The Status of the Early Human Embryo in Relation to Being a Person

Just last week it was announced that litigation will be introduced into court in an effort to argue that baboons, chimps, and dolphins should be accorded the rights of personhood. But what is personhood?

To make a morally correct decision, one must be certain that he or she starts with accurate—that is, valid—science. Many today have argued that the early human embryo prior to implantation cannot be a person because—one may split into two which compromises the individuality of personhood. Some today—- continue to argue that in identical twinning, the original embryo ceases to exist and gives rise to two new embryos with virtually identical DNA. But this is incorrect biology! We know today that in identical twinning the original embryo continues to exist while asexually giving rise to a second one with virtually identical DNA. The original embryo continues to exist while simultaneously a blastomere is separated independently or the Inner Cell Mass is replicated.

It is Christian tradition which gives us the origin and understanding of the term “person.” As the 6th century philosopher Boethius taught, a person is an individual substance of a rational nature.  But how can we describe the early embryo as rational since even a nervous system is not yet present on a material level? Again we do not observe infants doing calculus or chemistry even though their central nervous system and upper and lower brain are present! But we all know they possess a rational nature in potency which means the rational nature is already present even though it may not be manifested due to primitive biological development.  Many then argue that “potency” means they might “ acquire some trait in the future”  but do not here and now possess it. Not so—to have potency necessitates that one be in an actual state of being—and already possesses that trait. Why? Because potency is the radical capacity for an organism to exhibit change which demands a current state of being and that one’s nature which is uniquely human is already in possession of all human traits! A human nature is not “potentially” an ape, zebra, or a chimp. He or she is only uniquely human! Those who are revisionists are revising the moral vocabulary to fit their own desires. Potency has now been re-defined to refer to something coming into existence or coming to possess some trait in the future! This is a serious betrayal to biological science as well as philosophy and ultimately theology.

We should be very precise in defining fertilization as a molecular process divided into three phases (the Carnegie Stages of Development, 1a, 1b, 1c):

1a.    The penetrated oocyte: the moment the sperm penetrates the outer plasma membrane of the occyte both sperm and egg cease to exist as haploid cells and we have a new embryo—a new human person.

1b.    The ootid: the maternal and paternal chromosomes in their nuclear envelopes move toward each other but have not yet made physical contact. Again, the ootid is an embryo who is a human person.

1c.    The zygote: the mother and father’s chromosomes meet and join together reflecting the end of fertilization as a process. We now again have an embryo who is a human person.

C. Ward Kischer, PhD
Professor Emeritus Human Embryology
John Paul II Bioethics Commission

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Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/15 at 02:52 AM
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