An argument for the personhood of the unborn (Part I)


The continuing debate over embryo stem cell research spurred me to revisit an old article on the subject that I wrote roughly three years ago. The main thrust of my article argued against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but I had to lay some basic scientific and philosophical groundwork to make my point. This post pulls a sizable chunk of my article out by itself, since it can stand alone with very little need for updating or editing.

Most folks have debated the legality, the economic benefit, and the scientific merit of experimenting on human embryos. I'm happy to argue against federal funding on all three grounds, but the issue of what the embryo actually is should concern us the most. Here's my argument in its barest form:

  1. Embryos are people.
  2. People shouldn't be killed for medical research purposes.
  3. Therefore embryos shouldn't be killed for medical research purposes.

Background (admittedly very brief)

In the summer of 2001, the moral implications of embryonic stem cell research (or "ESCR" for brevity) came to the forefront of America's consciousness as President George W. Bush wrestled with the claims advanced by both sides of the debate over possible federal funding of that research. After months of consultation, study, and reflection, the President delivered a speech outlining his intention to permit federally-funded ESCR only on those lines of human embryonic stem cells in existence on or before the date of his speech.1 President Bush's statements illustrate the competing arguments he struggled to reconcile, as excerpted below:

On the first issue, are these embryos human life -- well, one researcher told me he believes this five-day-old cluster of cells is not an embryo, not yet an individual, but a pre-embryo. He argued that it has the potential for life, but it is not a life because it cannot develop on its own. An ethicist dismissed that as a callous attempt at rationalization. Make no mistake, he told me, that cluster of cells is the same way you and I, and all the rest of us, started our lives. One goes with a heavy heart if we use these, he said, because we are dealing with the seeds of the next generation.2

However well-meaning, President Bush's decision to permit limited funding still went too far by lending an air of legitimacy to research founded upon the intentional killing of human beings. Researchers eager to get funding realized their advantage immediately. One of them reacted to the speech with frank pragmatism, saying "[i]n the long run, this number of 60 will be a forgotten relic of the political debate. The important thing is not so much the number 60. It's really that the green light went on for federal funding of this research."3 This scientist understood that President Bush made a critical exception to his prolife principles, exposing himself to politicians' ability to stretch an exception far beyond its original scope. Although President Bush made a mistake in his moral reasoning, his example need not be repeated.

As matters stand, Congress still thinks ESCR is morally wrong, the President agrees but wants to allow it for already dead embryos, NIH researchers think it's acceptable, the courts lie somewhere in between4 (albeit much closer to the NIH's position than to that of Congress), the fifty states have yet to reach a consensus, laws from overseas offer little guidance, and public opinion seems to waver5 ... depending on whose opinion polls and public pronouncements one believes (see my original article for the background information that supports my summary of these groups' positions). Since the fight over statutory law continues, and since case law offers few precedents that favor the reasoning behind the pro-life position (that is, "embryos are people"), it would be wise to consider a purely philosophical and logical solution to the problem.

Thinking it through

If we pick apart the moral confusion surrounding ESCR, we can discover why it is actually very wrong to condone it. We can pierce the moral fog by applying established laws of science, clear principles of logic, and intellectually honest philosophy. We must answer just one question: what is the unborn?

If we can make a compelling argument that the unborn is a human person entitled to the same measure of respect and protection that we accord any newborn infant, then our reasoning proceeds predictably. If we know that intentionally killing an innocent human being is a moral wrong, and if ESCR requires the intentional killing of an innocent human being, we must then conclude that such research is a serious moral wrong. When we examine the only question that matters ("what is the unborn?"), we find that the unborn are people for three reasons.

First, human parents only produce human offspring, which means the unborn are members of the human community. Second, the four differences, discussed in greater detail below, between the unborn and the newborn are morally irrelevant. Third, the unborn are human people because they have a human nature, not because they perform certain functions.

Human offspring are human by definition

We begin with the obvious truth that human parents produce human offspring. The embryo is genetically unique, and possesses the inherent capacity to develop into an adult. It is human from conception, although immature (just as a newborn baby is immature). The unborn, therefore, is not a potential human but a human with great potential.6 Living things do not change from one kind of being into another over time. They only change their form. What they are stays the same.7

The Law of Biogenesis, established unequivocally over a century ago by Louis Pasteur, states that each living thing reproduces after its own kind.8 Logically building our reasoning on this objective truth, we must conclude that human parents can only produce human offspring. To reject this scientific law and deny the humanity of the unborn, a supporter of ESCR must clear two hurdles. First, he must explain what the unborn entity actually is if it is not human, and second, he must explain how two human beings can violate the Law of Biogenesis by mating to create a being that begins as a non-human but later becomes one. Until someone refutes the Law of Biogenesis, science forces us to admit that human embryos are human beings.

Continued in Part II ...



1) Press Release, President George W. Bush, Remarks by the President on Stem Cell Research (Aug. 9, 2001).

2) Id.

3) Ceci Connolly et al. "Viability of Stem Cell Plan Doubted: Bush Policy Could Limit Research, Scientists Say", Washington Post, Aug. 20, 2001.

4) As you're probably aware, the American legal system's persistent confusion on the personhood of the unborn, despite nearly three decades of U.S. Supreme Court pronouncements categorically refusing to recognize that status, suggests that legal precedents alone will not end this debate. In Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun clearly understood the implications of recognizing the personhood of the unborn. He wrote in the majority opinion: "If [Texas Attorney General Wade's] suggestion of personhood is established, [Jane Roe's] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment." Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 133, 156-57 (1973).

5) The same moral fog blinds us as well. For example, actor Michael J. Fox wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times, focusing on points like the following: "Stem cell work uses ... embryos produced during in vitro fertilization, a process that creates many more fertilized eggs than are implanted in the wombs of women trying to become pregnant. ... Most of these microscopic clumps of cells are destined to be destroyed-ending any potential for life." Michael J. Fox, "A Crucial Election for Medical Research", N.Y. Times, Nov. 1, 2000. Fox misunderstands the issue. If embryos are people, then destroying them through medical research in an effort to extract some benefit from their impending doom is no more permissible than conducting harmful experiments on death row prisoners and then excusing the crime by saying "well, they're going to die anyway."

6) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, p. 94 (1993).

7) Gregory Koukl, Precious Unborn Human Persons, p. 21 (1999).

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