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They’re back! The embryo, stem cell research, and the definition of the human… July 2, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Science.

The letters page of the Irish Times is rumbling with that eternal argument, just when (human) life begins. And who is responsible for this unseemly dispute. Well, a most unlikely participant in the debate, Dr. Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute (Irvine, California), who on the 27th noted in a letter to the Irish Time (clearly the IT is no Skibbereen Eagle and the Ayn Rand Institute is paying very close attention indeed*):

Contrary to the claims of President Bush, there is nothing unethical about destroying embryos in the course of scientific research. An embryo is a potential, not an actual, human being, just as canvas is a potential, not an actual, work of art. It is a primitive cluster of cells, which is no more unethical to destroy than the cells that make up one’s appendix.

Calling an embryo “human life” is an evasion of the distinction between a mass of undifferentiated cells in a test tube and an actual, living human being. Only the mystical doctrines of religion, which hold that a human being is, not a biological entity with certain natural properties – an independent organism possessing a rational faculty – but a transcendent soul temporarily trapped in a body, could cloud that distinction. Embryonic stem cell research could improve the lives of millions. In an effort to obscure the anti-life consequences of his opposition to such research, the president cited new discoveries that suggest scientists might one day be able to create pluripotent cells from non-embryonic cells, supposedly making the “unethical” destruction of embryonic cells unnecessary. But human welfare demands that scientists pursue every avenue that promises to realise the potential of stem cell technology – not abandon embryonic stem cell research in order to assuage faith-based objections.

Interestingly Lockitch opened the floodgates.

Fr. Séamus Murphy S.J. weighed in with

[Lockitch] holds that an embryo is not a living human being, but a mere “primitive cluster” or “mass” of undifferentiated cells.

Yet the embryo is not any old heap of undifferentiated cells, but a cell-grouping of a very particular kind, or an adult human being would not be its long-term outcome.

He says that an embryo is a potential, not an actual, human being. Yet the living embryo exists and is therefore “actual”, so it must be an actual living something, and that can only be human. One can’t dodge that by talk about “potential”, for the embryo can’t be a potential donkey or dahlia: its only potential is human.

He doesn’t understand Aristotle’s potential/actual distinction.

It’s not a way of separating things into two categories, for potential/actual go together, being different aspects of the one reality. The embryo is a “potential” human being only in the trivial sense that it is capable of further development, and that is true of all humans for much of their lives.

Aristotle mistakenly thought that the living embryo or foetus became a human being gradually, going through plant and animal stages first, and his view influenced Aquinas and other Christians. Today, it is curious how that old-fashioned view is still echoed by those who claim that one “becomes” a person or human being by degrees.

Gerry White of TCD Law School turned to the surprising quarter of Peter Singer to justify the following contentions:

First, in response to his simple assertion that the embryo is a potential, as distinct from an actual, human being because it is a mass of undifferentiated cells or a primitive cluster of cells, may I quote the controversial philosopher, Peter Singer:

“The liberal search for a morally crucial dividing line between the new-born baby and the fetus has failed to yield any event or stage of development that can bear the weight of separating those with a right to life from those who lack such a right, in a way that clearly shows fetuses to be in the latter category at the stage of development when most abortions take place. The conservative is on solid ground in insisting that the development from the embryo to the infant is a gradual process.”

An old friend of the CLR – well, friend might be the wrong term, but someone who has been mentioned almost fondly hereabouts – Prof. William Reville, of the Irish Times and UCC Department of Biochemistry suggested that:

Dr Keith Lockitch seems confused, which is somewhat surprising seeing that he works in an institute devoted to the study of philosophy. He states: “an embryo is a potential, not an actual, human being, just as a canvas is a potential, not an actual, work of art”. Is Dr Lockitch not aware that an embryo, in its natural environment, will develop into a baby, whereas a canvas left in a studio will never develop into a painting?

Well, Reville may well be right, but I know from personal experience that not every embryo develops even in ‘natural conditions’ to becoming a child. Quite often not any. Indeed statistically it is now known that the vast majority do not and that the human body sheds embryo’s with a gloomy profligacy – gloomy that is if one is to follow the logical conclusion regarding the nature of the embryo that he implies.

It is left to Sé D’Alton in the Irish Times today to note that:

Prof. Gerry Whyte, (June 29th) quotes Prof Peter Singer in refutation of Dr Keith Lockitch’s defence of stem cell research, on the basis that the cluster of cells destroyed in the process of such research is a potential, rather than an actual, human being. However, Prof Singer’s quoted conclusion that “liberals” cannot demonstrate that the foetus is simply a potential human being relates – as Prof Whyte himself indicates – to “the stage of development when most abortions take place”.

This is, of course, a much later stage than that at which blastocysts are destroyed in the process of stem cell research.

And continues…

What Prof Whyte does not quote is Prof Singer’s conclusions that abortion is “much less serious” than killing human beings and that the destroying of blastocysts is even less ethically problematic than abortion.

The problem is that unless one takes an absolutist line, these discussions fall apart on examination. Stephen Barrett also writing a letter in the Irish Times today argues that:

The core of the ethics issue is whether it is justifiable to cause processes in a cell cluster to cease that might otherwise in favourable conditions become something we would designate human.

If that wholly mechanistic potential did not exist within the cluster of cells we call an embryo, then there would be no issue of ethics worth debating.

In a way he is correct. Everything revolves around the definition we ascribe to the embryo and I’m not for a second pretending there is no debate here.

And for all of that, there are grey areas. How ‘human’ is a collection of cells, how divisible is ‘humanity’? How much should the future potential humanity of an collection of cells weigh upon its treatment? Actually there are other interesting questions that open up. There is some evidence that other cells when subjected to processes are also open to change in a way which may lead to them being used in IVF and other procedures, for example as a replacement for sperm. Doesn’t that imply that within every human all cells contain this apparently pivotal ‘potential’ and if so how does that impact on the arguments arrayed in all their glory above?

But what I find odd about this discussion is the idea that if the ‘humanity’ of the embryo is not upheld somehow that impacts upon other areas. That the lack of an absolute at one stage necessarily leads to … well … euthanasia to put it at its most extreme. My own view is one that judges these issues on a case by case analysis rather than a line which says that this is just a spectrum of sameness when neither reality nor practice pretends that it is. In my own experience I have known those close to death where food (by intravenous drip) has been withdrawn because it is thought unecessary. Such a decision flies in the face of an absolutist belief in ‘life’.

And there is so much that is open to question and unamenable to resolution that the only certainty is that we can expect such debates to continue indefinitely.

* actually on reflection that sentence makes no sense at all, but you know what I’m getting at…


1. Eagle - July 9, 2007

These are difficult, difficult issues. I’ve never even tried to address them on my own blog simply because (a) I don’t feel adequate and (b) I’m not sure I could say anything in less than 50,000 words.

In my own experience I have known those close to death where food (by intravenous drip) has been withdrawn because it is thought unecessary. Such a decision flies in the face of an absolutist belief in ‘life’.

I’ve been near these decisions too, but was the withdrawal of food in any way related to the death of the person? The instances when I’ve been near this question, the body was already failing and the digestion process was pretty much halted anyway so the withdrawal of food didn’t really have much of an impact. I don’t think withdrawing food in such circumstances is any different than the decision to “starve a fever” or suffering from a stomach complaint. If the body doesn’t need food, then administering it by IV is redundant.


2. Eagle - July 9, 2007

Sorry I mangled my English near the end there, but I figure you’ll get my point.


3. WorldbyStorm - July 9, 2007

Hmmm… I know exactly where you’re coming from, but my understanding was that food wasn’t being given because while it would ‘kill’ the person to stop giving it at the same time it was merely prolonging their life by giving it. I am open to correction on this. But, food could have been given. Life could have been prolonged. An extra week is as good as a year in some contexts. I don’t have a problem with prolonging life either, dependent upon circumstance.


4. Eagle - July 9, 2007

Every circumstance is different. The ones I’ve been closest too had more concerns with regards to painkillers. Sometimes doctors will prescribe high dosages near the end even though that will actually shorten life (probably meaning the person dies as a result of an overdose) because it makes the last few minutes/hours bearable.

Either way, I don’t have a problem with decisions with regards to those who are dying and whose time is short. Pain & suffering are appropriate concerns. However, I’m a little less certain where a person’s not dying (say in a vegetative state or whatever), but they have their food removed. I’m just not sure that’s right, although I can understand how a family member makes such a decision.


5. WorldbyStorm - July 9, 2007

Surely. It’s a very difficult issue and resolution is all but impossible in many cases. Persistant vegetative states are particularly harrowing and it’s understandable that people would move cautiously in such instances.


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