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Reasons for thinking that an embryo is a human being

Letters to The Daily Telegraph
10 Jun 2006

Reasons for thinking that an embryo is a human being

In the final extract from his book After Dolly, Ian Wilmut asks if the early human embryo is really a person? (Daily Telegraph, June 6, 2006).

His embryological observations provide a useful corrective to the impression that conception is an instantaneous event involving fusion of sperm and egg. As he indicates, this fusion is part of a process resulting in an entity with a distinct genetic identity. Still, that process is rapidly achieved, and thereafter development is in accord with the DNA of the new individual.

He remarks that the self-developing early embryo “is a far cry from the popular image of a little foetus with limbs and heart”. As Dr Wilmut knows, however, the varying appearance of an organism at different developmental stages gives no reason to doubt that the same individual is present. Indeed, the concept of developmental phases presupposes this.

Next, though, he suggests that because the blastocyst [ball of cells] is an individual human embryo with “the potential to become a person, that does not mean that it is a person, just as a young girl who wants to study medicine is not a qualified doctor”. This is a familiar move – but a confusing, and confused one.

Distinguish two uses of a term such as “cat” or “human” (being or person): one is specific, saying what kind of being something is, the other is phasic, describing a phase or stage in its life. Now consider the claim: “Because a kitten has the potential to become a cat, it does not follow that it is one already”. That is true if by “cat” is meant the adult phase; but of course in the more relevant specific sense, a kitten is certainly a cat. Embryo, foetus, baby, infant, child, youth and adult are phases in the life career of a human being.

Likewise, for potentiality. The potential for a human to come into existence is one matter. Another is potential for developed human activity, present by virtue of already being human. Egg and sperm are the principal components of the former, and the blastocyst constitutes the realisation of that potential. An embryo is not a potential human being, but a human being with potential.

Finally, Dr Wilmut writes: “The main reason I do not regard a blastocyst as a person is that it has no mental life.” But, as this criterion would exclude individuals at later stages, some in adulthood, he retreats to the 14-day “primitive streak” marker. He adds: “That is not to say, however, that an embryo younger than two weeks is not deserving of some respect.”

If Dr Wilmut thinks this respect is different and greater than respect owing to an unfertilised egg, then it may be that he senses the difference between the potential to be a human being, and the potential of a human being.

John Haldane, Department of Moral Philosophy, University of St Andrews, Fife

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