Humanity of the Embryo, Part 2

Mr Frank’s objections against valuing the embryo as a human person included an historical analysis that, according to him, makes the 1869 proclamation of Pope Puis IX a complete novelty.  We saw in our last post that the intellectual history of Christian thinking on the unborn will not support this objection.  However, Frank’s objections also extend to Scripture, and modern developmental biology.

“There are no Scriptures on the matter,” writes Frank.  Scripture does not mention blastocyst-stage embryos.  The people who wrote down the words of Scripture did not have the means to observe such a small organism, and therefore, it is anachronistic to expect them to mention it.  having said that, Scripture is not unconcerned about the unborn.  Psalm 139:13 states:  “You have knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  This verse does not mention when the entity within the womb becomes a human person (James C. Peterson, “Is the Human Embryo a Human Being?” in God and the Embryo (Washington DC, Georgetown University Press, 2003).  However, it does say that God is intimately involved with the formation of the Psalmist’s body while he is in the womb.  One of the stages of that knitting is the blastocyst stage embryo.  If God is knitting your body together, stage by stage, bit by bit, then how legitimate is it to intervene and stop than process?  If the answer to this question is that it is not legitimate, then did not your humanity begin when the process of knitting together began?

Another Scripture is Jeremiah 1:5:  “Before you were in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart.”  Once again, James Peterson points out that this verse does not mention when the prophet became a human person.  According to Peterson, this verse only states that God foreknew the prophet Jeremiah before he was in the womb of his mother.  To read more into it would suggest that the verse teaches preexistence, which is absurd.  Peterson has a point, but there is another point that modern embryology might make.  Human development begins in the oviduct and only moves into the womb after fertilization, conception, the first several cleavages, cavitation, and only then does the embryo enter the womb and implant into the endometrial layer of the uterus (about five days after fertilization).  Therefore, Jeremiah could be referring to that period of development before the embryo moves into the uterus.  If this is the case, then Jeremiah 1:5 certainly teaches that the embryo is foreknown by God and set aside by Him for a sacred purpose.  If this is too much of a stretch, then the verse definitely says that the developing unborn are particularly designated and set aside by God for specific purposes.  If this is the case, then aren’t the earlier stages as valuable as the later stages?

Other verses, suggest the value of he unborn.  For example in the Gospel of Luke, the in utero John the Baptist moves in response to the proximity of Mary the mother of Jesus, who is pregnant with the Savior

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

Again, we do not know the developmental stage of Jesus in this verse, therefore, it is impossible to ascertain the exact moment that a developing human being becomes a human person.  Nevertheless, the proleptic movement of the fetal John the Baptist, shows that the unborn are regarded with worth for not only what they will be but for what they presently are.  Thus while Scripture is not definitive in this discussion its message is highly suggestive, and to dismiss it completely is illegitimate.

Finally, Mr Frank states that “Modern genetics and biochemistry raise doubt about called a zygote or blastocyst a human being.”  Why?  According to John Frank because it has no brain – “If left to develop it will become human life.”

This view is similar to that of Michael Gazzaniga, a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics (Robert George and Christopher Tollefson, Embryo, New York:  Doubleday, 2008).  Gazzaniga uses the criterion of brain death to argue that the embryo is not a human person since it does not have a brain.  Brain death is the time at which an individual can be used as an organ donor.  Therefore, since this criterion is used for adults and children, it should be equally applied to the embryo.

This suffers from several problems.  First of all irreversible brain death destroys the capacity of an organism to operate as a self-integrated entity.  A brain-dead person is a corpse and is not a unitary organism at all.  The embryo, however, is an integrated organism that will form a brain at some later time.  While a corpse is dead, the embryo is very much alive.  It has the full potential to make a brain (Embryo, pp. 133-134).  This also leads to another question:  Is there anything that can grow a human brain that is not human?

This argument also makes another crucial mistake.  It assumes that there is a symmetry between a brain-dead corpse and an early human embryo.  The brain-dead corpse had a life and it is over.  However the early embryo’s life is in the present and it also fully ahead of it.  Human beings in whatever developmental state they might be are part of an enduring being that begins its journey as a single-celled zygote.  They are not potential persons, but persons with potential.  Therefore, the fact that the early embryo does not have a brain is no reason to snuff its life out, since that is exactly what we expect at these early stages.

If Mr. Frank means that higher cortical functions are what constitutes a person, then he has thrown in his lot with David Boonin whose book A Defense of Abortion (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2002) uses organized cortical brain activity as the criterion for a right to life.  Francis Beckwith’s Defending Life (New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2007) ably critiques Boonin’s criteria.  Beckwith uses two examples, the problem of the indoctrinated slave and problem of creating brainless human beings, to illustrate the problem with Boonin’s criterion.

The indoctrinated slave problem uses an example of a slave who has been indoctrinated to believe that she has no innate desires or interests.  Since Boonin uses the desires and interests as the yardstick for higher cortical function, this example works quite well.  According to Boonin, this person should lack a right to life.  Nevertheless, we would think that if this slave is killed, an injustice was done because this person’s interests and desires never came to fruition.  Boonin might respond that this indoctrinated slave has a right to life because she had an ideal desire to live.  However, this means that the slave is “a certain sort that ought to desire a right to life even when he does not actually desire a right to life” (Defending Life, p. 148).  This means that Boonin’s desire argument is flawed.

Secondly, Beckwith uses an example of “Uncle Jed” who has experienced a severe accident that has altered his memories such that he no longer remembers who he is, what his history was, where he came from, or what his interests and desires are or might have been.  Is it right to kill Uncle Jed?  According to Boonin, the answer should be yes.  However, if this is wrong, then “what precisely is doing the moral work in this judgment?” (Defending Life, p. 137).  His past?  But that will never come back.  Therefore, Boonin’s view does not work either, and Frank cannot depend on it.

Finally, Frank asserted that modern genetics and biochemistry argue against the personhood of the embryo.  But this is demonstrably false. Genetics shows that when the embryo comes into existence and the egg ceases to exist in the moment the egg and sperm nuclei fuse (syngamy). This process ends the event known as conception and the process of making a neonate has begun. The organism is a genetically new creature that beings the embryonic part of its life, transitioning to the fetal stage, to the neonate stage and so on. Development is continuous and seamless and defies providing a point where we can say that the embryo becomes a human person. Thus the life of the human person begins at the completion of conception.These are the conclusions of biochemistry and genetics. Thus embryos are human persons at their earliest stages of life.

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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).

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