“We should resolve our national debate over embryo-destructive research on the basis of the best scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins, and the most careful philosophic reasoning at what is owed to a human being at any stage of development.”
Robert P. George Embryo Ethics Daedalus Winter 2008
We either ought to use embryos for research, or we ought to protect embryos as nascent human life? The Robert George sentence gives us two steps to resolve that question. Step 1, determine on the basis of scientific evidence when a human being exists. Notice we do not have to PROVE that a human being exists, just that we determine as best we can what the evidence tells us. This distinction is important. Some embryo destructive research supporters behave as if they can undercut the humanity of the embryo they have done sufficient work. This position presupposes that the embryo is not a human being. But the scientific evidence gives us very little help in establishing that as a presupposition. Let us look at the following conversation:
The embryo is alive? Yes.
The embryo is genetically human? Yes.
The embryo, if left in the proper environment, will naturally progress through the same developmental stages we all did (ie. Embryonic Jay, fetal Jay, newborn Jay, toddler Jay, yada yada yada)? Yes.
The embryo is then a human being like me? No.
Why not? It is small
So were we both at that stage but here we are all grown up. It does not look like a human being.
But all human beings have looked like that at one point in our development so how can you say it does not look like a human being? It looks exactly like an embryonic human being. It is very very small, though.
But it is a living genetically human life in a developmental stage that all human beings must progress through where we just happen to be very small. How can you insist it is not human? How can you insist that it is?
Because the best evidence supports a reasonable belief that this living thing is a human being. Well prove it!
I thought we just did that. But I can demonstrate that the possibility exists that it is not a human being, thereby undercutting your argument that it is a human without proving your contention to be wrong.
This is what the majority of those people who refute the claim that our best evidence demonstrates that an embryo is actually a human being are arguing. Because we can not produce a biological moment when a little popper goes “POP” and a flag that says “HUMAN BEING OF FULL MORAL WORTH!” starts flittering around in the uterus of every woman we can not reasonably know when the unborn become human.
But we have no obligation to do that. First of all, because no moment like that exists after fertilization. After fertilization a new distinct life begins. Nothing as remarkable or distinct or as clearly defining will ever happen again to this life no matter how long it lives until it dies. All future physical transitions will be fuzzy by comparison in some way or another. The zygote becomes an embryo becomes a fetus becomes a newborn.
“BUT JAY” some protest, “BIRTH IS VERY CLEAR. BIRTH IS WHERE IT NO LONGER DEPENDS ON THE MOTHER! BIRTH IS WHERE IT IS CLEARLY INDEPENDENT”
Okey Dokey. Then I ask you, what is the current survival rate for children born at 28 weeks gestation, or roughly 12 weeks early? The last I checked a medical site the rate was over 80%. That means that 80% of unborn children are biologically the equivalent of newborns except that they are in the womb instead of in a hospital crib. I wager that number is getting higher by the moment with improved NICU care.
Birth is a matter of geographical location not physical development. If you try to figure out the exact moment an unborn child is probably capable of living independently from its mother then the line is FUZZY.
Others might argue that fertilization is a process and it is equally fuzzy when exactly a new life begins. Dr. Beckwith points out in Defending Life that this commits the fallacy of the beard. Just because we do not know the exact moment that stubble becomes a beard does not mean that we can not look at a beard and recognize it. Whatever the amount of time it takes for the zygote to fully form, from that moment on we have a new human life present with a distinct genetic and developmental future. No more remarkable moment is coming after this one.
So Dr. George says here that our responsibility is to establish a reasonable belief based on the best evidence. It is not necessary to find the pop up waving flag of certainty. Nor is the presence of a possible objection justification to presuppose the inhumanity of the embryo. Just because I can think of something else the embryo might also be does not mean that our views are equally justified.
But now that we know that there is a right answer and we have argued that science gives us one very remarkable moment to measure the presence of something new with certainty we come to step two.