(Continued from Part II)
Human by nature, not by function
The more philosophical opponents of the pro-life position often object to such straightforward summaries of their views. They argue that the unborn are not people because they cannot function in the same ways that we do. They claim that a true “person” meets certain criteria; he or she has feelings, self awareness, consciousness, the ability to feel pain, the ability to interact with his or her environment, or some other criteria from a list of adult human abilities. Following this reasoning, since embryos and the rest of the unborn have few or none of these capabilities, they cannot be people and need not be protected from destruction. Note that those who use this argument take their criteria for personhood as givens, without any attempt to explain why a person must possess these traits.12
This belief system is known as functionalism, a belief that suffers from several flaws.13 First, someone can fail to function as a person and yet still be a person. Many unconscious humans cannot feel pain, and unconscious humans are neither self-aware nor can they reason, but we still consider them people. Second, someone must be a person in order to function as one. One grows in the ability to perform personal acts only because one already is the kind of being that can do so (i.e., a person).14 Third, one’s right to live does not depend on one’s intelligence. If functionalism is correct, then personhood could be expressed by an “intelligence curve” in which human beings move toward full personhood in their early years, reach it in middle age, then lose it with advancing age and the accompanying loss of mental function. This makes no sense. Fourth, functionalists cannot escape the problems posed by personal identity. Paul Cox and Scott Rae point out the nonsensical implications when they explain, “if I do not exist until sometime after my birth, in what sense is the birth mine? The only way for ‘my birth’ to be more than a linguistic convention is to admit that ‘I’ existed before I was born, or at least at the time of my birth.”15
Applying logic and common sense, we can see that any embryo commands the same moral status that the same human would command as an adult. Functions don’t matter in this moral determination. That being has a human essence that makes certain functions possible, and allows the being to retain a personal identity through change.16 Humans may lose the ability to think critically, but as long as they stay alive they remain themselves because they have a human nature. The underlying essence of a thing, not its functional abilities, tells us what kind of being it is. We function as people because we are people.
So where has all of this personhood analysis led us? A civilized culture would recognize the immorality of killing people for medical research purposes. For scientific and philosophical reasons, it seems abundantly clear that the unborn, including embryos, are people. Therefore, killing the unborn for medical research purposes is immoral. Pro-life advocate Scott Klusendorf summarizes these arguments better than perhaps anyone else:
Scientifically, the [pre]born come from human parents who, according to the law of biogenesis, can only produce human offspring. Philosophically, the differences between fetus and newborn are differences of function, not essence (or nature). The unborn human retains its identity as a person through time and change because it possesses a human nature. Consequently, destructive embryo research is a serious moral wrong. It strips the unborn human of its inherent dignity and treats it as a disposable instrument to be used for someone else’s benefit. A decent and civilized society cannot tolerate such an act.17
So there it is … my basic argument, based largely on the reasoning of people much smarter than I. I find it quite persuasive, and please note that it doesn’t ever refer to any religious tradition for authority.
What do you think?
12) Neither do these theorists clearly explain how much moral weight each criterion carries, nor which combinations of criteria tip the scales toward personhood.
13) For a discussion of functionalism and its counterarguments, see Koukl, Precious Unborn Human Persons, p. 20-35.
14) Cf. Peter Kreeft, “Human Personhood”, All About Issues, Jan.-Feb. 1992, p. 29 (questioning whether the “level of ability to perform certain human acts define the value of a person”).
15) Scott B. Rae & Paul M. Cox, Bioethics: A Christian Approach In A Pluralistic Age, p. 169 note #13 (1999).
16) Id., p. 159-69.
17) Klusendorf, Fetal Tissue and Embryo Stem Cell Research, p. 40, note #100.
(Continued from Part I)
The SLED Test
Having scientifically established the humanity of embryos, we next use logic to consider the philosophical differences between unborn human beings and those human beings we unequivocally consider “people.” The unborn differs from the newborn in four ways: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. One can use the acronym SLED to easily remember these four categories.9
We first think about size (the “S” in SLED). Embryos are smaller than newborns, but we know size is not relevant for determining personhood. I am over six feet tall and weigh nearly two hundred pounds, which makes me far larger than most of my female colleagues, but no one can credibly claim that I am therefore more of a person than they are. We intuitively understand that size is irrelevant when determining if a human is a person.
Next, we consider differences in level of development (the “L” in SLED). A newborn is less developed than a toddler, who is less developed than an adolescent, who is less developed than an adult. All are properly accorded equal status as people under the law, even though they look different. Prepubescent children have not yet developed sexually, but we consider them people. Retarded children with severely underdeveloped brains also count as people. So what should we logically conclude when we observe that embryos are less developed than newborns? We realize that we cannot define people based upon how developed they happen to be. We must define people based on what they are. A person has the innate capacity to perform personal acts, even if that person cannot do so at the moment. A human being’s level of development is irrelevant when assessing personhood.
What of differences in environment (the “E” in SLED)? The human embryo inside the mother is in a different environment than the newborn baby, and the human embryo frozen in a bottle of liquid nitrogen is in a very different environment than either of the other two human beings. Environment, however, has no relevance when it comes to deciding which human beings are people. I did not become less of a person by getting out of my car earlier today, nor did I become more of a person by sitting down in front of my computer. My status as a person does not change depending upon which side of my bed I choose to sleep on tonight. Nor does it matter if I put on scuba gear and descend sixty feet underwater. Clearly, where one is has no bearing on who one is.10 Likewise, a newborn girl’s short trip down the birth canal cannot logically make her more of a person than her identical twin about to follow her. By the same token a frozen human embryo is no less entitled to our protection, even though it sits suspended in a bottle rather than growing in a womb.
Last, we think about differences in degree of dependency (the “D” in SLED), which lawyers and politicians call “viability.” Those who argue that viability makes all the difference are wrong. If they were right, many born human beings would have to be considered “non-people.” For example, everyone dependent on pacemakers, dialysis machines, insulin, respirators, or wheelchairs would forfeit their status as people. After all, each relies on external help to survive and none are viable in the true sense of the word. In fact, newborn children cannot honestly be considered viable either, because without the care and feeding they receive from their parents, they quickly die. If we refuse to strip diabetics and newborns of their personhood on viability grounds, by what logic can we do so to embryos? As one former abortionist points out, there is no moral difference between a unborn child ‘plugged into’ and dependent upon a mother and a kidney patient plugged into and “dependent” upon a dialysis machine.11 Degree of dependency has no bearing on a human being’s status as a person.
That covers the “SLED Test.” We can see, then, that the unborn child differs from a newborn child in only four ways: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Individually, none of these criteria have anything important to say about whether a human being is a person, and no combination of these criteria carries any additional moral weight.
8) Id., p. 22; See also “Biogenesis and Abiogenesis”, New Advent (stating “all visible organisms arise only from germs of the same kind”), originally at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02571a.htm.
9) Scott Klusendorf, Fetal Tissue and Embryo Stem Cell Research: The March of Dimes, NIH, and Alleged Moral Neutrality, p. 32 (2000); Stephen D. Schwarz, The Moral Question of Abortion, p. 15-18 (1990) (coining the acronym SLED … widely popularized by Klusendorf).
10) Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, p. 114.
11) Bernard N. Nathanson & Richard N. Ostling, Aborting America, p. 213 (1979).
The continuing debate over embryo stem cell research spurred me to revisit an old article on the subject that I wrote roughly three years ago. The main thrust of my article argued against federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but I had to lay some basic scientific and philosophical groundwork to make my point. This post pulls a sizable chunk of my article out by itself, since it can stand alone with very little need for updating or editing.
Most folks have debated the legality, the economic benefit, and the scientific merit of experimenting on human embryos. I’m happy to argue against federal funding on all three grounds, but the issue of what the embryo actually is should concern us the most. Here’s my argument in its barest form:
- Embryos are people.
- People shouldn’t be killed for medical research purposes.
- Therefore embryos shouldn’t be killed for medical research purposes.
Background (admittedly very brief)
In the summer of 2001, the moral implications of embryonic stem cell research (or “ESCR” for brevity) came to the forefront of America’s consciousness as President George W. Bush wrestled with the claims advanced by both sides of the debate over possible federal funding of that research. After months of consultation, study, and reflection, the President delivered a speech outlining his intention to permit federally-funded ESCR only on those lines of human embryonic stem cells in existence on or before the date of his speech.1 President Bush’s statements illustrate the competing arguments he struggled to reconcile, as excerpted below:
On the first issue, are these embryos human life — well, one researcher told me he believes this five-day-old cluster of cells is not an embryo, not yet an individual, but a pre-embryo. He argued that it has the potential for life, but it is not a life because it cannot develop on its own. An ethicist dismissed that as a callous attempt at rationalization. Make no mistake, he told me, that cluster of cells is the same way you and I, and all the rest of us, started our lives. One goes with a heavy heart if we use these, he said, because we are dealing with the seeds of the next generation.2
However well-meaning, President Bush’s decision to permit limited funding still went too far by lending an air of legitimacy to research founded upon the intentional killing of human beings. Researchers eager to get funding realized their advantage immediately. One of them reacted to the speech with frank pragmatism, saying “[i]n the long run, this number of 60 will be a forgotten relic of the political debate. The important thing is not so much the number 60. It’s really that the green light went on for federal funding of this research.”3 This scientist understood that President Bush made a critical exception to his prolife principles, exposing himself to politicians’ ability to stretch an exception far beyond its original scope. Although President Bush made a mistake in his moral reasoning, his example need not be repeated.
As matters stand, Congress still thinks ESCR is morally wrong, the President agrees but wants to allow it for already dead embryos, NIH researchers think it’s acceptable, the courts lie somewhere in between4 (albeit much closer to the NIH’s position than to that of Congress), the fifty states have yet to reach a consensus, laws from overseas offer little guidance, and public opinion seems to waver5 … depending on whose opinion polls and public pronouncements one believes (see my original article for the background information that supports my summary of these groups’ positions). Since the fight over statutory law continues, and since case law offers few precedents that favor the reasoning behind the pro-life position (that is, “embryos are people”), it would be wise to consider a purely philosophical and logical solution to the problem.
Thinking it through
If we pick apart the moral confusion surrounding ESCR, we can discover why it is actually very wrong to condone it. We can pierce the moral fog by applying established laws of science, clear principles of logic, and intellectually honest philosophy. We must answer just one question: what is the unborn?
If we can make a compelling argument that the unborn is a human person entitled to the same measure of respect and protection that we accord any newborn infant, then our reasoning proceeds predictably. If we know that intentionally killing an innocent human being is a moral wrong, and if ESCR requires the intentional killing of an innocent human being, we must then conclude that such research is a serious moral wrong. When we examine the only question that matters (“what is the unborn?”), we find that the unborn are people for three reasons.
First, human parents only produce human offspring, which means the unborn are members of the human community. Second, the four differences, discussed in greater detail below, between the unborn and the newborn are morally irrelevant. Third, the unborn are human people because they have a human nature, not because they perform certain functions.
Human offspring are human by definition
We begin with the obvious truth that human parents produce human offspring. The embryo is genetically unique, and possesses the inherent capacity to develop into an adult. It is human from conception, although immature (just as a newborn baby is immature). The unborn, therefore, is not a potential human but a human with great potential.6 Living things do not change from one kind of being into another over time. They only change their form. What they are stays the same.7
The Law of Biogenesis, established unequivocally over a century ago by Louis Pasteur, states that each living thing reproduces after its own kind.8 Logically building our reasoning on this objective truth, we must conclude that human parents can only produce human offspring. To reject this scientific law and deny the humanity of the unborn, a supporter of ESCR must clear two hurdles. First, he must explain what the unborn entity actually is if it is not human, and second, he must explain how two human beings can violate the Law of Biogenesis by mating to create a being that begins as a non-human but later becomes one. Until someone refutes the Law of Biogenesis, science forces us to admit that human embryos are human beings.
1) Press Release, President George W. Bush, Remarks by the President on Stem Cell Research (Aug. 9, 2001).
3) Ceci Connolly et al. “Viability of Stem Cell Plan Doubted: Bush Policy Could Limit Research, Scientists Say”, Washington Post, Aug. 20, 2001.
4) As you’re probably aware, the American legal system’s persistent confusion on the personhood of the unborn, despite nearly three decades of U.S. Supreme Court pronouncements categorically refusing to recognize that status, suggests that legal precedents alone will not end this debate. In Roe v. Wade, Justice Blackmun clearly understood the implications of recognizing the personhood of the unborn. He wrote in the majority opinion: “If [Texas Attorney General Wade’s] suggestion of personhood is established, [Jane Roe’s] case, of course, collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.” Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 133, 156-57 (1973).
5) The same moral fog blinds us as well. For example, actor Michael J. Fox wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Times, focusing on points like the following: “Stem cell work uses … embryos produced during in vitro fertilization, a process that creates many more fertilized eggs than are implanted in the wombs of women trying to become pregnant. … Most of these microscopic clumps of cells are destined to be destroyed-ending any potential for life.” Michael J. Fox, “A Crucial Election for Medical Research”, N.Y. Times, Nov. 1, 2000. Fox misunderstands the issue. If embryos are people, then destroying them through medical research in an effort to extract some benefit from their impending doom is no more permissible than conducting harmful experiments on death row prisoners and then excusing the crime by saying “well, they’re going to die anyway.”
6) Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, p. 94 (1993).
7) Gregory Koukl, Precious Unborn Human Persons, p. 21 (1999).