More MS news articles for Aug 2001

More Stubborn Facts: Are embryos people?

August 6, 2001 8:45 a.m.
By Ronald Bailey, Reason magazine’s science correspondent.

First, all people, whether they be in comas, asleep, awake, demented, infants, or professors of philosophy and jurisprudence, are intrinsically valuable. Therefore no one may kill them in order to use their body parts for the benefit of other human beings. It would simply be evil to do so.

But are embryos people? Lee and George reject my earlier arguments and continue to maintain that embryos are people and claim that science supports this view. I'm afraid that what their arguments prove is that when two people peer into the same petri dish, they are apt to see two very different things. Previously, I demonstrated that advances in modern science, specifically the ability to create clones, have shown that there is no morally relevant difference between embryos and somatic cells. Lee and George counter by arguing that unlike somatic cells, embryos are "whole organisms" that are "distinct, complete, self-integrating human individuals" and further that an embryo "given nothing more than an hospitable environment, will actively develop itself" to adulthood.

Let us parse just a couple of their asserted scientific claims to see how they stand up. First, Lee and Patrick erroneously claim that I "concede that an embryo is a distinct organism" actually I "conceded" that embryos are physical organisms, which is merely to acknowledge the plain fact that embryos are living cells. That an embryo is a physical organism tells us nothing more than it is cellular life — it takes in nourishment and converts it to energy to sustain itself. Every living cell, including skin cells and bacteria, does this, so the fact that an embryo is an organism can't confer moral significance in and of itself.

Lee and George hang a lot on the claim that embryos are "distinct." But are they? Science shows us that that is not so. Take the easy case of identical twins. Since they develop from the same fertilized egg, their genes are identical. They clearly become "distinct" sometime after conception. What about the case of human chimeras? Human chimeras occur naturally when two eggs become fertilized but, instead of developing into twins, they fuse in the womb, making a single individual with two distinct sets of genes. Or what about the increasingly common procedure of pre-implantation genetic testing of embryos produced using IVF in which a one cell is taken from a two-cell embryo for testing and the other if implanted in womb can develop into a baby. Can it be said that pre-implantation testing kills a twin?

What's interesting about both twins and chimeras is that they point clearly to the fact that who we regard as individuals does not depend on "coming to be at conception" as Lee and Patrick maintain since both twins and chimeras as individuals clearly "come to be" sometime after conception. What twins and chimera point to is the easily discernible fact that individuals are bodies and brains, not cells that can mix and match and become more than one individual or fewer than two. Twins also point up the fact that having your own unique genome is not what makes you an individual; however, having your own brain and body does. Clearly embryos are not as "distinct" as Lee and Patrick claim.

Another fact of science provides some insight here. Embryonic development is indeed part of a continuum, as we all agree. But proceeding along that continuum depends crucially on implantation in a womb. No implantation, no continued development. Embryologists estimate that as many as 50 to 80 percent of all the human embryos created via normal conception naturally never implant. Keep in mind that this is not miscarriage we're talking about, the women and their husbands never even know that conception has taken place, the embryos simply leave the womb in the menstrual flow. But given Lee and Patrick's insistence that every embryo is "already a human being," does that mean that if we could detect unimplanted embryos as they leave the womb, we would then have a duty to rescue them and try to implant them anyway? Furthermore, do we mourn the deaths of these millions of embryos as we would the death of child? No, and reasonably so because we do in fact know that these embryos are not people.

My contention remains that science has shown that both skin cells and embryos are potential human beings which then makes the assertion that they should be treated as being morally different impossible to sustain. So how are embryos and skin cells alike? Both take in nourishment and convert it to energy to sustain themselves. Both replicate their DNA and divide to produce daughter cells. Both contain the complete recipe for making a human being. The chief difference is the suppressor and promoter proteins which decorate their DNA strands.

In response to my claims, Lee and George countered that skin cells and embryos are different because all an embryo needs is the "right environment" to develop, a claim which they reprise by saying in their latest critique that all an embryo needs is "an hospitable environment." By "right environment" they mean a womb. However, cloning shows that drawing the line at that point is arbitrary because combining the nuclear DNA from nearly any human cell with egg cytoplasm will start that cell down the path of embryonic development. The "right" and "hospitable environment" is actually egg cytoplasm. But Lee and George respond that egg cytoplasm is not an "environment" but a "co-principle" because the factors in egg cytoplasm "become part of the new developing embryo."

Again, the findings of science point another direction. In some recent experiments, researchers remove the cytoplasm from an egg leaving behind its nucleus and its cellular membranes and inject that cytoplasm directly into a somatic cell like a skin cell. Once injected with egg cytoplasm, the somatic cell is reprogrammed and begins the process of embryonic development.

In other words, egg cytoplasm will program the DNA in either the nucleus of a fertilized egg or a nucleus in a skin cell such that both begin embryonic development. Both conjoined gametes and the nucleus of a skin cell require egg cytoplasm to activate their genes' programming toward developing as embryos. Thus the DNA in conjoined gametes and the DNA in a skin cell nucleus stand in the same essential relation to one another — they both need egg cytoplasm to start the development path. In the future, as former National Institutes of Health Director Harold Varmus has suggested, the factors in egg cytoplasm that program cellular DNA for embryonic development may well be isolated and applied directly to skin cells so that they begin embryonic development without recourse to egg cytoplasm at all. It turns out that calling an egg a "co-principle" means nothing more than it simply has the right suite of proteins to program a cell's DNA so that it begins embryonic development. As for the fact that cytoplasmic factors "become part of the new developing embryo," so too does any nourishment. Is nourishment therefore also a "co-principle"?

My point still stands:

"Scientific and technological developments like cloning shift our view from thinking of a single cell embryo as being 'profoundly different' to being merely further along a newly accessible sequence of potentiality than are somatic cells. What once seemed like an unbreachable natural barrier has fallen and that changes our understanding of the world."

In order to remain consistent, Lee and George maintain that any skin cell treated with egg cytoplasmic factors (cloning) is an embryo which they claim is a human being — which brings us back to brains.

With regard to my arguments about how brain death illuminates our views of who is and is not a human being, Lee and George accuse me of committing philosophy to which I will plead guilty — but only in the sense that I was showing how scientific advances in knowledge shift our old concepts — like when someone is dead. Technological advances have focused our attention on the central fact that we exist only if our brains are still working. If our brain activity ceases — our thoughts, memories, emotions, and intentions cease — we have ceased to be.

However, Lee and George object that analogizing brain dead people to embryos is not acceptable because a brain dead human being is dead while an embryo is alive.

The issue is not that one is alive and one is not. In fact, both are alive in the sense that both can take in nourishment and convert it to energy. Indeed, there is another similarity, both need the aid of people outside themselves in order to remain alive, one needs an ICU and the other needs a willing womb. Lee and George simply ignore the relevant point that both do not have functioning brains. Because they do not have functioning brains both embryos and brain dead people do not have, as Lee and George put it, "the capacity for reason and free choice" and it is this lack is what puts them on the same moral plane. What about the comatose, the asleep, or infants, ask Lee and George, they too don't have the capacity for "reason and free choice"? Why not just chop them up for spare parts, too? Again, this misses the other exquisitely simple point that the comatose, the asleep, and infants, all have more or less functioning brains — unlike the brain dead and embryos — which is what makes all the difference morally.

Finally, at end of their latest critique, Lee and George claim that I "insinuate" in my earlier response that they hold their views on some "religious basis." I did no such thing. If they were to bother to read carefully my response, they will see that my final paragraph was explicitly addressed to the readers of National Review Online, many of whom, it will surprise no one to learn, have religiously based views on this topic (as many e-mails from them to me proved).