespread practice of fertilizing many more eggs than a given couple needs, and destroying leftover embryos, and they're right not to be concerned about this morally innocent practice. If embryos were persons, they would not be right about the acceptability of this practice. Therefore, embryos are not persons.
I'm feeling a little tentative about all of this, so I'd like more thoughts from others.


  1. I don't think your sociological assumption is correct. In my experience, pro-life people who think it's wrong to kill embryos who have considered the issue of creating them do in fact oppose creating any more embryos than will be used. A great deal of them have never thought about the issue, of course, just as a great many pro-choice people have never thought about how to reconcile pro-choice attitudes about fetal non-personhood with a common enough absolutism against causing harm to creatures much less neurologically developed than a mid-second trimester fetus. Those who oppose all violence to any living creature but think abortion is ok will also have similar inconsistencies unless they spend a great deal of time making their views consistent. My sense is that those who encounter this sort of argument will either spend time working out the inconsistency (or asking someone they believe to be smart who can answer the question) or change their mind about one of the views. In the case at hand, pro-life people tend to abandon the idea that it's ok to make lots of lots of embryos to try to conceive one child.

  2. Also, I don't think you can read Bush's views off what he seeks to enact as policy. He said a number of times even before he was president that he thinks abortion should eventually be made illegal, but he didn't think we could just do that. The American people need to come to that on their own. He's willing to pursue measures that he thinks have widespread enough support, like the partial-birth abortion stuff and nominating judges who are more conservative.

    He considers the stem cell issue a tough one, judging by his comments on his initial funding decision. He doesn't see enough support to ban it entirely, but he does see enough not to fund it except for already-dead embryos. That's not the case with this new proposal, since they're not dead but just being treated as if they are because no one wants them.

    So I don't really see any inconsistency on his part.

  3. Hi Jonathan
    I'd first like to say we should drop the use of the word 'persons' in this technical sense we are using it here and instead say something like "has moral status" or is "morally considerable" or (my favorite) is a "moral patient".

    Persons typically biases the issue against foetuses, animals and of course embryos, since it is patently obvious in usual sense of the word persons that these things don't qualify and this puts us off counting them even in the technical sense you are using "persons" to represent.

    Now pedantic qualms about the usage of words aside ;) I have been wrestling with this myself recently.
    I think the correct response is precisely the appeal you make here:
    "Embryos are not sentient. They have no experiences, and there's "nothing that it is like" to be an embryo."
    In effect what you are pointing out is that whatever makes us morally considerable an embryo doesn't have.

    There seem to be four stock responses to this:
    1. Humanity.
    Some argue that what makes us morally considerable is simply being human. Since embyros are human they have moral status.
    2. Potentiality.
    Some argue that potentiality to have the characteristics of moral considerability makes you morally considerable.
    3. Membership of a group which typically has.
    Some argue that even if you don't have a characteristic as long as you are a member of a group that generally has that characteristic you still ought to matter morally.
    4. Ensoulment.
    Some argue that having a soul gives you moral status...

    So to claim that Embryos don't have moral status you will need to establish what or which characteristics give moral standing, show that Embryos don't have these characteristics and show that none of the characteristics that Embryos do have confer moral status.

    Sounds like a PhD topic to me...

  4. Also one must consider the sense of the soul. when does a soul enter the body (if one belives in souls). As a cell biologist I would say that the assumption that the soul enters the body at the moment of conception begs the question of twins, they often occur at the 2nd and 4th cell divisions, do they share a soul. Not to mention the morality of saving lives, these embryos could be used to create many native horomal extracts that could treat many diseases. Is it moral to allow the embryos to sit in a freezer when they could be used to treat disease, which is the more pressing moral matter?

  5. That's interesting, Jeremy -- I have to confess, I don't know many conservatives, and I don't know many pro-life people. I wish I knew more. But yeah, if they're opposing IVF, too, then they could easily be consistent.

    As for your interpretation of the President's policy, that is certainly a much more charitable interpretation. If that's what he's up to -- "let's stop this evil practice as much as the American people will tolerate" -- then he doesn't have to be the callous monster I was thinking of. Still, I'd expect a person in his position to be able to take some big steps trying to lead and convince the American of his view, and remind them of the great evil that is being committed by Americans so very often. It seems morally weak of him to be so complacent about going along with the American mainstream, if his moral beliefs are as you suggest they are.

    Ryan, if you think that souls are doing the relevant work, then I think that there's some burdon to explain why we should think that embryos have souls.

  6. Long thread about this at
    Nothing really helpful, though.

    For my part, I approach this issue as a balance issue, much as I do with abortion. Embryos deserve consideration, but that has to be balanced against the consideration due to currently-living, possibly-suffering adult humans.

  7. I am of the oppinion that a 256 cell mass composed of only two cell types does not qualify as a person.

    However, for those who do, why don't we ponder it this way:

    The embryos in question are destined for destruction. If they are not used for research they will either just dry up in a petri dish or be autoclaved. They will not ever be implanted.

    So this is more of akin to the organ donor question. This cell mass is going to be destroyed. It can either contribute to greater purpose, or be incinerated. If the gamete donors that created the embryo wish that it be used for research then it should be legal to do so.

  8. Embryos are little more than a blob of cells. However, you too are little more than a blob of cells.

    First, let me make the point that embryos that are frozen will never be implanted in women and will never be given the opportunity to develop into people. Therefore, as long as the research done on these cells is morally OK (ha, another great question, what's morally OK?), it's reasonable research. Do realize that stem cells are available from other sources, and are in fact just as good as embryonic stem cells (which I didn't believe until I went to a lecture by a prof in England doing that research- it's legit- she's regrowing damaged lung and heart tissue with non-embryonic stem cells in patints with heart attack and cancer).

    Now to consider embryos in the womb, which you may or may not have a completely different stance on:

    As far as being sentient, we individually also can't really remember what it was like when we first developed a spinal cord and brian either. Or when we were born. We can be told about it, but (fortunately!) none of us remembers coming out of the birth canal. However, I can't figure out what exactly you want to mean by sentient. Even babies are unaware of themselves (thus the curiousity when discovering their hands and feet). They have nerves, a brain, and vague awareness. They sense things- smells, sounds, light, physical stimuli... but they don't have emotions. They have instincts. But then, so do cells, as intstincts are really just usual responses to stimuli.

    My problem is that I can't justify any reason that they're NOT a human at the time of conception. We were all embryos once. We're all just grown up embryos. Why is creating many embryos "morally innocent?" Destroying an embryo hurts the cells that would have otherwise become a person. Likewise, destroying you hurts the cells that already are a great person.

    Hm. Just made the potential argument again.

    My point, then, is that on a cellular level, NOTHING is different. It's the same cellular machinery. What then makes us different from embryos? the developed ability to think, be self aware, make decisions, use logic... developed. But it takes time for us to develop these things. And ultimately, it's just our cells learning how to respond to new stimuli. Which is the same thing that embryonic cells do anyway.

    As far as generating far more embryos than necessary, that *is* wrong if one subscribes to the idea that a human is formed at conception. Bush is an idiot. But we knew that.

    That's my 2 cents.