Book Review: Embryo

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Embryo: A Defence of Human Life

Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen

Doubleday Books: 2008

Please note: an earlier, briefer version of this review appeared on Apologetics 315

In the wake of the Kermit Gosnell trial, it is safe to say that elite Western culture no longer recognises the unborn child as a life worthy of protection. It does not even seem to be worth our sympathy. The killing of a newborn child is now, in journalistic newspeak, merely “inducing labour and terminating a viable fetus”. Such a termination might be tasteless and a tad barbaric, but it is not murder. After all, if we concede that decapitating a 24 week old human being outside the womb is wrong, we might have to wonder why it is right to dismember it in the womb. Pro-life arguments might begin to seem a little too rational for comfort. Better to flush those conservative thoughts away, and ignore the issue altogether.

Once we acknowledge the humanity of a viable unborn child, other questions become unavoidable. A child has a recognizable human form long before 24 weeks. By the eighth and ninth week the child is unmistakably human in appearance. The heart begins to beat around the sixth week. How do we decide the point at which a human life truly begins? Hence the importance of  Embryo: a Defence of Human Life.

1)    Some Humans Are Not More Equal than Others

2)      Who Gets to Live and Why

3)      The Consequences of Consequentialism

4)      The Nature of Natural Law

5)      Must we be Duelling Dualists?

Robert P George and Christopher Tollefson conclude that human life begins at conception. The core of their argument is that:

1)      Every innocent human individual has an absolute right to life.

2)      From conception, the embryo is an innocent human individual

3)      From conception, the embryo has an absolute right to life.

We should immediately note that the authors do not appeal to theological categories. All of the premises in George and Tollefson’s argument could (in principle) be adopted by an atheist. We should also note that the argument of Embryo is open to scientific falsification. They believe that every individual human being is a unity, with all its functions aimed at its development and survival. If it could be shown that the early embryo is merely a group of cells held together by an external force, and which do not co-ordinate their actions towards a common goal, then George and Tollefson would be forced to concede that it was not a human individual.

However, a detailed survey of the scientific evidence leaves the authors with no doubt that conception is the morally significant point at which a human life begins:

Modern embryology and human developmental biology establish beyond any doubt that human embryos are wholes and not mere parts, that they are indeed determinate individuals; and that they are organisms that endure throughout the developmental process, that is, both during gestation and after birth.”

Tollefson and George argue that rights attach to humans because of the kind of beings that humans are. Every human is born with a capacity to become self-aware, rational, conscious, creative and moral. These qualities make humans “god-like” or “the image of god.” A humanist should agree that our minds are unique in the natural realm. George and Tollefson argue that the potential of the human individual gives every human a right to protection and nurture. To clarify what the authors mean by “fulfilling the embryo’s potential”: a pile of bricks is potentially a wall. But a pile of bricks does not fulfil its potential by becoming a wall! There is no inherent purpose to a pile of bricks – it does not have a destiny. The human embryo, however, is laden with information that drives it on to a final destination. The human embryo is not a “potential life” or a “potential human”. It is a human life with the awesome potential to choose, know, love and be loved.

Now, some moral philosophers and scientists reject this view, arguing that we do not have rights until our potential is actualised. That is to say, we do not have rights until we become conscious and self-aware, or until we begin to think in a rational way. Others suggest that we obtain our rights once other humans gain an emotional attachment to us. But these views have absurd consequences. A new born child is less rational than a dog or a pig; are we to infer that it has less moral value? Or could we seriously suggest that a newborn child only obtains human dignity once it is accepted by its family? Furthermore, the doctrine of equal human worth is called into question if our rights depend on how far our capacities have developed. Some of us are more reflective and rational than others. Now, if our rights depend on the degree of rationality or self-awareness that we have obtained, it would seem that some of us have a greater claim to fundamental human rights than others.

Who Gets to Live and Why?

I find George and Tollefson’s central arguments convincing. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine a strange and exotic virus ravages a human’s nervous system, paralysing the limbs and leaving the subject with no conscious awareness. Cells in the higher brain cease to function properly; there is no response to external stimuli. Only those brain functions essential for life (respiration, heat-beat) continue. However, further suppose this disease only lasts for a few hours. With nothing more than nine hour’s bed rest, the patient usually heals and makes a full recovery.

Presumably, no-one would deny that a human suffering the effects of this disease would lose their right to life. They would lose all conscious awareness and their capacity for rational thought, but not their human dignity. With a little patience and care, the potential of the human being will manifest itself once more. The person is on a path to full consciousness; they have all the capacities that give a human being inherent value. Now, change the thought experiment a little, and imagine the time it takes for recovery is nine weeks or nine months. Again, it seems we could not kill a human being simply because he is not conscious.

But the human embryo would also normally develop human capacities over nine months, so it also must be worthy of care and protection. It is a human being with a right to life. Peered at in a petri-dish, to the untrained eye the embryo just seems to be tissue, a collection of biological parts. But when we consider an embryo growing in a mother’s womb, we realise its true nature. Given time and care, it will develop the power to look out at the world, to reach out and experience sensation and emotion, to reflect on what it has experienced and to share all that it has thought and felt with others.

The argument of Embryo also coheres with an argument made famous by mathematician, philosopher and ethicist Alexander Pruss in his paper I Was Once a Fetus: That is Why Abortion is Wrong” He begins with the observation” if an organism that once existed has never died, then this organism still exists.” Now, an organism came into existence at the moment of your conception: you. The cells of the embryo divided and differentiated, but the organism survived and thrived. (If not, what happened to that organism?)Or, to put that another way, you survived and thrived.

You are a human organism now, and you were a human organism then. To murder you now would be to deprive you of your right to life based on your human dignity. I would have deprived you of the same right, and trampled on the same dignity, if I had killed you when you were a child, or a neo-nate, or a fetus or an embryo. How could it be otherwise? You were the same human individual at every stage. To kill you now would be to rob you of your future life. To have killed you before your birth would have been to deprive you of even more life. So, before you were born you had at least the same right to life as your adult self. Of course, you have no more inherent dignity than the next human; so every human has exactly the same right to life at each stage of their life.

However, it seems to me that we must consider more than the unborn child’s capacity for self-awareness and rationality. The human child can also be a source and recipient of love. It will develop a human form and face, and so call out for care and understanding. It will demand that we make sacrifices to nurture and protect it. Each new human life calls out for love, and human beings are not fulfilled in the absence of love. Indeed, it calls with greatest power to those who brought it into existence. It follows that each new human life must be protected as sacred.

Perhaps these intuitions and arguments underlie our unease with attempts to create embryos that are hybrids of humans and animal and why we would be uncomfortable with the mass production and sale of human embryos. If each preconscious embryo is merely a collection of biological parts, we should have no problem with couples purchasing an embryo which they had selected according to certain tastes or requirements. But we could scarcely tolerate such a business because it is wrong to purchase a human life.

Of course we want every child to have a loving home, and we might worry that parents who consider buying their children would provide an ideal childhood. That is, we might worry about the embryo’s future. But even if buyers could guarantee a child love, care and a good quality of life, there are some things that should not be up for sale. It is not absurd to suggest that a human embryo simply shouldn’t be treated as a fungible good; it deserves more respect. So it is not absurd to suggest that the embryo has interests and rights. After all, it would be the embryo’s future at risk in such a transaction, and a human’s future should not be available for purchase.

The Consequences of Consequentialism

Embryo is not merely valuable for its clear articulation of the pro-life position. The authors savage utilitarian and consequentialist ethical theories, too often taken for granted by secular commentators and politicians. Broadly speaking, consequentialism evaluates actions as good if they maximise some desired state of affairs. Utilitarianism is a brand of consequentialism which aims to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. These theories all face what George and Tollefson call the “problem of incommensurability”.There is no way to directly compare and weigh the relative worth of the bewildering variety of experiences.

How do we measure and compare the pleasures of walking on the beach to enjoying a cup of coffee? Is it better to enjoy Mozart or Picasso? Dickens or a sunset? There is no common measure that we can use to compare the worth of each experience. Utilitarianism is empty of content; it cannot recommend any course of action because it cannot determine which genuinely brings most pleasure. Most contemporary consequentialists have recognised this flaw and prefer to measure the satisfaction of preference or desires. The greater the number of preferences satisfied, the better, provided these are preferences of rational agents.

But why do we prefer the goals of Gandhi to a selfish-capitalist’s? It is not obvious that the latter is less rational. Why prefer an altruist’s goals to those of a hedonist? Why should the desires of a moral saint be preferred to an amoral politician? It is absurd to put egoism on a par with sacrificial love; but it is question begging to assume that the latter is more rational than the former. The problem, in short, is that:

…there are clearly bad pleasures, there are also clearly bad preferences and desires; why should Hitler’s preferences and desires, any more than his pleasures, count equally with the preferences of a Mother Teresa or a Gandhi? Nor will it do to speak only of one’s highest or best preferences, for this will then simply smuggle moral considerations into the assessment of preferences and desires.”

The Nature of Natural Law

As an alternative to utilitarianism, the authors provide a clear introduction to, and defence of, contemporary developments in natural law theory. This does not attempt to ground values in biological facts. Rather, it discerns fundamental goods necessary for human fulfilment. These goods include play and work, community, knowledge, wisdom, and the quest for transcendence. These goods are not means to any other end. They are simply good in and of themselves. We do not need to justify our pursuit of these goals; we simply need to pursue them.

These goods provide the theoretical foundation for human rights. Insofar as we are able, we are obliged to aid others in their pursuit of these goods (because no one can achieve them on their own). Of course without life and health, it is impossible to seek any other good. So:

…the right to life is in a strong and obvious sense the foundational right for persons. It is the right upon which all other rights are predicated and marks whether a being is a being of moral standing at all.”

We must nurture human life whenever we can, and we must not deliberately take away an innocent life.

Must we be Duelling Dualists?

Despite these strengths, Embryo goes astray in a sustained but pointless critique of what it terms “dualism” – by which the authors mean any view which holds that the subjects of consciousness are non-physical, or  that “… the true self, or person, as an immaterial entity … is substantially different from the body proximate to that entity and that indeed is capable of a separate existence.”

Their target is the dualism of Plato, Augustine and Descartes. George and Tollefson are, however, attracted to Thomistic dualism, so their choice of terminology is confusing. Moreover, they provide no sustained defence of Thomistic dualism in the text. They argue that modern thought went astray with Descartes, but simply assume that Aquinas can set us straight again. This assumption leaves a hole in their case. Furthermore, their critique of Cartesian dualism is very weak. Consider their appeal to Christians: “Christianity’s continued emphasis on the resurrection of the body does not seem consistent, in the end, with Platonic or Cartesian forms of dualism.”

It is true that in Judaeo-Christian thought it is unnatural for a human to be disembodied. But that does not mean that a person cannot survive without a body. Platonic-Cartesian dualism seems to fit better with Christianity’s belief in the intermediate state. George and Tollefson also argue that Cartesian dualism:

…is shown to be false by … the sorts of actions that we perform, actions like reaching for an apple or riding a bike. If a living thing performs bodily actions, then it follows that it is a physical organism. If … one of the authors of this book, is riding a bike, then what he should and does rationally say, think, and believe is, “I am riding a bike.” The subject of the action to which “I” refers is not understood…as being something other than the physical being pedalling along.”

Their argument is, if persons are not bodies, then I never truly hold my child or kiss my wife. Our true selves, our souls, would be non-physical. Therefore, I could never truly come into contact with their true selves. Moreover, if I am not my physical body, I never truly sit in a chair or bite into an apple. What is non-physical cannot have contact with the physical world. But we often describe or understand ourselves as bodily beings in contact with the world. So Cartesian dualism is falsified by our common understanding of ourselves and our actions.

The argument is not very convincing. George and Tollefson would accept that I only see my wife smile because I see light-waves reflected off her face. I hear my daughter laugh because I hear the sound waves travelling from her vocal chords. Yet no one would argue that I never truly hear or see my wife and daughter – that I only truly see and hear light and sound. When we communicate, sound and light can bring us directly into the presence of another person.  And if sound and light can fully communicate another’s presence, then surely a body can put a non-physical self in contact with the physical world.

Even Descartes (who believed that souls were not extended in space) believed that body and mind formed a union. And in contrast to Descartes, many dualists in the Platonic-Augustinian tradition (to which Cartesian dualism belongs) believe that the mind is spatially present in the body. As Goetz and Taliaferro note Augustine believed that a soul is fully present wherever it feels a sensation. It does not occupy space in the sense of filling it and excluding other things; but when something touches a soul’s body at a certain location the entire soul feels that sensation. One and the same soul fully experiences every sensation the body feels. (See A Brief History the Soul (Wiley-Blackwell: 2011, pp44-45))

Simply put, George and Tollefson do not adequately present the views of many dualists. For example, Richard Swinburne notes:

We are aware of what is happening in the world by its effect on our bodies…and we have non-inferential knowledge of what is happening in various parts of our bodies (but not of brain events which cause that awareness), and we perform movements of parts of the body other than our brains as instrumentally basic acts (without being aware of the brain events through which we cause these movements). It therefore seems natural to think of ourselves, and so our souls, the essential part of ourselves, as located in that part of the physical world of which we are most aware and which we can influence most directly. The soul of a human living on earth is located (in one sense) in that human’s brain and (in another sense) in the whole of that human’s body.” (Mind, Brain and Free Will (Oxford:2013) p173)

Why do the authors take so much time to attack a metaphysical doctrine? George and Tollefson worry that Cartesian dualism has dangerous moral implications. If the true self is non-physical then it might not be present at conception. Therefore, we might not be killing a person when we kill an embryo. This problem becomes particularly acute when we consider that Descartes identified the soul (or mind) with consciousness (I think, therefore I am!)  The embryo is not conscious. Would this make the killing of embryos permissible? George and Tollefson seem to think so. However, Platonic-Cartesian dualists Stuart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro strongly disagree:

We do not think there are compelling grounds for claiming that souls must always be conscious, or for accepting Descartes’ views that consciousness is an essential property of the self. If that is the case, one may claim that the soul is present…from conception, but not conscious. On such a view the fate of the fetus may be the same as that of the soul.” (A Brief History the Soul p214)

They identify the soul as a simple substance with the power to think, to experience and to act. To be clear, by substance they do not mean “quasi-physical stuff”. A soul is simply the subject of numerous experiences, and a source of thoughts and actions; it is the centre of an enduring, first-person perspective on the world. A dualist in the Platonic-Augustinian-Cartesian tradition insists that sould are not physical because the properties of the soul (such as consciousness and intentionality) are not physical properties.

Yet this does not mean that my body is not an essential part of my identity; because the human soul acts through a body, the development of that body is essential for the development of the powers of the soul. From the point of conception, the embryo contains all the information that is needed to form a brain and nervous system. This means that from conception we have an inbuilt disposition to form a large number of beliefs and desires (that is, a large number of the mental states that will constitute our conscious life). As our bodies develop we naturally develop sensations and thoughts.

Eventually we become aware of these sensations and thoughts (that is, we become self-aware). This is only possible because the structure and teleology of the embryo. Our bodies are ensouled from the first day of our existence. Every human’s body is essential to his or her identity: our bodies shape our thoughts and emotions, our virtues and character. To be human is to have one’s soul shaped and formed by a human body.  Our identity begins on the very first day of our body’s existence: Christians believe that a human can survive the death of the body but no human can begin without a body. The human body is an ensouled body; the human soul is an embodied soul.

So the Cartesian dualist can, in fact, agree with the Thomistic dualist. The embryo is not potentially a person or potentially a human life. From our first moments our souls are waiting to be made manifest in our bodies. The embryo is fully human, a personal being with a potential that can only be found in a being made in the Image of God. Christians need not depend on Thomism to resist the dehumanising scientism and bigoted secularism of our time; the arguments in Embryo should strike a chord with most schools of theology. Indeed, George and Tollefson’s arguments could convince a secularist who is impatient with theology. I regret that Embryo did not focus all its fire on the author’s primary target.


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