Mark Miller, C.Ss.R., Ph.D.
Last month this column focused on the often ignored moral issues surrounding sperm banks. Today I would like to look into the next stage of reproduction (and reproductive technology), the fertilized ovum or pre-embryo.
What is a ‘pre-embryo’? The term ‘pre-embryo’ is relatively new. In the 1980’s biologists saw enormous potential for technological assistance to human reproduction, but they needed to be able to do their research on the first forms of human life. There existed a fuzzy distinction between the fetus (a relatively developed human being in the womb) and the embryo which referred to the stage from conception to about six to ten weeks when a recognizable human form (fetus) began to appear.
These biologists noted a major moment in the development of a fertilized egg (or conceptus), namely, the significance of implantation on the uterine wall of the mother. Prior to that time, the conceptus was a series of developing cells. Upon implantation, the so-called ‘primitive streak’ begins to develop which becomes the umbilical cord or lifeline to the mother’s nourishment. The prior developing cells held great promise for research and the biologists decided to call this stage the ‘pre-embryo.’ The implication may well have been intended that this was not really an embryo (a human being) and therefore research could be done. The scientific world quickly adopted this distinction whether there were any scruples or not about the humanness of this ‘pre-embryo.’
Pre-embryos are critical to reproductive technology. First, they can live outside the womb, for example, in a petri dish where they are often ‘created’ by bringing sperm and ova together. Second, once fertilization takes place, the first single-celled conceptus that is produced begins to split into two, then four, then eight, etc. cells. At least in the early stages, these cells are totipotential. That is, if the first two cells somehow separate, they could each produce a complete human being (identical twins). One can only imagine the excitement of many researchers as the ramifications of this discovery were pursued.
To make a long story short, researchers and legislators in our society have basically conceded the pre-embryo to the identity of an object rather than a human life. Pre-embryos are often created by the dozen in order to increase the possible success rate of in vitro fertilization or IVF. (In IVF conception takes place in a petri dish and some of the pre-embryos are inserted in the woman’s womb or Fallopian tubes with the hope that one or more will implant; the rest are frozen for later use if the procedure fails.) Many pre- embryos are never inserted into the womb of the mother, sometimes because a child has already been born, sometimes because the parents give up on the procedure.
In Britain this past summer, around 3700 pre-embryos were destroyed after a five-year storage period according to British law. The outcry over this destruction missed the point that such destruction goes on all the time, though on a more modest level.
Are human lives being snuffed out by such procedures? In the Catholic Church, we believe in the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. Each of us began at the moment of conception and the continuum of life can find no other starting point. Hence, the Church teaches that pre- embryos must be respected the same as all human lives.
But are we dealing with individual human persons at this stage of existence? Many philosophers and scientists argue that we are not. They may argue that there is no brain, therefore no thought or personality. They may argue that minute clusters of cells can hardly be compared with living, breathing human beings. Some even argue that while the fact of individual human lives is indisputable, there is no true person there but only the potential for a human person.
Official Church teaching is well aware of these arguments. And though this may come as a surprise, the Church has not made a definitive statement about the presence of a human person from the moment of conception. In Pope John Paul’s encyclical “The Gospel of Life” the arguments against equating the pre-embryo with a human person were weighed and not found totally convincing. However, the arguments for establishing the personhood of the pre-embryo are also not totally convincing. (One of the most difficult issues arises from the problem of twinning. To oversimplify, if a pre- embryo can split and become two persons, how could there have been first one person and then two? Some therefore argue that the individuality of the pre-embryo is not definitively established until implantation.)
The Pope, however, then makes two points. First, quoting from a previous document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he asks “How can a human being not be a human person?” In other words, if everybody agrees that this is a human life (a human being), how could it be anything other than a human person? The burden of proof lies with those who disagree with the implications of this question. And, second, he points out that because this is an issue of life and death, i.e., one of the most serious issues about what it is to be human, it is better to err on the side of caution. Hence, the destruction of pre-embryos is akin to ending the lives of human beings.
We may notice that this is not simply a ‘faith position.’ It is an argued moral position (a distinction that most people do not take into account when they dismiss a ‘Catholic moral position’). It makes sense. And, therefore, the Pope can demand of both Catholics and society (for, contrary to some popular opinions, morality is not the same as what is popular) that the same respect due the human person be accorded the pre-embryo.
This may sound overly subtle, especially for people who ‘just want to have a baby.’ Nonetheless, our moral argumentation lays the ground work for the way we understand ourselves. And if pre-embryos do not deserve any respect as human beings, how long will it be before embryos and even fetuses become products to be harvested for cells or parts? The amazing qualities of the cells of human beings at these stages does not bode well if scientists are allowed to put use before dignity.