The Stem Cell Challenge (RJS)

We began a couple of weeks ago to look at Kevin Corcoran’s book Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul where he develops a constitution view of human persons. The fourth chapter of the book deals with moral, ethical, and theological ramifications of metaphysical views of persons. There is much worth discussion – but I will concentrate on only one or two points – related to stem cell research. This is not central to Corcoran’s book or constitution view of persons, but is relevant to our society today, and to the discussion of the Manhattan Declaration last week.

Is stem cell research wrong? If so when and why?

I will admit to being agnostic on this issue – not because I’ve thought about it and come to the conclusion that it is not possible to conclude, but because I haven’t thought about it much and because I have never yet heard a convincing reason as to why it is unquestionably wrong (which seems to be the gut response). I’ve been planning to post on this issue, and Corcoran’s book provides an interesting initial foray into the topic.

Abortion is, in my opinion, clear cut – intentional destruction of a developing fetus is wrong. Except – well it is always a problem, but when the life of the mother is at risk the question changes. Both lives are of value, and I won’t pass judgment – this is an issue for each individual in a given circumstance to decide. I also won’t pass judgment if the fetus is so defective that life is not viable. But usually the question is one of convenience or money or timing or … and then abortion is the wrong choice.

Stem cell research is another question altogether.

Kevin Corcoran is a philosopher – and his interest is in the metaphysics of persons, but to get to the meat on this issue we must first consider the science. He gives a nice sketch.  I am not a biologist either – so I hope that those with more expertise will correct anything I (or he) gets wrong here given our best attempt to get the facts straight.

The big question is when does the change from molecules and cells to human happen? Some claim at fertilization – but that is debatable. For stages through blastocyst shown in the figure above the possibility of twinning occurs. This mass of cells can become multiple individuals. In the morula stage each cell contains the potential to become not only an individual, but more than one individual. I don’t think that this potential constitutes a person (feel free to argue).

Gastrulation, morphogenesis or development of body form begins at the third week, followed in weeks four through eight by the organogetic period where there is differentiation and formation of specific organs. At this point we have an individual. Corcoran reflects on this:

So, exactly when does a human organism come into existence? The best I think we can do is point to an interval of time and not to a specific instant. Again, it seems at least that a human organism does not come into existence before the gastrulation stage (thirteen days after fertilization) or after the early organogenetic period (twenty-six days after fertilization). Rather, sometime between the thirteenth and twenty-fifth day after fertilization of the oocyte, the cells composing what biologists call the embryo are caught up in a stable well-individuated, self-directing, and homeodynamic event (a life) and so compose an individual human organism. (p. 102)

Does this mean that anything goes in the earlier stages? The absence of a human before this period doesn’t mean that we are free to do anything – Corcoran makes this point, and I agree. But it does mean that the issue is different than in abortion. We are discussing potential, not actual human persons or human animals (Corcoran would say personhood comes later still).

If one holds that in vitro fertilization is wrong – always, then the issue of where to go with this discussion will never come up. A human will exist before any decision is made. The moral error is in messing with the process in the first place.

Reproductive technologies, especially in vitro fertilization, raise the question to a new level. I don’t have space here to work through all of the various scenarios and arguments. I intend to come back to more of them in the future. Lets just look at a few points.

First – we argue from potential. Arguments from potential are not easy to defend. Certainly the potential contained in the DNA is not enough. Humans are more than information and identical twins are distinct individuals. Separated cells in early stages can develop into separate individuals. Does this mean that there is the same obligation to one stem cell  as to the original embryo? And then we get into the issue of contraception … and even marriage. When is potential enough to direct the moral argument?

Second – there are several different questions involved. On the stem cell question Corcoran concludes that producing embryos for research is not morally permissible, using embryos to be discarded may be morally permissible, and preimplantation genetic analysis, even for terrible diseases, is morally problematic. The way to cure disease is not to destroy the diseased.

Of course many couples have made a choice to have no children rather than to take the chance of passing on a devastating disease. Is this any different than implanting only unaffected embryos in an IVF process? Both decisions cure disease by avoiding bringing the diseased into existence.

Third – metaphysics doesn’t provide the answers. With respect to stem cell research, the arguments are not grounded in the existence of a human individual, a human person, or a human animal. These conclusions are no different or need be no different if one takes a materialist view, such as Corcoran’s constitution view, or a dualist view. Metaphysics of humans persons is not enough to provide a definitive answer.

Fourth – there is great potential in stem cell research for the treatment of disease. We should  note that those (or the vast majority of those) involved in stem cell research are trying to cure disease and develop ways to understand and cure disease. Healing is a kingdom activity. We can disagree with the method and we must discuss moral and ethical ramifications – but it won’t do to vilify those who argue opposing views. Nor does it make any sense to shout them down without hearing them out.

Well I am sure that at least some of you have thought about this much more carefully than I have. Lets start a discussion.

What do you think?

Is IVF wrong?

Is stem cell research morally permissible? If so when and why?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

  • Rick

    “Is stem cell research wrong? If so when and why?”
    Having both parents suffering from Parkinson’s, this has been a tough issue for me (from my anti-abortion position). This also has caused tension with other family members who do not hold to that same position.
    Last week Dr. Collins (HHS, Biologos, Genome Project, etc…) was interviewed on CNN’s Campbell Brown show about this issue (including his faith). I don’t know if I agree with all he said, but here is the transcript.

  • dopderbeck

    Great post! I’m glad there is courage to tackle this very difficult issue here.
    In answer to the question re: IVF: this is a hard thing to say, particularly because my wife and I never had fertility problems, but I think it is wrong as currently practiced. The industry is frighteningly unregulated and already engages in some forms of eugenics. Most embryos that are created through the process are discarded or frozen. There are millions of children around the world who are orphaned, unwanted, abandoned, abused, starving, etc. What if we devoted the resources that currently go to IVF towards adoption and care of these orphans?
    On the ESCR question, let me note a few things:
    – The potentiality argument, I think, is more robust than you’re making out here. There is a clear distinction between a fertilized egg and an individual sperm or egg cell in terms of potential. No amount of time will change an individual sperm or egg cell into a fully developed human person — that potential doesn’t exist in the sperm or egg cell alone. A new potential is created when sperm and egg fuse.
    – The potentiality argument doesn’t stand alone, but must be considered together with the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle suggests that, where an action would cause great harm in the event that some uncertain outcome turns out to be true, we should refrain from that action. Thus, if a fertilized egg has an uncertain potential to develop into fully realized human being, and the harm in extinguishing that potential is great, we should not extinguish that potential even though it is possible that the fertilized egg may not ultimately develop into a fully realized human being.
    – I think you’re dismissing metaphysics too quickly. Certainly the Roman Catholic view is grounded in part on a “creationist” view of the soul — “creationist” here meaning that each human soul is created at the moment the egg is fertilized. (Some will note that Aquinas and other ancient Catholic theologians believed the soul wasn’t created until the fetus “quickened”; that is beside the point of the present debate). Other Christians may take a traducianist view of the soul — meaning the soul is inherited from the parents — which raises similar metaphysical questions. Only if you adopt a physicalist view of the “soul” — such as Corcoran’s — can the metaphysical question of the “soul” with regard to ESCR be set aside. But the physicalist view, it seems to me, simply adopts an a priori metaphysical posture, which doesn’t really address the question of metaphysics at all.

  • John W Frye

    I like Dopderbeck’s comment about the origin of the soul in classical theology and its bearing on the discussion. If from the moment of conception via the parents (traducianist) or as act of God (creatist), the consequences to the soul must be a serious consideration if we believe the immaterial aspect of a the *human* being. I imagine the response: but if twins do not happen until the blastocyst stage, did God create two souls or the parents pass on two souls? Who knows? So the precautionary principle should be honored. Who wants to, even for admirable medical purposes, vandalize the handiwork of God?

  • Mike Hickerson

    RJS, is there a reason why you’re not distinguishing between embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research? I have never heard anyone voice opposition to *stem cell* research; I have heard lots of opposition to *embryonic* stem cell research.

  • Brad

    I fail to see how the capacity to twin implies that the zygote isn’t a person. A zygote, if it doesn’t twin, will develop into an adult human being. You’ve given absolutely no argument for why you think this isn’t the case. (Perhaps Corcoran does?)
    You quote Corcoran saying that the human organism doesn’t come into existence between the 13th and 25th day? What are his arguments for this? What do we have before this?

  • Paul

    “Some claim at fertilization – but that is debatable. For stages through blastocyst shown in the figure above the possibility of twinning occurs. This mass of cells can become multiple individuals. In the morula stage each cell contains the potential to become not only an individual, but more than one individual. I don’t think that this potential constitutes a person”
    This would lead to me to ask the question, if a blastocyst becomes a twin by random chance or if it is preprogrammed into the blastocyst itself. Or is is possible for us to know the answer to this question as of yet?
    If it is not 100% random chance, then could we not simply argue that the blastocyst is life, and we are waiting to see if it will be 1 or 2 lives…?
    Also, is it possible that if our science were advanced enough to detect the number of lives this blastocyst would become, would that also seem to support that the blastocyst is life?
    I’m just trying to think through the issues. This doesn’t adress the whole post, but it’s something that stuck out to me

  • Ryan

    I am in agreement with Dopderbeck, I think you selling short the argument of potential as you call it RJS.
    The argument is better labeled the development arguement. If the blastocyst at fertilization is not interfered with then given its natural course of development a human progresses. There is no debate as to what is developing and occuring if it is left alone.
    This argument is actually extrememly powerful because we can point to the reality that all humans are in some stage of development, and therefore defining humanness based on where one is in there biological progression is quite dangerous ground.
    And the argument of twinning does nothing to remove this truth because either way we have at least A human.

  • RJS

    So – is IVF wrong, and what should be done with left over embryos?
    Does the argument from potential start with fertilization or before?
    If it were possible (and it currently is not) to take one cell from an embryo and let the remainder develop into a person, would it be wrong to use this cell for research?

  • Joey

    Might you some day do a post focused on contraception? I had a theology professor in college (who had just finished her doctorate at Duke) who would drop side comments pretty regularly about how similar contraception seems to abortion. I’ve heard good arguments going both ways and have no idea what to think.

  • Brad

    I think there is a confusion with the word “potential.” The process of fertilization results in a new, individual human organism. Every bit of scientific evidence we have supports this. Zygotes, morulas, blastocysts, etc. are all stages of development of individual humans organisms. These are not “potential human organisms” but humans organisms with the potential to develop into adults. Their potential lies not in some change in their nature but a change in their stage in development. (In the same way, an infant human organism has the potential to develop in to an adolescent human organism.)
    IVF isn’t inherently wrong. But I would say that the way it is currently practiced – where multiple zygotes are created outside the womb and then implanted knowing that some will die – is wrong.

  • RJS

    I don’t think that it is that simple because each individual cell in the early stage is totipotent or pluripotent with the potential to develop into more than one individual. These are not simply stages in the development of a unique individual.
    In a similar way the sperm and eggs have the potential to develop into a number of individuals or no individual.
    There comes a point in this process though where potential becomes actual. There is one and only one unique individual. Even with twins each is one and only one unique individual. This is where I have no doubt that we’ve crossed a line.

  • Milton Pope

    The Catholic position on twins (if I remember it correctly), is that the blastocyte is imbued with a soul or souls at conception; God knows how many are required. I find myself a little uncomfortable with this — it seems to be retrofitting the philosophy onto the scientific discoveries. I know that approach sometimes gets it right, but how often?

  • Brad

    I guess I don’t see the problem. The fact that a cell in an embryo could potentially become a different individual doesn’t mean that embryo isn’t an actual human organism. You, RJS, at the earliest stages of your development were an embryo. You, RJS, at one time could have twinned because any of your cells could have developed into an distinct individual human organism. A cell isn’t a human organism and I don’t see what is problematic about the fact that it could be come one.

  • RJS

    So Brad,
    If it were possible (and it currently is not) to take one cell from an embryo and let the remainder develop into a person, would it be wrong to use this cell for research?

  • scott eaton

    This is a really fascinating conversation and gives me hope that evangelicals can actually think through these issues with civility.
    I just had one thought to share. Is it possible that the soul of an individual appears some time later in process of embryonic development, perhaps somewhere between the 13-26 day mark or even later? Of course there is no way to know this with certainty, but it does have bearing upon the conversation.
    Many evangelical evolutionists (something I am undecided upon) would believe that the image of God did not appear in human beings until sometime later in the evolutionary development of those human beings. A race of humans existed, but they did not bear the image of God until later. Is it possible that this same pattern occurs as a human embryo evolves in the womb? Just a thought.

  • ChrisB

    “when does a human organism come into existence?”
    I think this is the silliest question possible in this debate. People will define “person” in all kinds of funny ways to keep a fetus from being a person, but a human being is a simple question.
    The embryo has the same genetic code it will have when it is an adult. It is not a cow. It is a human being.
    The fact that this embryo may become two human beings does not make it less than one.
    If it is a human being, then we must treat it the same as we would expect to be treated.
    If we are not sure how we should treat it, then a little post-modern epistemic humility should kick in and say, when it doubt, err to the side of caution.
    Why in heaven’s name are we still arguing about ESCR when all it produces is cancer as opposed to the many treatments that have been created using adult stem cells?

  • ChrisB

    Oh, IVF isn’t wrong. The way we usually do it — with more embryos than we would want — is wrong.

  • Micah

    Great article! It’s worth remembering, though, that not all stem cells are embryonic. There have been pretty amazing advances in turning normal cells into pluripotent cells, which is a far better solution long term (since it doesn’t require each person to have their own cells banked).
    While embryonic cells are useful for pure research, in practice it’s pretty difficult to use one person’s stem cells to treat another person. Besides the compexity of dealing with the stem cells, you’re also doing the equivalent of an organ transplant (since the cells have another person’s DNA).
    So, to review: You’re not talking about stem cells. You’re talking about EMBRYONIC stem cells. That’s not the only kind of stem cells, and probably not the most valuable.
    p.s. IVF… no problem as long as everything that gets fertilized gets put back in.

  • scott eaton

    ChrisB #16,
    With your line of thinking it would seem that you would be opposed to IVF. Is this so?
    I object to the notion that this is a “silly question.” This is the kind of statement that stunts civil discussion.

  • Brad

    “If it were possible (and it currently is not) to take one cell from an embryo and let the remainder develop into a person, would it be wrong to use this cell for research?”
    No. I can see no reason why it would be. It’s just a cell.

  • Your Name

    You write, “We are discussing potential, not actual human persons or human animals (Corcoran would say personhood comes later still).”
    When does Corcoran think personhood begins?
    Is there a difference between a living human fetus and a person? Does biology name the first and philosophy the second?

  • John H

    IVF: The Italians allow up to three eggs to be harvested and all must be fertilized and implanted. No leftover embryos.
    Our world IVF: we have left over embryos that are scheduled to be destroyed because they have reached the end of their effective frozen life. Since we cannot force the couple who created them to let them be implanted, the only real difficult question is whether we should allow these beings bodies to be used for medical research or simply flushed down a toilet.
    ESCR: the science has passed right by the politics. Because they were unable to use embryos to harvest stem cells, they have found a way to create cells indentical (according to the scientists) to embryonic stem cells from skin cells; as well finding ESCs in human placentas after the birth of the child. There is no moral ambiguity in either source. Is it just the need to “win” that keeps folks who want to use ESCs insisting that we should swallow our moral issues? The science no longer calls for it.
    Adult stem cells: The problem you do not mention is that embryonic stem cells when implanted in a body tend to generate tumors – in specific, small clusters of cells that do not differentiate properly to the area they are implanted in. That early totipotency you talk about is a massive source of problem in their use. Adult stem cells are much better for curing disease because they do not have this problem.

  • BradK

    I agree with ChrisB @ #17 that IVF isn’t necessarily wrong but producing too many embryos and destroying extras might be. I’ve been told by friends who wanted to do IVF that some doctors will not perform the procedure without implanting a fairly high number of embryos and then doing reduction. Probably due to risk of not getting any to “take”. But others will allow implanting as few as two or three and won’t do reduction in order to accommodate both their own beliefs as well as those of their patients.
    I will say that I can’t see what harm there is in utilizing stem cells from embryos that will be destroyed anyway. If a human life is being destroyed, it would seem a good thing if it could potentially save another human life. There’s probably nothing that we can do to save many of these existing embryos that are being destroyed.
    I’m not sure that the Bible is entirely clear enough on this issue for us to have all the answers, but my position is that ESCR is okay but that embryos should NOT be produced for the purpose of that research. I also oppose abortion except in special cases like RJS mentioned. That said, I’m not sure that the methods and strategies of the modern pro-life movement will ever accomplish its goals and that the church should probably be looking at strategies that have the potential to both win people over to our position as well as to simply reduce the number of abortions that occur as a practical matter.
    Oh, and I usually post here under the handle Brad but the Brad posting previously in this thread is not me. :-)

  • dopderbeck

    ChrisB: the “DNA” argument isn’t really a good one. Rub your hands together. You’ve sloughed off a multitude of skin cells. Each of those cells carries your genetic code. They are human cells with human DNA, but each cell is not a “human being.” Ergo, while having human DNA might be necessary to make something a “human being,” it isn’t sufficient.
    – An individual sperm or egg cell does not have the same potentiality as a fertilized egg. There is no dynamism to an individual sperm or egg cell. Such individual cells cannot, in any environment, develop into a fully realized human person.
    – The possibility of human cloning from individual cells, IMHO, doesn’t significantly complicate the foregoing analysis. Cloning would not happen spontaneously. Some additional technology would be required to give that individual cell the dynamism necessary to develop into a fully realized human person. Once that technology is added such that the cloning process has produced something capable of a dynamism similar to a fertilized egg, then I would say, yes, there are heightened ethical obligations towards that embryonic construction.
    – RE: what to do with left-over embryos given that the U.S. IVF industry is what it is: I’m not sure. That’s an incredibly thorny question. Again, I argue that the precautionary principle applies and that we should do nothing more damaging than keeping such embryos in stasis — maybe until the eschaton? I’m aware of some groups that advocate for “adopting” frozen embryos, but that strikes me as extreme, particularly given the great adoption needs of orphaned children around the world.

  • Robert Cole M.Div RN BS(eng)

    With all of my scientific, even philosophical background (for a seminary degree is more philosphical than biblical) I am resorting to what the Bible says. I also happen to be an identical twin. The scripture says “I knew you in your mothers womb!” psalm 139:13 says “thou hast covered me in my mothers womb” The process of being in the womb is not complete until the fertilized egg is implanted (covered). This I believe is the critical transition. This is also a powerful physical analogy of being indwelt by the Holy Spirit. It is a sacred moment!

  • ChrisB

    @ Scott #19,
    He has essentially suggested that the embryo is another species (or non-living) — neither is scientifically reasonable. Even the most rabid pro-choicer won’t make such a ridiculous argument. I stand by my “silly.”
    @ dopderbeck #24,
    A skin cell is not a complete organism; an embryo is. As RJS suggested above, if we could harmlessly remove one cell from an embryo it would change the conversation. What we’re talking about here is killing an entire human being.

  • dopderbeck

    ChrisB (#26) — but you’re begging the question: at least prior to implantation, an embryo arguably is not a “complete organism”. It certainly isn’t “complete” — in fact, to the extent it ever becomes “complete,” i.e. ceases adding new functionality, that point probably isn’t reached until well into its 20th year of life. It also arguably isn’t a unitary “organism” either, for all the reasons RJS mentioned in the original post. Pluripotency and the possibility of twinning significantly complicate the “ontology” of a very early stage embryo.
    You’re correct that an embryo has a “complete” genetic code, but the same is true of a sloughed-off skin cell.
    Here’s the way natural law philosopher Robert George has framed the definitional question: “if an organism has all the internal resources, along with an active tendency or disposition, to develop itself to the stage where it performs the functions specific to an organism of a certain kind, requiring only a suitable environment and nutrition for that development, then it is an organism of that kind, at an immature stage of its life cycle.”
    Notice how George’s definition includes three prongs: (a) internal resources; (b) inherent active tendency or disposition; and (c) development towards functions specific to organisms of like kind.
    At the popular level, this careful definition tends to get reduced down to “internal resources” (i.e., DNA) alone, which is insufficient.

  • Brad

    “An individual sperm or egg cell does not have the same potentiality as a fertilized egg”
    There is no such thing as a “fertilized egg.” After the process of fertilization, we no longer have an egg or sperm but something different altogether – a new human organism. This may seem nit-picky, but the language we use can mask what is really happening here.

  • RJS

    No – after fertilization we have a cell that is “totipotent” to (in the right environment) become one or more human organisms.

  • Brad

    That is incorrect. After fertilization, you have a totipotent cell called a zygote and any embryology textbook you look at will tell you that a human zygote is a human organism.

  • Brad

    I shouldn’t say that is incorrect. Just incomplete.

  • Bob Smietana

    A couple thoughts– one is the embryo isn’t just a DNA blue print for making a human being. The embryo is self-organizing organism–the embryo knows how to build a baby from an one cell all the way to full development. That’s why scientists want to study embryos, because they know how to create all the tissues needed to assemble a baby.
    Second, was the embryonic Jesus not a person?

  • dopderbeck

    Brad (##28, 30) — you’re also begging the question. How do you define “human organism”. (I think we probably largely agree at the end of the day, but it’s my “teacher’s” genes — I need to push for analytical clarity)

  • RJS

    We have no clue – I would suggest – how the “impregnation” of Mary occurred. Presumably at least “twinning” was not a possibility for some reason.
    Brad and dopderbeck,
    I rather expect that we will disagree on the definition of human organism – although I am not convinced (yet) that that disagreement will keep us from agreement on the more specific issues here.

  • Brad

    All I did was point out that biology textbooks call the result of fertilization an “organism.” (And, by extension, the result of human fertilization would be a human organism.) That’s not begging the question, thats just me not providing you a definition of human organism.
    But I think wikipedia has a good start to a definition of organism as “any living system” that is “capable of response to stimuli, reproduction, growth and development, and maintenance of homeostasis as a stable whole.” Obviously that’s not a complete definition but I think this definition is fully in line with what biology textbooks would say.
    A “human organism” is then just an organism of the human species.

  • Bob Smietana

    Hi RJS,
    Even with twinning–each twin embryo builds an complete human organism. Obviously there’s assistance/support from the mother, in terms of raw materials and environment, but the embryo still does most of the work. Seems like Corcoran has reduced the embryo to a bluep

  • dopderbeck

    Brad — the biology textbook definition is empty without analytical content behind it. The Wiki definition is interesting in that it requires “homeostasis as a stable whole.” This is the heart of the debate with respect to ESCR: human embryos probably fail this test. A human embryo prior to implantation is in significant ways a dynamic, probabilistic system.
    Bob (#36) — when twinning occurs, it doesn’t build “a” complete organism, it builds “two” different organisms — which complicates whether, prior to twinning, what exists is “a” person. I think nearly everyone agrees that some capacity for individual existence is essential to what makes us “human persons.”
    RJS — what is your definition of a “human organism?”

  • RJS

    At this point I will go with Corcoran’s definition – the one I quoted from p.102 in the post. But this alone does not mean that ESCR is morally permissible.
    I just don’t think the argument fertilization = human = wrong is a good argument.

  • Brad

    “human embryos probably fail this test.”
    Could you give some reasons why you think this is the case? Do you think embryologists are wrong in calling zygotes “organisms?”
    That quote didn’t give a definition of an organism, it just says when Corcoran thinks an organism begins. What does he (or you) mean by “organism?”

  • Brad

    “I just don’t think the argument fertilization = human = wrong is a good argument.”
    I’m curious where you disagree. The argument is, roughly:
    1) The result of human fertilization is a human zygote.
    2) A human zygote is an unicellular, individual, human organism at the earliest stages of life.
    3) It is morally wrong to kill humans organisms.
    4) Therefore it is morally wrong to kill the result of human fertilization (a human zygote).
    1 and 2 are uncontroversial scientific facts. Rarely have I seen these two things contested. Usually, people attack premise 3 (they make a distinction between a human organism and a human person). They say human organisms don’t have rights until they are conscious or capable of rational thought or viable or imago dei or some other trait that humans possess.

  • John Sobert Sylvest

    The following are my major points, which I further explicate here: The Stem Cell Challenge (in response to Jesus Creed thread)
    1) The Catholic Church does not have a position on ensoulment. Rather, the position is that, for all practical purposes, from the moment of conception, human life is to be treated with all the dignity of a human person.
    2) The physicalist conception of the soul does not eliminate metaphysics; it advances yet another metaphysical hypothesis.
    3) Metaphysics, in the end, are neither irrelevant nor unimportant, but they are only one rational appeal among many others and, for manifold reasons, in the public square, generally lack sufficient normative impetus because they are otherwise so descriptively elusive.
    4) Some of the most compelling arguments in the public square can come from nonbelievers, even secularists like Nat Hentoff and Charles Krauthammer.
    5) One can read an excellent consideration of the topic at hand as articulated by Dr. Krauthammer at the following link, which has similar statements by many others on the Bioethics Commission appointed by Bush: Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry – Statement of Dr. Krauthammer

  • Russ

    I guess my question in this is when does humanization of the cells actually occur? If you harvest eggs and fertilize them for in vitro, and they live for a few days and some die-have you committed an abortion? Or does life-soul-personality etc occur when that cell is actually pulling life-nutrition etc from the uterus/mom. Who really knows? Our conjecture on this is only that. Certainly that little organism is a viable soul at some point….maybe only He knows when.

  • dopderbeck

    Brad (#39 and 40) — RJS mentions in the original post the reasons why what you’re doing is question begging. After fertilization and prior to gastrulation, the embryonic cells are undifferentiated. They can produce twins, or they can also divide into multiple zygotes and then recombine into one (though either of these events is relatively rare). They can also become re-absorbed back into the placenta and never develop at all (a significant percentage of conceptions result in spontaneous abortions prior to gastrulation). You have to explain why what exists prior to gastrulation is “a” human organism rather than a set of cells that has the potential to develop into one or more human organisms.
    I don’t know that “embryologists” adopt the definition of “human organism” that you’re advancing. I don’t think so, because technically the “zygote” isn’t an “embryo” until after gastrulation. But if they do, it’s inadequate.
    RJS: Corcoran uses these criteria: “the cells composing what biologists call the embryo are caught up in a stable well-individuated, self-directing, and homeodynamic event (a life) and so compose an individual human organism”
    First, I’d note that many, many bioethicists would still find this too reliant on outdated Aristotelian ideas about teleology. Quite a few would rely on even later neurological developmental landmarks that relate to the development of consciousness.
    Even so, it seems to me that Corcoran’s definition differs from Robert George’s primarily in adding the element of being “stable” and “well-individuated.” I’m a bit confused by his distinction between “stable” and “well-individuated.” I suspect he means the same thing by these terms, since the embryo changes dynamically all throughout pregnancy.
    So, my question is: do we want to put such weight on this criterion of being “well-individuated?” If twinning is relatively rare; and if the precautionary principle has any weight; and if the issue inevitably must involve metaphysical questions about “spirit” or “soul” that are beyond the purview of science; it seems to me the research ought to be restricted.
    I’d also need to fold in here some ethical considerations about the actual promise and results of the research and the possibility that it is not necessarily an unmitigated evil — and it may in some senses be a good — for people to learn to live with some degree of suffering in this life even if it could be remedied to some extent by the research. I.e., I think a fully “Christian” ethic here must account for the fact that this life is in many ways a preparation for the resurrection life. In light of the eschaton, even solutions that promise great immediate good sometimes have to be eschewed because of the violence they involve along the way.

  • RJS

    dopderbeck (#43) gave a good summary. I am not trying to argue that ESCR should be allowed, and I am certainly not arguing that it should be unrestricted. I am trying to set some boundaries for how many think about the problem as I also think about it.
    I do not think that research on egg cells or sperm is wrong, or any more wrong than any other kind of research on human cells and organs.
    I do think that when we have an implanted individual in the womb abortion and/or “research” is wrong.
    I do think that fertilization makes a difference, but I don’t think that fertilization = human.
    I need to think about the rest of your comment.

  • Brad

    I asked RJS for clarification for what exactly her argument was regarding twinning. Twinning occurs, therefore … what? She never answered. What, exactly, is problematic about twinning? What is it about twinning makes a embryo not an organism? It seems to me that when twinning occurs, we have a couple options. 1) The first dies and 2 embryos take its place or 2) the first remains alive while a new embryo develops from the firsts’ cells. Either way, I’m not clear on how we get from that to the embryo not being an organism.
    As far as re-absorption into the placenta, I also don’t see what the argument here is. This just means the embryo dies. How is THAT an argument against what I’m saying.
    I never gave a textbook definition of organism, I just didn’t think what I quoted from wikipedia was inconsistent with what textbooks say. Perhaps it is. But my bet would be on wikipedia being inadequate, not the textbooks.

  • John W Frye

    I still think the question in light of the original post is: how do we answer Corcoran saying that the human organism doesn’t come into existence until between the 13th and 25th day? On what biological/philosophical/theological grounds is this statement made?

  • RJS

    You assert that you are right – and offer arguments that twinning results in the death of one life and the creation of two new ones?
    All I am saying is that as I see it there is a period where we have potential for one life, more than one life, or no life. A human is not a single cell organism. It can still be immoral to mess with it.
    Consider a thought experiment – suppose we have two cells from the original zygote and take one and let the other develop – instead of causing them to twin. Have we killed one life by so doing?

  • RJS

    From a Christian point of view — will each of the embryos that “died” by re-absorption into the placenta be present in the age to come as resurrected bodies – either “saved” or to be tortured in hell?
    Look – I don’t mean this to be flippant, but cells die all the time and the death of a cell is not the death of a human. At some point there is a human who dies. I don’t think that it is at these very early embryonic stages.

  • Brad

    “You assert that you are right – and offer arguments that twinning results in the death of one life and the creation of two new ones?”
    If you read closely, you will see that I don’t think that. That is one of 2 possibilities, neither of which pose any problem to the idea that a zygote is a human organism.
    “All I am saying is that as I see it there is a period where we have potential for one life, more than one life, or no life.”
    This is true.
    “A human is not a single cell organism.”
    Every textbook I’ve ever looked at on this subject says you are wrong. As I’ve asked repeatedly, what are your reasons for saying this? I will gladly come back to your other questions later, but I’d like you to answer this first.

  • dopderbeck

    What textbooks are you looking at Brad? There’s a huge literature on this question in the bioethics field. I’m pretty confident that the consensus view among bioethicists is that embryotic cells prior to implantation are not fully “persons.” This view is contested and it may be wrong, but if you want to go with the weight of authority here its against the “personhood” view.

  • Brad

    I’m not sure if there is as much a consensus as you say, but that’s not really my concern here. I’ve said absolutely nothing about “persons.” I happen to believe that human organisms and human persons are the same thing but that’s a completely different topic.
    As far as textbooks go, Human Embryology & Teratology by O’Rahilly and Muller is a good one, but any textbook on human embryology will tell you the same thing. (If you find one that claims that a human zygote isn’t a human organism, let me know.)