Civil Engagement
Going another round on embryos.


Will Saletan has posted a reply to our response to his review of our book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. His efforts to shore up the points on which we criticized his review are, we believe, unavailing, but before identifying what strike us as grave defects in his argument, we wish to say a word about Saletan himself and why we appreciate this opportunity to engage him in debate. He is an intellectually honest and deeply morally serious man who genuinely aspires to get to the right answer on the vexed question of the moral status of the human embryo. He is unfailingly civil in engaging people with whom he disagrees, and he is, on any reckoning, one of the smartest and best informed journalists writing on bioethical issues.

In Embryo, we argued that the established facts of human embryology and early developmental biology make clear that the human embryo is no mere incidental mass of cells, but is a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens. The human embryo, in other words, is an embryonic human — a human individual in the embryonic stage of his or her development. (As Saletan acknowledges, in the human species sex is already determined in the embryo.)

Whether he or she was brought into existence by the union of gametes or by cloning, the human embryo is a distinct and complete (though, of course, dependent and developmentally immature) organism. Each of us began life as an embryo, and then developed by an internally directed process into the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages, and ultimately into adulthood, with his or her organismal distinctness, determinateness, and unity intact.

That is why it is true — and Saletan should, we believe, face up to this centrally important fact and its implications — that though none of us was ever a sperm cell or an ovum (or a somatic cell that was used in a cloning procedure), each of us was once an embryo, just as each of us was once an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus. What each of us needed in the embryonic stage is what all living organisms, including human beings, need throughout their lives, namely, adequate nourishment and an environment that is suitable for the maintenance of health and well-being. In the embryo, these resources are provided by the mother, though in principle (and perhaps soon in practice) they could be supplied artificially.

Saletan challenges our argument on the scientific facts, and we are happy to engage him precisely there. He maintains that the biological status of human embryos is “messy” in ways that defy “neat categories.” Where we see distinct lines between embryos and ova, between embryos and their mothers, and between embryos and their twins, Saletan insists that there are “dotted” lines. Where we see a continuous identity between an embryo and the later human being, it is genetically and biologically continuous with, Saletan sees something murkier, two (or more) entities that “aren’t quite the same thing.” In consequence, Saletan denies that humans in the embryonic and fetal stages have dignity or value on a par with dignity and value of humans in later developmental stages, and he advocates a “moderate” set of policies governing IVF, stem-cell research, and abortion.

We would like to reiterate a point from Saletan’s own earlier review. The “moderate” policy is one that will result in an industry devoted to the mass production and destruction of embryonic humans. Moreover, it is a policy in which all citizens would be implicated, as their tax dollars would go to support the research, and as their doctors and hospitals would increasingly, and without concern, integrate the results of that research into the ordinary standard of care. For citizens who believe in the fundamental dignity and equality of human beings in all stages and conditions, the “moderate” policy is, in truth, a radical and frightening one.

In his reply, Saletan has usefully clarified his position on what a human embryo is. He acknowledges more than once that an embryo is a whole entity — a point we have stressed — but he claims that an embryo is simultaneously a “part (of the mother-child system) and a dyad (of potential twins or of embryo and placenta).”

Of course, both of us, Robert P. George (henceforth RPG) and Chris Tollefsen (henceforth CT) are also simultaneously parts and dyads. RPG teaches at Princeton — he is part of that university system. CT is married–he is part of a dyad of husband and wife. But no one, of course, would use these facts to challenge our claim to be single, determinate biological individuals. Being a part of a university (or country, or baseball team) does not effect a change in the nature or numerical identity of a human being; nor does being in a dyadic relationship such as marriage (or co-authorship).

These same points are true even if we add the feature of radical dependence to the mix, as Saletan does. A disabled member — a part, if you will — of a Himalayan mountain expedition depends upon the rest of the team to survive. Similarly, the breastfeeding infant depends upon the dyadic relationship with his or her mother not just to survive, but to grow and develop. Failure to receive the necessary nourishment, because of maternal abandonment, death, disease, or malnutrition, will stunt the baby’s growth, retard his or her development, and perhaps result in the child’s death. (It is of no consequence to the argument that a child could be rescued and provided with nourishment by another adult since, as we have noted, an embryo could be gestated in an artificial womb.)

But no one, we are sure, will doubt that the infant is a distinct human being. There is nothing murky here, however radically dependent upon the mother (and/or others) the child is for his or her life. The lines between the individual persons, no matter how dependent they may be upon each other, are solid, not dotted. These points suggest to us that the “logic behind viability as a standard of abortion jurisprudence,” which Saletan endorses, is in truth deeply flawed. It just does not follow that the less an “unborn human being relies on its mother, the more it encompasses its own developmental program, and the more we should treat it like a born child.” Born children, unborn children, embryonic children (as well as frail or disabled individuals who rely on others for support) — all stand or fall together by this criterion.