Pandaemonium

EMBRYO RESEARCH AND HUMAN BEING

early human embryo

This is the full version of the article I wrote last month for the International New York Times on the debate about time limits for embryo research. (I cannot publish my INYT articles on Pandaemonium until a month after it is published in the newspaper.) It was originally published under the headline ‘Rethinking Embryo Research Rules’.


Few areas of scientific investigation are more controversial than embryo research. Yet, few are more brimming with potential. The field promises valuable insights into early human development and new possibilities for treating diseases and disorders.

For more than 35 years, there has been broad international agreement that no scientist can experiment on an embryo that is more than 14 days old. This red line was established as scientific guidance in the USA in 1979. It was incorporated into British law after the 1984 Warnock inquiry into in vitro fertilization. Other nations, including Australia, Sweden and China, have since adopted the same limit, either in law or through scientific regulation.

Until now, the 14-day limit has not been a particular issue because scientists, in practice, have been unable to grow embryos in vitro for more than nine days. But two research groups, one in America, the other in Britain, have recently reported being able to sustain human embryos in vitro for up to 13 days.

This technological advance has reopened the ethical debate about the 14-day limit. Many scientists chafe at restrictions on their ability to learn more about life and potentially create breakthrough therapies. Critics, especially religious believers, are horrified because they believe that, in the words of Philippa Taylor, head of public policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship, all embryos are ‘very young human beings’.

It is a controversy with important consequences not just for embryo research, but also for wider debates over abortion and infanticide. At the heart of all this lies a central question: ‘Where do we draw the line?’ Where is the line between a blob of cells and a human being? Or the line between matter that scientists can experiment upon, or a woman can choose to dispose, and an ‘individual’ with moral status?

The intractability of this issue reflects the fact that, as a matter of biology, the development of human life is rarely characterized by clear lines. A cell created by a fusion of egg and sperm is (if we ignore the possibility of cloning) a necessary condition of being a human being. It is not a sufficient one. A human being is created in the long journey from being a single, microscopic cell to becoming a self-conscious moral agent. That change does not happen at any one instant, but slowly over time, so that, almost imperceptibly, a qualitatively different being is created.

Some religious believers insist on a strong red line at the very beginning of this journey. A fertilized egg, they insist, is a human being and has moral status. Many object to any form of either abortion or embryo experimentation.

Others, such as the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, support both abortion and embryo research, but question whether a moral distinction exists between a fetus and an infant. Humans, according to Professor Singer’s critique of ‘speciesism’, have no intrinsic claim to life. The interests of individuals depend upon their cognitive abilities and on ‘characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness’. Infants, Professor Singer has argued, ‘lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’ Killing an adult chimpanzee would be, for him, a more immoral act than killing a 1-year-old child, because the chimpanzee has greater cognitive capacities.

Neither stance seems to me plausible. The idea that a blob of cells is a human being and should have the same moral status as a child seems untenable. It is equally implausible, however, to claim that there is no moral difference between how an embryo and an infant may be treated.

While the creation of a human being is a process, not an instant, there are moral boundaries that mark qualitative shifts. One such boundary is birth. A fetus is a physical part of woman’s body. Abortion is not about the killing of another human being, but about a woman exercising her right to control her own body.

Birth transforms that relationship. An entirely physical attachment becomes primarily, and increasingly, social. A newborn child belongs to the moral community of humans. In that change lies the moral difference between a fetus and a newborn, and between abortion and infanticide. It is why abortion is permissible, but infanticide illegal.

early human embryo 2

Where does the debate about the time limit for embryo research fit into all this? The 14-day limit is arbitrary, but it reflects, in the words of the 1979 US report that first set the limit, the period ‘beyond the stage normally associated with the completion of implantation’. Before implantation, an embryo can divide into two, creating twins, or two different embryos can fuse together to create a single individual. So, many argue, implantation is the point at which the individuality of an embryo is assured — or when an individual soul is bestowed by God.

The notion that a cluster of cells that can no longer split should possess such special moral status is dubious. The anomaly of the limit to embryo research becomes evident when we compare it to abortion laws. In Britain, for instance, the normal limit for abortion is 24 weeks. It seems nonsensical for it to be legal to destroy a 24-week fetus in the name of a woman’s right to choose, but illegal for scientists to culture an embryo in vitro for more than 14 days for potentially lifesaving research.

The 14-day rule, as an opinion article in the journal Nature noted, was ‘never intended to be a bright line denoting the onset of moral status in human embryos’. Rather, it was ‘a public-policy tool designed to carve out a space for scientific inquiry and simultaneously show respect for the diverse views on human-embryo research.’ It was, in other words, a convenient fudge between the needs of science and the opposition, particularly of religious groups. With the advance of technology, that compromise is no longer workable, and so should be rethought.

Given that there are no sharp lines in the development of a human being, any time limit on embryo research will necessarily be arbitrary. The real point is not to provide spurious moral claims about whatever limit is set, but to win public support for whatever decision is taken. The line may be arbitrary, but the debate should be rational.

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The images are of early human embryos, credit Rockefeller University.

6 comments

  1. “The real point is not to provide spurious moral claims about whatever limit is set, but to win public support for whatever decision is taken.” – This seems to me like a false dichotomy. Surely, while accepting that it is practically impossible to define a specific point in development when experimentation becomes morally wrong, we can work towards narrowing it down? And I’m wondering if I understand you correctly – do you really think that winning public support is more important than identifying the most morally defensible cut-off point?

    • I am questioning the claim that there is a specific point at which a group of cells becomes a human being, and hence the idea that such a point constitutes a moral tipping point between acceptable and unacceptable research. And rather than pretend that one can draw such a definite line, it is better to have an open, public debate about the possibilities and limits of embryo research.

      • Yandoodan

        This partly clarifies my comment, posted a half-hour before this one. But calling for “an open, public debate about the possibilities” is only a stop-gap for actually having a real position.

        Of course, there is nothing wrong with lacking a real position. Just as an example, I lack a real position on immigration. It’s complex, I don’t have enough information, and I don’t have enough skin in the game to spend the time learning it.

        But my non-opinion would still influence my vote, as a vote is a simple up or down. See Ilya Somin on rational political ignorance, http://bit.ly/29r2b97. And in an up/down situation your non-opinion would probably influence yours as well.

  2. Yandoodan

    I find it odd that on this issue atheists and the religious change sides.

    For any sexual species — any at all — the point of cell division marks the point where the sperm/egg becomes live and becomes an individual. It may be unviable but it is still alive and still distinct from all other creatures. This is true for frogs and robins, and it’s true for people. As this is simply a neutral fact of science it should be readily adopted by atheists and at the very least challengeable by those with a mystical view of life and individualism.

    Instead we see atheists (and other materialists) taking a hyper-mystical view that “the true person” comes to inhabit the body at some later point. This is exactly the same view that the religious take of the soul/spirit. The developing body somehow obtains a spirit, and so becomes human. This is what makes Prof. Singer wrong; we can kill a one year old chimp but not a one year old human because the human has a soul and the chimp doesn’t.

    Shouldn’t atheists such as you, Mr. Malik, be denying the existence of a soul that humanizes the body at some point during its gestation? But this leads to disgusting acts such as the one that Mr. Singer describes, and you don’t want to go there. Good for you! Now if only you could accept the legitimacy of the numinous your philosophic circle would close.

    • I’m not suggesting that ‘“the true person” comes to inhabit the body at some later point’ or that ‘The developing body somehow obtains a spirit, and so becomes human’. What I am suggesting is that there is a process of development from a single cell to what we consider to be moral autonomous being. As I wrote,

      A human being is created in the long journey from being a single, microscopic cell to becoming a self-conscious moral agent. That change does not happen at any one instant, but slowly over time, so that, almost imperceptibly, a qualitatively different being is created.

      I’m not sure if I understand your argument properly, but you seem to be suggesting that there is no qualitative difference between a fertilized cell, a newborn baby and an adult human being. I cannot see how that is a tenable claim. Equally untenable is your claim that ‘the point of cell division marks the point where the sperm/egg becomes live and becomes an individual’. After all, the undivided cell, and indeed the sperm and unfertilized egg, are living cells just as much as a fertilized cell. You say that Peter Singer’s arguments are false because ‘the human has a soul and the chimp doesn’t’. So, can you show me the evidence either for humans having a soul or for chimps not having one?

      • Yandoodan

        First, apologies for the long response. I am elaborating on points I imply but do not make explicit in my first, intentionally short, post. To be clear I recognize that you are an expert in this field (and one I respect), and that I am not. Still, experts are frequently wrong and a stopped clock is right twice a day.

        First, as to my claim that ‘the point of cell division marks the point where the sperm/egg becomes live and becomes an individual’, all I mean is that (a) the zygote is not dead and is therefore alive and (b) the zygote is absolutely unique, a combination of genes that has never before been seen in the universe and will never be seen again. The second claim is simple probability, and cannot be made for individual eggs and sperm. So I am making a very limited point. I think this is a good reason for respecting the humanity of a very new zygote. And I am observing that many materialists, in order to establish a killing point after 14 days, seem to deny this for humans and affirm it for everything else.

        Now to the other point. I am claiming something more subtle (and completely opposite) than ‘there is no qualitative difference between a fertilized cell, a newborn baby and an adult human being’ or ‘[There is] evidence either for humans having a soul or for chimps not having one’. (Which, by the way, seem to be contradictory claims. It would be silly of me to assert both!) I am claiming that reason cannot lead to either claim. Personally, I get this from Zermelo-Frankel theory (a strictly mathematical framework that proves limits to the formation of a Universe of Discourse, and therefore limits to set operations, and therefore limits to mathematical reason, which maps 1:1 to correct everyday reason.) Popper comes to the same conclusion by a different route (as do Kant, Hume, and even Parmenides for that matter), and Kuhn agrees. Positivists disagree with Popper on nearly everything but this; if you can’t reduce it to atomic facts it has no truth value, creating regions that logic cannot reach. I think (although my knowledge is too limited for this to be anything than a guess) that quantum uncertainty, general relativity’s light cone, and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem are all different paths to the same conclusion.

        Deep breath. And how does this relate to this article? Reason (as logic), contrary to the claims of materialists, simply cannot answer certain questions — including the question asked by this article. Perhaps that’s why you call for a discussion. The positivists claim that such discussions are simple jabberwocky. Popperians are kinder; you can have sensible discussions with good points on both sides, but neither side can ever be decided. Knowledge is forever prohibited in these areas. Discussions are useful, but decisions must be made.

        My first point is meant to give a good reason for keeping the arbitrary 14 day mark. The point you make for extending it — that humanity comes into the fetus at some later point — is mysticism. Nothing wrong with that. I even happen to agree with it (and acknowledge that it’s a dam’ good reason for extending the 14 day limit). Your position avoids Singer’s infanticide and provides a powerful defense against eugenics and its horrors. But it contradicts the type of atheism which asserts reductionism and therefore the non-existence of a mystical “humanity”.

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