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Subscribe to our newsletter. For reset password, Enter your registered email address and Get Link in your inbox. Login Sign Up. It then reflects upon the ways in which human embryos are similar and different from live-born human individuals, the moral significance of those similarities and differences, and therefore whether embryos should or should not be afforded protections.

The first and most common recourse in seeking an answer to such questions has been human biology, and particularly human embryology.

Abortion : politics, morality, and the Constitution : a

While we examine these differing contentions, it is crucial to remember—as several commentators in recent years have noted—that the biological findings, however relevant, are not themselves necessarily decisive morally. They may serve better to challenge moral positions founded on erroneous assumptions than to ground some positive moral affirmation or conclusion. For example, a recognition of biological continuity might in some measure undermine the argument that embryo destruction is permissible when certain biological markers or states of development are absent.

But it would not by itself show indisputably that embryos are to be treated as simply inviolable. Meanwhile, recognizing the biological significance of some particular point, marker, characteristic, or capacity would not, in itself, imply some decisive moral significance. A description of early embryonic development is necessary though not sufficient to an understanding of the nature and worth of an early embryo. It is not sufficient because any purely biological description requires some interpretation of its anthropological and moral significance before it can function as a guide to action.

With these provisions in mind, we offer the following brief review of developments in the debate over the moral standing of human embryos in the past several years. Many participants in the debate take the question of the biological continuity or discontinuity between nascent and later human life to be crucially significant. Some argue that the fundamental organismal continuity from the moment of fertilization until natural death means that no lines can be drawn between embryos and adults.

Others argue, on the contrary, that some particular point of discontinuity or the sum of several such points marks a morally significant distinction between stages, which difference should guide our treatment of human embryos. Many of those who seek to defend human embryos base their case on some form of the argument for biological continuity and sameness through time.

For example, they argue that a human embryo is an organic whole, a living member of the human species in the earliest stage of natural development, and that, given the appropriate environment, it will, by self-directed integral organic functioning, develop progressively to the next more mature stage and become first a human fetus and then a human infant. Every adult human being around us, they argue, is the same individual who, at an earlier stage of life, was a human embryo.

Creation and Abortion : An Essay in Moral and Legal Philosophy

We all were then, as we still are now, distinct and complete human organisms, not mere parts of other organisms. This view holds that only the very beginning of a new embryonic life can serve as a reasonable boundary line in according moral worth to a human organism, because it is the moment marked out by nature for the first visible appearance in the world of a new individual. Before fertilization, no new individual exists. After it, sperm and egg cells are gone—subsumed and transformed into a new, third entity capable of its own internally self-directed development. By itself, no sperm or egg has the potential to become an adult, but zygotes by their very nature do.

Many authors therefore regard the activation of the oocyte by the penetration of the sperm or the completion of syngamy the combining of paternally- and maternally-contributed haploid pro-nuclei to result in a unique diploid nucleus of a developing zygote as a meaningful marker of the beginning of a new human life worthy of protection. After this point, there is a new genome, in a new individual organism, and there is a zygote single-celled embryo already beginning its first cleavage and embarking on its continuous developmental path toward birth.

All further stages and events in embryological development, they argue, are discrete labels applied to an organism that is persistently itself even as it continuously changes in its dimensions, scope, degree of differentiation, and so on. We can learn names for the various stages as if they were static and discrete, but the living and developing embryo is continuously dynamic.

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More to the point, in the view of these commentators no discrete point in time or development would seem to give any justification for assuming that the embryo in question was one thing at one point and then suddenly became something different turning, for example, from non-human to human or from non-person to person. Some critics of this position argue that it makes too much of mere genetic identity and uncertain potential or that it does not make enough of present condition and the significance of development itself. There is more to being human, some observers argue, than possessing a human genome or spontaneous cell division, and it matters that the early human embryo is but a ball of cells, without sentience or sensation and without human form.

It matters, too, they argue, that an ex vivo [i. Indeed, some argue that a human embryo in its earliest stages is essentially no different from any human tissue culture in the laboratory, or that, because the ex vivo embryo cannot develop if left to itself, it cannot be thought of as truly continuous with more developed human organisms. It may be, in the description of one observer, not much different from a pile of building materials stored in a warehouse. Nonetheless, advocates of the argument from continuity suggest that it is dangerous to begin to assign moral worth on the basis of the presence or absence of particular capacities and features , and that instead we must recognize each member of our species from his or her earliest days as a human being deserving of dignified treatment.

They contend that a human embryo already has the biological potential needed to enable the exercise, at a later stage of development, of certain functions. Sentience and sensation come in later in the process of development, but their seeds are there right from the beginning. And the fact that an embryo cannot develop outside the body is not an argument for leaving it outside the body. There is, they argue, no clear place to draw a line after the earliest formation of the organism, and so there can be no stark division between the moral standing of nascent human life and that of more mature individuals.

Many other observers, however, argue that some biologically and morally significant discontinuities do in fact present themselves in the course of early human development. These arguments generally do not simply hinge on biological descriptions—which are, in the absence of analysis, largely devoid of obvious moral significance—but instead begin from some implicit or explicit claim regarding the importance of a particular feature, capacity, form, or function or the progressive accumulation of these in defining a developing organism as meaningfully a member of the human race. Not simply grounded in biology, they appeal also to a moral or even metaphysical claim about the meaning of humanity.

They suggest that the developing human organism might become at once or progressively deserving of protection as it becomes able to feel pain, or to exhibit neural activity, or rudimentary features of consciousness, or some elements of the human form, or the capacity to function independently—or as it progressively exhibits more and more of these or other criteria.

Until that time, many argue, a developing human deserves some respect because of what it might become, but not protection on par or nearly so with that afforded to fully human subjects. They suggest that genetic identity and organismic continuity are not sufficient; what matters is present form and function, more than mere potential.

Several particular putative discontinuities and combinations of them have been proposed as candidates for the division between early stages, when a human embryo may be disaggregated for research, and later stages, when it deserves some greater level of protection. The primitive streak generally appears around the 14th day after first cell division.


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It is taken to indicate the anterior-posterior axis of an embryo in vertebrates , although recent studies suggest that polarity may be established much earlier, and in fact may be indicated by the point at which the sperm enters the egg. A principal reason for the importance placed on the primitive streak has to do with the biology of twinning.

Prior to the appearance of the primitive streak, an embryo may rarely, and for unknown reasons divide completely to form identical twins. Some conclude that individuality must not yet be established, since the embryo might yet become two embryos. Since individuality is essential to human personhood and capacity for moral status, since individuality presumes a definitive single individual, and since the singularity of the embryo is not irrevocably settled prior to the appearance of the primitive streak, they argue that the entity prior to the primitive streak stage lacks definitive individuality and hence also moral status.


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  4. Critics of this line of reasoning point to the low statistical probability of monozygotic twinning: one in live births. Critics also point to evidence that twinning results, not from an intrinsic drive within the embryo, but from a disruption of the fragile cell dynamics of embryogenesis. Nonetheless, for this reason, and for others discussed below having to do with the formation of the nervous system, the primitive streak has often been taken to be a highly significant marker of embryological development, and many commentators suggest it as a reasonable candidate for a meaningful point of discontinuity.

    For this reason, many supporters of embryo research regularly propose the 14th day of development as a logical stopping point for permissible embryo research. Proponents of this view hold that before an embryo has developed the capacity for feeling pain or, in some forms of the argument, before sentience , we cross no crucial moral boundary in subjecting it to destructive research.

    For some, this is taken to mean that the primitive streak, as the first marker of a future nervous system, is a crucial feature of developing life.

    Abortion, Intimacy, and the Duty to Gestate

    For others, only later points of neural development where pain might plausibly be experienced are held to be decisive. Critics meanwhile contend that neural development as well as development of other systems such as the cardio-vascular system are the natural outcome of the genetic program in action, and should be explained by reference to the previous stage and as leading to the subsequent stage, rather than marking a significant discontinuity.

    They maintain that the human being is, from the start, an inseparable psycho-physical unity, rather than a pure rationality or consciousness that exists with no meaningful ties to our bodies. From a scientific perspective, such critics hold, there is no meaningful moment when one can definitively designate the biological origins of a human characteristic such as consciousness, because our mind works in and through our body, and the roots of consciousness lie deep in our development.

    The earliest stages of human development serve as the indispensable and enduring foundations for the powers of freedom and self-awareness that reach their fullest expression in the adult form. Some of those who believe that neural development is crucial, however, argue that the fact of non-sentience and of an inability to experience pain possess great moral significance, quite apart from the question of probable potential.

    Some critics of this view argue that humans have different external forms or shapes throughout their lives, and that an organism, particularly in its early stages, should not be judged by its external shape, but rather by its biological constitution, and especially its genetic identity. But adherents of the argument that human form matters contend that genetic identity cannot simply be decisive of moral worth.

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    These various particular cases for discontinuity and these are not the only ones that have been propounded over the years are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, many of them point to more than one particular element of early human development as finally decisive of moral standing. But they share the belief that moral status accrues only at some later stage of the developing human organism.

    Their claim, in the broadest terms, is that in its earliest stages a human embryo is not yet simply a human being or a human person, and that it need not be treated as though it were. In practice, adherents of this view tend to accept the use of early human embryos in medically valuable research under some circumstances, but they seek to apply some scrutiny to the reasons for which embryos will be used, the circumstances under which those embryos are obtained, and other relevant factors.

    The special respect position has been held by its advocates to be consistent with a range of possible particular policies on embryo research, including fairly restrictive ones, and indeed could be held consistent even with an outright restriction on the destruction of human embryos. There may be increasing moral obligations and natural sentiments associated with a deepening relationality that extend moral duty without in any way implicitly eroding an imperative of protection at earlier stages of developing life.

    Most of those who have articulated the special respect position in the public debate have, however, tended to then argue that some research on embryos should be permitted within certain boundaries, even if they have not always agreed on the permissible extent or the appropriate boundaries. Instead, or in addition, they rely upon questions of embryo viability and potential, and they are aimed at exploring unique circumstances to address and perhaps resolve questions of the moral standing of certain particular human embryos.

    Creation and Abortion: A Study in Moral and Legal Philosophy

    Much of the debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research has focused on the use of cryogenically preserved IVF embryos, left over from assisted reproduction procedures and stored, perhaps indefinitely, in the freezers of IVF clinics. One recent study suggests there are hundreds of thousands of such embryos in the United States alone, though only a very small percentage of them less than 3 percent, approximately 3, or more has ever been donated for research. Although all were produced with reproductive intent and were stored for further reproductive efforts should the first attempt fail, most of these frozen embryos may never be claimed by the original egg and sperm donors for use in assisted reproduction procedures.