Is the Embryo Like an Acorn Rather than an Oak Tree?

Michael Sandel is a professor of political theory at Harvard University and was a member of President George W. Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics.

Sandel states that even though every oak tree was at one time in its life an acorn, “it does not follow that acorns are oak trees.” Why? Compare how we might regard the loss of a magnificent oak tree over the loss of a single acorn. While the loss of the oak tree is received with distress and disappointment, the loss of the acorn hardly evokes a response. The same kind of disparate response is evoked by the loss of a mature human being over the loss of a human embryo. Therefore just as an acorn is a different kind of thing from an oak tree, a human embryo is a different kind of thing than a mature human person.

This argument has a lot of things wrong with it. In the first place, it begins with a significant biological error. Acorns and oak trees are both oaks, that is, members of the genus Quercus. They are the same organism at different stages of development. Sandel acknowledges this at first, and then denies it based on features that the oak tree acquires later in its development.

Secondly. Robert George and Franciscan University of Stubenville philosopher Patrick Lee have pointed out that the characteristics Sandel uses to categorize oak trees and acorns into different groups, like grandeur, beauty and so on, are “accidental” attributes. This is just a fancy way of describing a feature that is incidental to who you are and not essential. You can change an accidental attribute of something without affecting what it is. A good example is skin color in humans. People can have red, yellow, black or white skin and still be people. If their skin color changes, like when they get a tan in the summer and lighten up in the winter, they are still people. Herein lies the whole reason why it was evil for people with lighter skin to enslave those who had darker skin. Even though some argued that people with dark skin were not human persons, this is plainly ridiculous because a person can have light or dark skin and still be a person – skin color is an accidental attribute. Thus, a scrawny, scruffy, diseased oak tree with twisted bark is just as much an oak tree as a large, grand one. The grandeur, size, and beauty of the tree are accidental features that do not make it an oak tree. Sandel has made accidental features of oak trees and humans the most important things about them even though they are not.

George and Lee make other telling points against Sandel’s analogy. If acorns are to embryos as oak trees are to people, then what about oak saplings? Forest managers often cull oak saplings to prevent excessive crowding of trees and promote the health of the forest, and no one has any misgivings about such a practice. Yet if acorns are like human embryos then oak saplings are like human toddlers. We would not entertain culling toddlers. We would also not have any trouble with pulling up and burning a diseased, disheveled oak tree, but killing the mentally or physically disabled would be just plain incorrigibly evil. Clearly, Sandel’s analogy simply does not work.

Finally, Sandel’s main point seems to pivot around how he feels about the embryo. According to Sandel an oak tree and acorn are not the same kind of thing because we feel much more strongly attached to an oak tree than to an acorn. This is revealed in Sandel’s statements that “more than half of all fertilized eggs either fail to implant or are otherwise lost,” and “the way we respond to the natural loss of embryos suggests that we do not regard this event as the moral or religious equivalent of the death of infants.” Sandel gets his facts wrong about the percentage of embryos that die, but his assertion that the lack of a funeral means that the embryo is not a human person is a troubling one. What is it about having a funeral after you die that makes you a person? Did people slaughtered by Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, or Adolph Hitler and buried in mass graves have a funeral? Were they not human persons? Of course they were. The embryo normally dies before we know anything about it or have a chance to become attached to it. Just because we do not hold a funeral for its demise is neither here nor there.

I think Sandel’s ethic gets even more sinister if we take it to its logical conclusions. My daughter just returned from a mission trip to a homeless shelter in Minneapolis, Minnesota. While there, she and her friends encountered a homeless lady who was afflicted with bipolar disorder. Her parents lived four doors down from her daily haunt, but never came to even talk to her or invite her home. Previously, she was even in a coma for several weeks, but her parents never came to see her or gave the slightest indication that they cared about her condition. This homeless lady’s parents have completely abandoned their own daughter. They don’t like her mental illness. In short, they don’t “feel” like being her parents anymore. Under Sandel’s ethical criteria, what these parents did was morally fine. Yet any parent worth their moral salt will tell you that their children are ALWAYS their children, and this homeless lady’s parents have failed in their most basic duty to their own daughter. Such neglect is an outrage, but if we take Sandel seriously, this lady’s parents were morally upright in all they did. The consequences of Sandel’s treatment are heinous, unchristian and unworkable for any society.

In the end Sandel has offered a troubling recipe for justifying the destruction of embryos – because he does not feel a strong attachment toward them. Such thinking is not only unconvincing, but morally dangerous.

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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).