There He Goes Again
Ronald Bailey vs. the embryo.


Reason magazine science writer Ronald Bailey is at it again — zealously searching for an angle from which to declare that the developing human embryo is something other than what the science of embryology decisively reveals it to be: viz., a whole living member of the species homo sapiens — a human being — in the early stages of its natural development.

Bailey had previously tried to argue that human beings in the embryonic stage are of no more value than somatic cells (such as skin cells), on the grounds that we have, or soon will have, the technology to generate human embryos from somatic cells by joining them to enucleated ova and administering a certain type of electrical stimulation. As we pointed out in reply, his reasoning was fallacious: One might as well argue that a sperm cell is equal in value to a human being because, when joined to a human ovum, it can generate a human being. The fallacy lies in ignoring the fact that in each case cells (sperm and ovum, or somatic cell and enucleated ovum) can be joined in a process capable of generating an entirely new and distinct entity. That entity — unlike somatic cells, sperm, or ova — is a complete human organism possessing the epigenetic primordia for self-directed development from the embryonic through the fetal, infant, childhood, adolescent, and adult stages of development with its unity, determinateness, and identity all fully intact. The sperm and the ovum, the somatic cell and the enucleated egg — none is a whole human organism; each is functionally a part of the larger male or female organism. But the human embryo is a whole (though, of course, immature) human organism. Even in a condition of dependency, it is not functionally a part of any larger organism. It directs its own organic functioning and possesses the active power to develop itself to the mature stage of a human being — requiring nothing more than nourishment and a suitable environment (as human beings do at every stage of development) for self-maintenance and growth.

Now Bailey has come forward with an even less promising line of argument. He now claims that because the change can go in reverse — because (possibly) from a human embryo we can obtain a stem cell and from this stem cell we can obtain a human ovum — it follows that “an embryonic cell is no more a complete human being requiring legal protection than any other body cell.”

Of course, if by “embryonic cell” he meant stem cell, then this would be true — and also utterly irrelevant to the moral debate. Stem cells (including embryonic stem cells) are not human beings. The self-integrating human organism (whether in the embryonic, fetal, infant, child, adolescent, or adult stage), not his isolated cells, is the human being. It is the embryonic human being, like human beings at every stage of development, that deserves legal protection. But, in truth, by “embryonic cell” Bailey means the human embryo. And the fallacy is patent: We already knew that from a human being, even a very young human being, we could obtain a human ovum. Now we find that perhaps (no one is sure yet) we can obtain an ovum from a stem cell obtained from a human embryo (or, perhaps, from a stem cell obtained from umbilical-cord blood, placental tissue, or adult bone marrow). Bailey seems to think this proves that embryos are mere collections of certain kinds of DNA. But his inference is specious. If it does turn out to be possible to obtain ova from embryonic stem cells, all that will merely show that we can obtain a certain type of part (a female sex cell) from an unexpected part (a stem cell) of a whole (a human embryo). Why anyone would infer from this that any of these parts is equivalent in value to a whole, living member of the species homo sapiens in the embryonic stage of development is more mysterious than the genetics involved here.

Patrick Lee is professor of philosophy at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.


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