Embryos Have Moral Status

The claim that embryos do have moral status has been supported by a number of different arguments.

The traditional Christian view, which is presently used primarily by Catholic moral theorists and by some evangelical groups, claims that an embryo has full moral status from the point of conception/fertilization. Similar views are held by some Orthodox Jewish and Islamic scholars. This view can be based on a theory of immediate ensoulment, or by reference to the fact that at fertilization a human being is created with a unique genetic makeup.

The main problems for this view are: (a) that it relies on a theological premise if it makes reference to ensoul-ment, and such premises are not generally accepted in a secular context; (b) that there is a possibility of twinning until 14 days after fertilization, which would require either two souls in one entity prior to twinning or the infusion of a new soul at the point of twinning; (c) that there is a possibility of chimera formation where two zygotes fuse, and this would seem to lead to an entity with two souls; (d) that the argument referring to the embryo as a human being may be guilty of speciesism (i.e., relying on the mere fact that something is human as an argument for giving it moral status); and (e) that there are other human cells with a unique genetic makeup which we do not accord the same status.

A different argument for the full moral status of the human embryo proceeds by localizing the core wrong in killing adult humans in the fact that we deprive them of ''a life like ours''—we deprive them of all the experiences and other things which their life would have contained if we had not killed them.

This is also true of any embryo we might kill, and thereby makes killing embryos wrong. There may be other wrong-making characteristics involved in killing adult human beings (the pain, the fear, etc.) which play no role when we discuss killing embryos. This indicates that it may be more wrong to kill adults than embryos, but it does not show that killing embryos is morally innocuous. The main problem in this argument is that it makes killing wrong in all cases, even in cases where a person might want to be killed. This is not a problem if we are only concerned with embryos or fetuses, but it could be a problem if the account is intended to be a general account of the wrong done in killing human beings.

A third way of arguing for the proposition that an embryo has moral status is through an argument from potentiality. Arguments of this kind acknowledge that embryos do not have present conscious interests or present preferences, but they then proceed to the claim that an entity with a potential for possessing such interests or preferences does have moral status.

Such arguments rely on a clarification of what ''potential'' really means. Potential cannot be the same as logical possibility, since it is not logically impossible for most things to turn into other things (e.g., it is not logically impossible for the egg of a hen to develop into a human fetus). Potential also cannot be mere material possibility, i.e., the possibility that a certain piece of marble could turn into a statue of David in the hands of Michelangelo. It must, in the present context, entail that the entity having the potential also is responsible in some sense for the development leading to the fulfillment of the potential. Finally, the notion of potential must rely on some background notion about a stable environment. If this stable environment requirement is not brought in it would be the case that the potential of an embryo would depend upon whether or not its mother wanted to abort it.

If a coherent notion of potential can be established, there still has to be an argument for the move from ''entity X has the potential to be Y'' to ''entity X now has the moral status which it will have when it becomes Y.'' It is often mentioned in the criticism of the argument from potential that the fact that someone is a potential president of the USA does not give him or her the same powers and prerogatives as the incumbent of the position. This is obviously correct, but it is equally possible to find examples where someone being a potential incumbent of a position does give special privileges, although these privileges may not be exactly the same as those of the actual incumbent (think of the role of the heir to the throne in monarchies).

Another problem for the potentiality argument is that two gametes also have the potential to become a human being. After all, the gametes have a potential to become a zygote, and the zygote has a potential to become a human being. The proponent of the argument from potential therefore seems commited to a prohibition of contraceptives in order not to frustrate the potential of the gametes. This problem has been dealt with either by arguing that potential is a property of entities such as zygotes and not of assemblies of entities such as sperm and ova, or by arguing that gametes do not possess the same degree of control over the developmental process as does the zygote and the later stages of the human embryo.

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Responses

  • Alfred
    Do embryos have more moral staus than gametes?
    9 months ago

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