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Defending Human Embryonic Life - Essay

By Dr. John P. Hubert MD, FACS
Advisor to Common Good
Catholic Online

“Intermediate” or “Special Status” for the human embryo is invalid

I. Introduction

This essay addresses the moral status of the human embryo. It asserts that on the basis of biology and metaphysics, the human embryo should be accorded full moral status, that is, inviolability. While this is also the position afforded it by the Catholic Church on the basis of divine revelation and elsewhere, the case will not be argued on that basis in this brief. Instead it will provide a critique of the so-called “intermediate” or “special status” which has been proposed by some ethicists including several of the members of the President’s Council on Bioethics. In so doing it will demonstrate why anything other than full moral status for the human embryo is biologically and philosophically untenable.

The President’s Council on Bioethics has recommended a total ban on cloning to produce children (Reproductive cloning or CPC). However, it has suggested a moratorium rather than a total ban on cloning for biomedical research (Therapeutic cloning or CBR). A careful review of the Council’s report entitled; Human Cloning and Human Dignity, reveals that the Council is equally divided with seven members favoring a complete ban on CBR and seven favoring CBR. Only three members initially favored a moratorium for CBR. As a result, the seven members who initially recommended a ban on CBR and the three who favored a moratorium have joined together in favor of a four year moratorium on CBR.[i] While this is fortunate in that a clear majority of the Council is unwilling to recommend CBR for a period of at least four years, it is disconcerting that any members would be willing to allow it now or ever. It would appear that the reason for disagreement with respect to public policy is that the moral status of the human embryo is still in doubt from the perspective of public perception. Similarly, the fundamental underlying reason why there remains doubt and debate about the moral status of the human embryo is that the truth about its basic nature and essence has not been adequately defined and accepted. This essay is an attempt to outline the salient features involved in such a discussion.

At the January 2003 meeting of the President’s Council on Bioethics, Dr. Opitz delivered an excellent presentation of the details involved in human reproductive biology. It nicely coincided with contemporary understanding of human developmental biology as presented in standard texts.[1] The reader is referred to the proceedings of the Council at for a complete presentation of his remarks and for access to standard reference works in this area.[2] The following basic material was outlined. No attempt will be made to provide an exhaustive review of human developmental biology. The data herein presented represents the author’s interpretation of the salient features involved in human reproductive biology vis a vis its implications in the discussion of the moral status of the human embryo.

II. Human Embryology and Developmental Considerations

Fertilization (conception)or sexual reproduction biologically occurs when a male sperm cell or haploid germ cell called a gamete (containing 23 chromosomes) unites (nuclear fusion) with a female egg cell or haploid germ cell also called a gamete (containing 23 chromosomes). The fusion results in an exchange and recombination of nuclear or genetic material. The resulting diploid "zygote” or embryo (containing 46 chromosomes) which is created at that point, is biologically a “nascent” human being or human organism possessing all of the genetic (coded information) material of a full grown adult in microscopic form. The one celled zygote is genetically complete (contains the complete and unique genetic code) and fully (actually) not potentially human even though not yet completely developed morphologically (structurally). Prior to fertilization, no new human being is present; instead a living separate “germ cell” one each from the male and the female exists, i.e. living tissue only, not an entire and genetically complete organism. Thus the biological “dividing line” between new human life (organism) and microscopic living material (tissue) is fertilization (conception). The latter has been a known fact in Biology since shortly after the development of the microscope, but was definitively “settled” with the more recent discovery of DNA, the details of molecular biology and genetics. The “dividing line” between new human life (organism) and living tissue at the level of “sub-organism” is a critical one and represents a piece of relevant scientific information which must be understood in order to properly apprehend the nature of this debate

The early human embryo or zygote (the product of conception), ...

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