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Saturday, March 07, 2009

The First Fourteen Days of Human Life

An article, of the same title as this post, by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, was published in the Summer, 2006 issue of The New Atlantis. These gentlemen are professors of bioethics and jurisprudence, respectively.

They begin by arguing against Senator Orrin Hatch, and others, who claim that human life begins at implantation, which would mean that using an embryo produced in vitro could legitimately be used in stem cell research, before it reaches implantation, and human life. They contradict this argument, using evidence from embryology, and discuss this in some detail in the article. They indicate that this evidence shows that no maternal signal, following implantation, is necessary for development, and that the polar axes of the embryo are probably determined at fertilization. They also say that some development takes place before implantation -- there is more than one cell at that time.

The authors also reject arguments from twinning, which can take place up to fourteen days after fertilization. Fusion of two embryos into one can also occur up to fourteen days. These facts, which they do not dispute, are often used to support arguments that an embryo before 14 days isn't the complete moral equivalent of, say, a second trimester embryo. They claim that these arguments are not convincing.

I did not find their arguments convincing, for two reasons. First, they are conflating human genetic individuality with "human life." These two concepts may be identical, in God's mind, but I don't think we can know that. As the authors say about some of the arguments they oppose, this is an assertion on their part, not an air-tight argument.

As I have argued here, the biblical evidence is not absolutely clear about when an embryo or fetus becomes morally equivalent to a child. There is some chance, based on the Bible itself, that an unborn fetus, let alone an early embryo, is not the moral equivalent of a baby. The chance is small, but it is there, as I see it. This possibility does not give license to mistreat human fetuses, nor, probably, even human embryos. A human who is dead by all the criteria used to declare such a death is not, in scripture, specified to be the moral equivalent of an adult, but this does not give license to feed a dead carcass to a flock of chickens, say.

I found the article interesting and informative. See also this previous post, and this one, for further discussion of human embryonic development.

Thanks for reading.

6 comments:

Weekend Fisher said...

I can't quite figure one thing: if an organism has the genome of Homo sapiens, on what rational basis would some argue it is not human?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

It depends on one's definition of human. A hangnail, or dandruff, has the genome of some specific human, even when removed from that human's body. Therefore, in some sense, it is human, but I don't think you, or anyone else, would argue that it should be treated with the same respect as, say, a two-year-old.

Thanks for reading.

Weekend Fisher said...

I did specify an organism, not stray cells. I doubt you'd argue that an embryo is the same as dandruff (?).

Which leaves the original question unanswered: on what basis would someone argue that an organism with the human genome isn't actually human?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

You did say organism. Sorry.

No, I wouldn't say that dandruff is morally equal to an embryo, although, if it is possible to clone a human from the nucleus of most any cell, it's closer than it used to be.

I think there is a legitimate question as to the definition of organism, and, of course, it depends on how "organism" is defined. I'm not sure that an embryo, especially an early stage embryo, be it of a soybean or a human being, should be considered an organism.

A human embryo has, in the natural order of things, the potential to develop into a mature, independent human being, and that is important.

Whether an embryo, or even a fetus, was considered morally equivalent to an adult, or a child, in the Old Testament, I'm not sure. See Exodus 21:22. I'm not an expert in the original language, and there is some question, among such experts, who take the bible seriously, as to exactly how to interpret that verse, as I understand it.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Martin

I haven't made the slightest argument from the Bible because so few people (even among Christians) find it to have something clear and compelling to say on this issue. I've based my reasoning solely on the fact that an embryo is genetically human and is biologically alive.

What else do we want for "human life" than that?

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you for your comment.

To hear some Christians tell it, the Bible presents a rock solid case against abortion. I, like you, cannot find one.

The question, to me, is how to _treat_ various entities that are "human life," by your definition, including such as an enemy combatant, in warfare, that a weapon is trained on; a violent criminal; an embryo in a womb; a fetus in a womb; an "excess" embryo from IVF procedures, in laboratory glassware; a person on life support who has lost all higher brain activity. Christians, and others, have disagreed over proper treatment of these, or as to whether they should all be treated in the same way.