Virtual Voices

Who cares about an embryo?

"Who cares about an embryo?" Continued...

Moral dualism holds that human beings only become worthy of moral respect because of some achievement, and not because of what they are-members of the human family. So human beings need to become conscious, or self-conscious, or intelligent before they are owed moral respect. So even if we were once human embryos, we were not at that time human persons - beings owed full moral respect.

We make three contrary claims in our book, and give many arguments for them. First, we are human animals, individual members of the species Homo sapiens. Second, in the vast majority of cases, human beings begin to exist at fertilization, when sperm penetrates egg, and a new being, genetically and functionally distinct from either mother or father, begins the self-initiated and self-directed processes of growth and development characteristic of human beings (identical twins are an exception to this).

Third, human beings, unlike the other animals, are possessed of the literally awesome (one might even say God-like) capacities of reason and free will by their nature. It is because they have these capacities that they are due full moral respect. But since these capacities are natural, humans have them from the time that they exist and for as long as they exist, even if an individual is not capable of exercising those capacities (because of disease, impairment, or stage of development). From the earliest embryonic stage, therefore, all human beings are deserving of full moral respect: they are human persons.

WORLD: You also point out the problems of "consequentialism." What is it, and why does it lead to justifications for cruel and unusual punishment in relation to embryos?

RG/CT: Consequentialism-the best known version of which is known as utilitarianism-is one of the most influential moral theories of the secular world. It holds that all moral choices are to be judged on the basis of whether they are likely to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Consequentialists willingly embrace the maxim of Caiaphas: It is better for one person to suffer than an entire people. So for utilitarians and other consequentialists, there are no absolute rights, no absolute moral norms.

What this means in practice is that even if human embryos are the same sort of being as you and I, and even if they are entitled to full moral respect, still they may be sacrificed for the "greater good." We see a purely consequentialist argument made in the case of "spare" human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. If they are going to die anyway, shouldn't we use them to achieve some good? But many people are going to die anyway (all of us, in fact!). Inevitable death does not do away with the absolute right of innocent human beings not to be destroyed and used for the purposes of others. So we argue against and reject consequentialism in our book as a deeply misguided approach to questions of embryo ethics.

WORLD: What's needed to bring before our eyes the humanity of the embryo?

RG/CT: Awareness and knowledge (often made possible by television and other media) have helped to diminish the disadvantages of distance and numbers concerning, for example, the crisis in Darfur. Awareness and knowledge can diminish these disadvantages for embryos. Basic embryological knowledge can help embryos seem much less different and distant from ourselves. And embryo adoption is a practice that brings willing couples into the personal relationship with "spare" embryos that makes their plight an emotional reality.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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