A dialogue between a scientist and a catholic pro-life activist.

It’s not surprising in this melting pot of a nation, founded on religious tolerance, that people believe a variety of things. Neither is it surprising that some believers try to get other people to believe like they do. Southern Baptists, for example, aren’t considered to be true believers unless they “bear witness” to the non-believers. Everyone understands this, and for the most part tolerates it with a minimum of eye-rolling.

However, where the line is crossed is when believers in some article of faith attempt to assert the objective truth of said article by advancing a supposedly secular argument in favor of what they personally take on faith. For example, no one cares if you personally believe that life begins at conception, but when you start machinations to get such belief encoded into the law, people care.

I found a blog dedicated to doing exactly that for the Catholic faith. In one post, the blog author, Rebecca, is complaining about an editorial in Nature Neuroscience, which takes Dr. Maureen Condic to task for an sloppy and biased article she wrote for the Catholic magazine First Things.

The following unedited exchange is between myself and Rebecca.

Isn’t it amazing that discussion and even rebuttal to an unwarranted attack on an ethics article in an ethics journal are not “appropriate for our letters section”?

When we hear/read about editorial sloppiness and lack of evidence used to give “evidence based” guidelines by even the World Health Organization, such debate and information is more and more important – especially when we’re talking about killing people.

Thanks for spreading the word and stimulating the discussion.

I also saw your comment on the Scientific Activist blog. Thanks again.
#1 Beverly Nuckols (Homepage) on 2007-05-12 06:55 (Reply)

Well, we’ve made some progress, but aren’t there quite yet. Clearly, we should just stop, give up, and go ask our priest what experiments God wants us to do.

I understand your desire to advocate a position based on your beliefs, but doesn’t it feel a little disingenuous to always have to concoct some non-religious argument when it’s religion that’s your motivation?
#2 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-14 11:45 (Reply)

Mr. Gunn,

Thanks for the comment.

I think the point here is that Dr. Condic as a scientist has some real scientific concerns about the public funding of embryonic stem cell research. She never once mentioned religion or used a religious argument and yet she is accused of being biased and anti-science.

Her analysis was solid and her conclusions were valid and yet because she disagreed with the “party-line” she was accused of “distoring the field.”

Just because someone disagrees with using public funds to destroy human embryos for research does not mean they have a religious motivation. There are plenty of secularists that feel that is bad public policy.
#2.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-14 12:46 (Reply)

I read the article in Nature Neuroscience and Dr. Condic’s article in First Things. While there are scientists who don’t feel that ESC research is going to lead to therapies anytime soon, none of them are calling for the cessation of research as Dr. Condic does. As the editorial points out, using the lack of progress as an argument against the research which has been heavily restricted from the start is an example of circular reasoning, which either Dr. Condic isn’t smart enough to realize or is smart enough to realize and chooses to ignore.

The relevant facts as I see them are this:
She didn’t say anything that people who do research on ESCs don’t already know.
She argued that because we aren’t making fast enough progress, we should give up.
She made that argument in a catholic magazine.

Any one of these things by itself wouldn’t not be enough to indicate a motive, but taken together they do suggest a pattern, which you are as able to see as I am.

I know that you feel what you’re doing is the right thing to do, but can’t you at least be honest about it, rather than trying to insist that you have secular motives?
#3 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-14 14:19 (Reply)

ESC research is not restricted in most states and is not restricted federally. Researchers are free to conduct embryonic stem cell research. It is only federal funding that is limited to lines created before August of 2001.

Also, I am not pretending to be secular. I am openly Catholic. My point is that Dr. Condic nowhere in her article relies on any religious argument and yet she is branded with the religious anti-science sentiment.

I freely admit, I am against destroying embryos. I find it morally reprehensible. I understand that others do not agree and often present arguments that are practical or secular in nature so that those that read this blog who are not religious have something they can sink their teeth into as well.

Thanks again for your comments.
#3.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-14 18:12 (Reply)

The federal restriction cuts out researchers from the $100+ billion that the NIH spends on life science research, and more importantly, it cuts out researchers early in their career, when a federal grant is practically required to achieve tenure. The fact that some states such as New Jersey and California have finally begun to offer a tiny percentage of that amount doesn’t change the fact that the research has been and is substantially restricted. Saying simply that there’s no state restriction or no restriction as long as you use those contaminated cell lines is disingenuous.

Dr. Condic doesn’t say that her faith led her to write the editorial, but it’s in a catholic magazine and presents only the problems, with no upside mentioned. Reasonable people can disagree, but I think she knew she was presenting a faith-based argument, despite the absence of the word God on that particular page of the magazine. Rather, it’s you that needs to find her devoid of religious motivation, because that’s the only thing that gives your public policy recommendations any external validity. If there were secular reasons for a ban on ESC research, we’d be discussing those reasons, and not trying to claim that a column in a catholic publication is secular.

As I said, I understand that you need to feel a certain way about ESC research. There’s all kinds of research that makes people feel icky, take animal research for example. But as you no doubt know from following the debate across the ScienceBlogs network, scientists are actually moral people as well. Most scientists even profess belief in a God, and I think they really believe that they are good Protestants and Catholics and Jews and so on. In other words, they’ve thought about the ethical angle already.

The reason debates like this so often turn foul is that scientists are people of faith too, and don’t need people like you suggesting that they aren’t because their beliefs don’t exactly match yours. It’s actually kinda insulting.

Imagine how you would feel if someone came along and declared you and all your fellow catholics to be lacking in your faith and demanded that your church lose it’s tax-exempt status unless you professed young earth creationism.

The way the debates work now is for your side to claim that all scientists are godless heathens, and people like PZ to say, “Yeah, so? What are you gonna do about it?” I think we can do better. I agree that both sides share the responsibility for keeping the debate from reducing to a couple polarizing issues, but to do so takes intelligence, honesty, and compassion, all of which are in far too short supply these days. Maybe you’re right, maybe the best we can hope for is a shouting match, but how about this: You try to remember that scientists are moral people and we’ll try to remember that religious people aren’t all anti-science dummies. Deal?
#4 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-15 06:13 (Reply)

Dearest Mr. Gunn,

I’d say we have a deal.

Although, I think you are infering far too much. I would never say that all scientists are “godless heathens.” I am a scientist, I work with a lab full of scientists and none of them fit that description. I would never suggest that all scientists are not people of faith.

My personal beef with this entry is with the unnamed editors of Nature Neuroscience who singled out Dr. Condic and accused her of being “anti-science” and then denied her a chance to respond in print.

Whether you want to see them or not there are real secular reasons to oppose federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. As I have said before there are many readers of this blog that are secular and agree with me that it is bad public policy.

And by the way, who’s shouting? Certainly not me. 😉
#5 Rebecca on 2007-05-15 16:00 (Reply)

I appreciate your providing this forum, Rebecca.

Surely you can understand how a scientist might feel a little insulted by the language that is used by the pro-life groups to describe ESC research, and you know that it’s much more than just a suggestion from them that no moral person could pursue such research.

As far as Dr. Condic goes, the editor of Nature Neuroscience pointed out that she used circular reasoning to argue for the cessation of the research, which is anti-science pretty much any way you slice it. She is smart enough to know what she was doing, and the editor was right to call her out on it. The no rebuttal in print thing is just silly. After all, you don’t see the editor of NN wanting to print a rebuttal in FirstThings, do you?

Now, you may think me to be playing the rube, but could you tell me one of those secular reasons you mention?
#6 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-15 16:32 (Reply)


It is a fact that a human embryo is a human organism. That human organism needs to be destoryed in order to harvest embryonics stem cells. That is not in any way a religious argument.

There are secular humanists who believe it is immoral for the federal government to fund the destruction of human organisms regardless of their stage of development even if there maybe a potential benefit.

That being said there are many secularists who believe that public money is better spent on adult stem cell research that is farther ahead and doesn’t have the ethical issues attached. Researchers in other countries have made great progress in human patients with Parkinson’s, diabetes and cardiovascular disease using their own stem cells. They think that if private investors want to fund embryonic stem cell research that has yet to go to human trials, let them. But when it comes to public funds, it is better to fund research that is farther ahead in terms of treating patients and that doesn’t have the ethical dilemmas.

Of course there is the problem of tumor formation by embryonic stem cells in animal models which is not a small hurdle to overcome. In addition, there is problem of the limited access to “leftover” embryos. For researchers to really do it right they will need more than the ~12,000 “leftover” embryos available in the US for donation to research.

That means they will have to make more embryos, either with SCNT or IVF. Both SCNT and IVF need eggs and there are pro-choice men and women who oppose embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning simply because it creates a demand for human eggs that will put young poor woman at risk for exploitation. Federal funding of SCNT will only increase the demand for human eggs and could possibly turn the most vunerable young women into egg farms.

That is what I can think of for now. I have 4 kids screaming for dinner, if I think of anything more I will let you know! 🙂
#6.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-15 17:21 (Reply)

The argument about an embryo/blastocyst/embryonic stem cell being alive doesn’t work because you wouldn’t say that a sperm or and egg is a living being, yet you can’t say what happens once they join that makes it suddenly a human, unless you invoke a religious argument and start talking about a soul and so on.

The “money would be better spent elsewhere” is simply a red herring. The budget isn’t fixed at any certain amount, so we could do both.

The idea that a market would be created for eggs is a real argument, and a secular one. However, medical ethics board have been able to handle plasma donations without exploiting people, so there’s precedent that your scenario won’t happen either.

What else ya got?
#7 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-15 18:54 (Reply)

You are wrong on the egg/sperm argument. An egg or sperm is not a human organism. They are haploid gamete cells. When they combine they create a new human organism with 46 chromosomes, idendtifiable by his or her unique DNA. A zygote is a complete human organism that will self direct its development toward more mature stages, while sperm and egg are just sex cells. That is a scientific fact.

A new human life begins at conception. That is indisputable and we shouldn’t really be arguing about that. What we are really arguing about is not whether an embryo is a human life, but whether it has value. My point is that there are plenty of secularists that think a human embryo has value simply because it is a human life. They would argue that it is not moral for the federal government to use public funds to pay for research that destroys human life. No religious argument needed.

Also, the egg donation is a real problem. Donating plasma does not put a woman’s fertility at risk (and sometimes her life.) Plasma donors are not required to inject hormones and go through minor surgery and they are certainly not paid $3000 to $5000 a pop.
#7.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-15 21:45 (Reply)

Whoa there. Let’s back up a sec. The question was, “If a sperm isn’t a human being which has value, and an egg isn’t a human being which has value, then what magic process happens at fertilization to confer that value to the union of the two?” Does half the value come from the egg and half from the sperm? Is the soul in the nucleus, or the cytoplasm? Does the magic start when the sperm hits the egg, or does the process have to wait until the gametes are fused? Since many fertilizations don’t lead to a viable embryo, does that mean it’s OK for God to kill embryos but it’s not OK for us, or has the magic not happened yet?

Going through this, I hope you can see the absurdity to try to pick some point and say “There! That’s life.” That’s why there’s no justification, to me, of using cells at one point but not at the other. Personally, I think life is magical. Maybe life is like a thread, extending unbroken throughout the generations, becoming woven into a fabric by the intermingling of gametes and the division of cells, but has no discrete end nor beginning. Who knows? It’s a mystery that we can’t explain, but that we have a moral duty to try to figure out as much as possible, so we can protect and preserve it, but also because finding things out is a good thing to do, in itself. I think we’ll laugh at how simplistic we were when we look back and remember that we use to think that a discrete unit of life began or ended at any point.

The attribution of value has a secular and a moral dimension. Of course, the only dimension upon which policy decisions should be based is the secular one, and though there is little data on this, it seems that the value to society of a couple extra fertilized eggs that are left over from an IVF treatment and that will never, ever become a human is pretty small. In fact, the reason more eggs are fertilized than may be necessary is because society in general finds it more valuable to have a successful IVF treatment than to have a couple extra fertilized eggs. You probably may be opposed to the whole idea of IVF to start with, based on the moral dimension, but from a societal standpoint the value is quite clear.

Let me expand on this just a bit, because you state that the argument, “It’s not moral to use public funds for ESC research” isn’t a religious argument. The whole argument is predicated on your particular religion’s way of answering “When does life begin?” so it really is a religious argument. It’s just your religion that doesn’t consider it to be so because they want to influence policy. Science can become ever more descriptive about the characteristics of life and living things, but there will always remain a central mystery, which is only addressable in religious terms. Isn’t that why we have a spiritual sense to begin with? To have a way of addressing those things which aren’t of this world? The mystery won’t ever go away, so religion won’t ever go away, either. You don’t have to worry about that. In fact, you should embrace your belief and be proud of it, rather than trying to deny that it’s your faith that makes you feel the way you do. It’s great that you’re Catholic. Humanity owes the Catholic faith a huge debt for preserving so much culture and learning through the dark ages. However, there are many, many faiths in this world, of which your faith, great as it is, is but one. Maybe it will be the Buddhists that will carry the torch through the next dark age, or maybe it will be something we don’t even know of yet. All of this goes to make the argument for tolerance. For not drawing some bright moral line at which you stand and fight for your particular version of the truth about life.

People have had a morbid fascination with the possibilities of life science for centuries. Frankenstein, plasmid DNA, and eugenics are examples of these moral horrors which scientists, being moral creatures aware of the ramifications of their acts even in the occasional absence of religious belief, have managed to prevent happening.

Give ’em some credit. Perhaps they’ve thought about these things and have some justification for believing that they can head off the horrible scenario which could come to pass, if we’re not careful. They are careful and they’re moral people too. Give ’em some credit and let them do their job. For the most part, they’re moral people too, and they’re working for you.

I don’t actually expect you to say, “Well, now that you put it that way, I see that I should stop assuming that I’m right and they’re wrong.” Humans aren’t good at doing that, because they prefer strong feelings and moral absolutes, but just consider what I said about different versions of the truth about life.
#8 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-16 06:06 (Reply)

I am glad that you appreciate my faith. But my faith is not what tells me that human life begins at conception. Science tells me that. [emphasis added -Mr. Gunn]I can say “There! that is a new human life” because I can test an embryo’s DNA and say definitively that it is human and that it is an organism that’s DNA is distinct from the genetic material of either the egg or sperm. You can keep saying that this is a religious view, but it is not.

Now it is my religion tells me that human life has value at all stages, a judgement science could never make. I understand that this is where others disagree because of religion or philosophy.

I think you are confusing the distinction between “cells” and “organisms” like many people do. A cell is a subunit of an organism. An embryo may only consist of few cells but make no mistake it is not just any “clump of cells” like a lump of liver cells. It is a complete human organism, albeit still early in development.
#8.1 Rebecca on 2007-05-16 16:07 (Reply)

I’m afraid what is so clear to you isn’t so clear to me. Could you elaborate on this DNA criteria?

In what way is a fertilized egg’s DNA different from a sperm or an egg? I understand the process of recombination and crossing over, but I’m not sure if that’s what you mean.
#9 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-16 17:25 (Reply)

Egg and sperm only have one copy of each gene, 23 chromosomes. A fertilized egg, or zygote has 46 chromosomes or 2 copies of every gene. With standard human identification techniques I could, in my lab, distingush between the DNA in the embryo which is unique to that embryo, and the DNA from either the egg or sperm that fused to create it. Look into preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) which is used to screen embryos for genetic defects. If the embryo was simply an extension of egg and sperm and not its own organism PGD wouldn’t be useful because the genetic results would be identical to the parents.

Was that your question?
#10 Rebecca on 2007-05-17 14:22 (Reply)

Thanks for the reply, Rebecca.

I think I understand what you’re saying, but there are still a couple things about your position that I’m unclear on.

Correct me if I’m misunderstanding you here: Are you saying that genetic recombination and strand cross-over must happen for the fertilized egg to be considered life, or are you saying that attainment of 2n ploidy with alleles different from the mother of father is necessary?

Are these processes the cause of life(i.e. before recombination, the cell isn’t considered a separate life), or are they merely indicative of the cell becoming a separate life(i.e. something else caused the fertilized cell to become a separate life, and recombination is necessarily subsequent)?
#11 Mr. Gunn (Homepage) on 2007-05-17 16:21 (Reply)

I got no further reply from Rebecca after this. She has since taken a hiatus from blogging, shortly after posting an article about being under “spiritual attack“.

3 thoughts on “A dialogue between a scientist and a catholic pro-life activist.

  1. This is an excellent dialogue and I want to thank Rebecca and Mr. Gunn for a very thoughtful debate, carried out with great respect for each others viewpoint (which is mostly lacking in such debates).

  2. Dear Mr. Gunn,

    I hope you will pardon the lateness of this post. However, the subject is an important and a timely one. I should say at the outset that I am a philosopher, not a scientist. I have endeavored to avoid making any scientific errors in this post; if you happen to find any, I hope you will pardon them. Rebecca is a scientist, but I think she may have felt frustrated when asked to specify precisely why conception marks the beginning of a new human life, with the same right to live as you or I have. My answer will be divided into three parts: (a) a defence of the notion that human personhood begins at conception; (b) a reply to some common objections to this proposal; and (c) a rebuttal of the commonly held view that fetuses acquire a right to live only when they become sentient.

    Part A

    Here, then, is my answer. I maintain that any entity satisfying all of the following four requirements is a a human person with a right to life:

    (1) The entity’s developmental end-point is a human adult. (Chimps obviously fail this condition.) This characteristic is empirically verifiable, simply from inspecting the entity’s DNA. Why is this requirement necessary? Well, anything that’s not even on its way to becoming a rational human being (roughly, a human adult) can hardly be entitled to human rights as such. If it’s Martian, it may have rights as a Martian, and for all I know some other animals (including chimps) might also possess a right to life, but that’s another matter; I’m merely addressing the question of which beings are entitled to basic human rights, including the right to life;

    (2) A complete set of genetic instructions – i.e. a program – for building a human being. Without a developmental program, the entity is not even a human-in-the-making, let alone a human being;

    (3) A biological embodiment for those instructions: in other words, the entity is an organism. This is important: I could put all the instructions for making a human being on a CD, but that certainly wouldn’t make it a person. In fact, it wouldn’t even be alive;

    (4) The developmental program in for building a human being has to be in run mode – i.e. the epigenetic switches are fully activated. Here, I agree with Professor Peter Singer that a potential for becoming a human person does not endow an entity with the rights of a person. If it did, then every skin cell which my body sheds would be a human person.

    I’ve briefly argued for why I believe the four requirements listed above are necessary for having basic human rights (especially a right to life), but that doesn’t prove they’re sufficient. Before I answer this question, however, I’d like to address the question of which entities actually meet these criteria. In short: zygotes, embryos and fetuses do, as well as children who have already been born. Ova and sperm cells don’t.

    Let’s start with a zygote. A zygote possesses the following combination of characteristics:

    (1) A human telos or developmental end-point. It’s a developing entity, and the biological end-point of its development is a human adult. We can say the same of a fetus, a baby and a child. Could we say the same of an unfertilized ovum? Well, yes, if it’s about to be fertilized, we might.

    (2) A complete set of genetic instructions – i.e. a program – for building a human being. Note that all of the instructions are internal to the zygote. During pregnancy, the mother gives the embryo/fetus nutrition, warmth and love, but the one thing she does not give the embryo/fetus is information on how to develop. It already has all of that information. An ovum flunks out here; it only has half the instructions. Ditto for a sperm cell.

    (3) A biological embodiment for those instructions: obviously, it’s an organism. An ovum and a sperm cell satisfy this condition too. A robot does not.

    (4) Fully activated epigenetic switches, which mean that the program for building a human body is in run mode. This disposes of the standard objection, “Every cell in my body has human DNA, so why isn’t it a person too?” The answer is that in skin cells, and other body cells, most of the epigenetic switches are turned off, which is why skin cells can only turn into skin cells.

    Note that all of the foregoing characteristics are actual characteristics, rather than potential ones. “What about the first one?” I hear you object. No problem there. The question is simply: what is the organism’s developmental end-point? We can know the answer to that question by looking at an organism’s DNA, long before it matures.

    So much for the old canard that the pro-life case is built on the potential qualities of the embryo. It is clearly not. Please note too that there’s nothing about an immaterial soul in these conditions, either.

    Now, I will acknowledge that Professor Singer has a valid point about personhood: rights are only exercised when we make choices, which is something that only a self-aware entity can do. My first point in response is that that a living organism which has a built-in and fully switched-on program whose terminus or end-point is a mature, self-aware adult, is the same entity as the adult it becomes: it has not only material continuity (same body), but also continuity of form(same program), continuity of process (it’s been running the whole time) and telos (same developmental goal).

    My second point is that during the course of its development, nothing is added to this entity that would enhance its value. As it develops, certain features (e.g. complex brain function) may emerge, but they are not added from outside. The instructions for building these features all came from within, and what’s more, these instructions were fully switched on from the beginning (conception). All that was needed was time for them to run, and a supportive environment, which however adds no new information. (Readers who are still inclined to think that the emergence of sentience in a fetus or self-consciousness in a baby somehow confers additional value upon it should see Part C below.)

    Now let V be the value of a mature adult. We have determined that the value added to the embryonic organism from which it develops is zero. Thus the value of this organism must be V minus 0, which equals V. Thus an embryo must matter as much as the human adult it becomes. But anything that matters as much as a human person, IS a person. Therefore, an embryo is a human person.

    Putting it less formally: a zygote is a living organism, with the complete genetic program that it needs to develop into a human adult, and the program is switched on and in run mode. Is there any good reason, then, to deny it the same right to life that an adult enjoys? I cannot think of any.

    Part B

    Common Objections.

    1. The twinning argument: zygotes sometimes split in two. Big deal. All that means is that humans have two modes of reproduction – sexual and asexual – and that the parents of identical twins are really their grand-parents (their parent – the zygote from which they both developed – having died). What’s the metaphysical problem here? There isn’t one. Nature has killed the parent, but sadly, nature kills children all the time – that’s just the old problem of evil. Bad things happen.

    The recombination argument is no more problematic than the twinning argument. Two individuals die; and a new individual, with its own developmental program, comes to be. That’s sad, but that’s life.

    2. The cloning argument. Mad scientist X clones a baby. When does its life begin? Even a clone cannot develop unless the donor’s nuclear DNA is inserted into a (denucleated) human ovum, whose development then has to be artificially triggered (e.g. by an electric shock). My response: if the trigger turns all the epigenetic switches on, so that the human development program is in run-mode, then that’s when the baby’s life begins.

    3. Deformed human embryos. What about an embryo whose DNA is so damaged that it will never develop into a self-aware adult? Is it a human person? Yes. To illustrate this, consider a thought experiment. A scientist from the 22nd century travels back in time and repairs the genetic defect of a deformed embryo, enabling it to develop properly. Has the scientist added anything of value? I would say not, any more than someone repairing a crack in the “Mona Lisa” adds value to it as a work of art by restoring it to its original condition. (The deformed embryo may never have been in such a condition, but that is the condition that it should have been in, from a “programming” perspective.) There is a difference between adding or creating new information and restoring damaged information. The former adds value; the latter does not.

    Thus if a scientist from the 23rd century were to come back and tinker with the genes of a chimpanzee embryo, so that it developed a brain like ours, he/she would have thereby altered its value and created a new kind of entity, which would acquire a right to life only when it acquired the genes for developing a human brain.

    4. The hydatiform mole argument (a reductio ad absurdum) – these non-viable embryonic growths seem to meet conditions (1) to (4), so are they human beings too?

    My answer: probably not. With complete moles, all the genes come from the father, so the full set of instructions for developing into a human being is never present (in other words, condition (2) is not met). Partial moles, on the other hand, do have maternal as well as paternal genes (according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydatidiform_mole ). The question would then be: are the epigenetic switches fully activated? (Condition (4).) I would guess not; if they were, I’d be prepared to entertain the possibility that some moles are severely deformed human beings.

    5. A few people are chimeras: their bodies have two or more different populations of genetically distinct cells that originated in different zygotes. Chimeras may be formed from four parent cells (two fertilized eggs or early embryos fuse together) or from three parent cells (a fertilized egg is fused with an unfertilized egg or a fertilized egg is fused with an extra sperm). If chimeras are people, then why aren’t moles?

    My response: obviously these individuals have all the instructions they need to develop (or they wouldn’t be alive); and luckily for them, the fusion event in their development did not turn their switches off, so they clearly meet all four conditions. Individuals resulting from the fusion of two zygotes are new entities, whose immediate parents (the zygotes from which they formed) are now dead: two developmental programs merged and formed a new third program, which happened to be viable.

    6. The mortality argument – embryos die in large numbers, prior to implantation. True, but so did children until 200 years ago. What does that prove?

    7. The vagueness of conception as a starting point: the process takes 24 hours to complete. My reply: when can we speak of the fertilized egg as having a single developmental program, and when are the epigenetic switches turned on? That’s when conception truly begins.

    8. The breast-feeding argument. Breast-feeding inhibits implantation, so breast-feeding mothers who have intercourse are guilty of murder if zygotes are human beings. Reply: murder is ordinarily defined as intentional killing. In this case, we are talking about a tiny human being whom the mother isn’t even aware of. The objection is puerile.

    As I said, regardless of whether you believe in a soul, the pro-life position on human rights makes a lot more sense than the “sentientist” position that we acquire rights when we start feeling pain, or even later, when we become self-conscious. Those positions are fraught with ethical peril: they destroy human equality and harden our hearts to such a degree that we fail to recognize babies as people.

    Finally, anyone interested in reading articles by doctors and philosophers in defence of the pro-life position might like to peruse the following:

    “Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research: What’s Wrong With It?” by Professor David Oderberg in Human Life Review (Fall 2005):1-33 at http://www.rdg.ac.uk/AcaDepts/ld/Philos/dso/papers/What's%20Wrong%20with%20HESC%20Research.pdf .

    “Life: Defining the Beginning by the End” by Professor Maureen Condic at [A site which vigorously denies that religion is the basis for their objections. I don’t appreciate insincerity, so no link for them.- Mr. Gunn] . This article is much better than the one which Nature Neuroscience criticized.

    “When Do Human Beings Begin? ‘Scientific’ Myths and Scientific Facts” – by Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D. at http://www.l4l.org/library/mythfact.html .

    Part C

    Finally, I would like to criticize the common view that fetuses acquire a right to life when they acquire sentience. Sentience has nothing to do with having a right to life. It is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for having such a right. It can hardly be sufficient, or otherwise you would have to concede that mammals and birds (which are also sentient) had a right to life. Even most animal liberationists don’t go that far; most of them assert only that animals have the right not to have suffering intentionally inflicted upon them, in order to further another agent’s ends. In any case, the statement “X can suffer” does not logically entail “X has a right to live.” You can’t distil a right to life from mere sentience.

    Nor can sentience be a necessary condition for having a right to life. If it were, then conditions such as hibernation (should it ever be achieved in humans – think Alien 3), coma and vegetative state (a condition from which people have been known to recover) would deprive a human being of his/her right to life. It would be OK to kill him/her, so long as he/she could not be awoken. (People in these states sometimes cannot be roused for months or even years.) “Ah,” I hear you object, “but these unconscious people still have brains.” That may be so, but if having a brain is the criterion for having a right to life, why not just say so, and dispense with the sentience requirement altogther?

    “Yeah, but they at least have a kind of capacity for sentience – they just need time, and maybe the right kind of neural jolt, before they can start feeling again.” Wait a minute. Sentience is the capacity to feel. Now you’re saying that having the capacity for a capacity to feel is what gives us a right to life? And what about a fetus? Doesn’t it have a capacity for a capacity to feel?

    “OK. Scrub that. Let’s focus on the brain. Brain death equals the death of a person; so brain waves mark the beginning of one.” But the problem with a purely neurological criterion for having a right to life is that it doesn’t do the trick. “X has a brain” does not entail “X has a right to life.” Neither does “X has a complex brain” or even “X has a complex, functioning brain.” Besides, which neurological marker should we pick? (A three-week-old embryo has a primitive brain; and a six-week-old embryo has primitive brain waves.)

    Perhaps the most alarming implication of the brain criterion for personhood, however, is that it destroys human equality. Einstein had a better brain than I do. If brain function is what gives us a right to life, then shouldn’t the better-endowed have more of a right to life than the rest of us? What else follows? Babies matter less than children, who matter less than adults. My moral intuitions are precisely the other way round: killing a baby is worse than killing an adult. Whom would you instinctively have saved first, if you had been the captain of the Titanic?

    Princeton philosopher Peter Singer contends that we could still all have an equal right to life, after all. All you need is the ability to have a concept of self, with a life in front of you. A four-year-old has that concept just as surely as Einstein. Yes, but not a newborn baby; and as Singer himself acknowledges, humans do not acquire a right to life until they are at least one year old. We are forced to conclude, in the words of Paul Ramsey, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, that “Every good argument for abortion is an equally good argument for infanticide.” This is a point which Singer himself openly admits. He thinks parents should be able to kill their newborn babies if they elect to do so. Usually he cites severe disability as a ground for killing a baby, but his own position implies that even if a newborn baby is healthy, it has no right to life. Need I say more?

    Well, I hope I’ve convinced you that a logical case can be amde for saying that embryos matter as much as the rest of us do. And now, over to you.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Vincent. Unlike some others in the science blogging community, I do suffer Christian apologists gladly, as long as they are sincere and make the effort to understand how our developing understanding of life is changing the definition as we know it.

    You make a good case that embryos matter, but I wasn’t ever unsure of that. Of course they do! You have not convinced me, however, that abortion should be illegal and no research on zygotes should ever occur. As you state, many zygotes do not go on to produce viable offspring. Whether or not your criteria are necessary and sufficient for being considered life, there are zygotes which do not meet this definition.

    I’m not even sure that’s the right argument to be having, though. When life begins wouldn’t be a useful question if it weren’t for the assumption that we can unambiguously place things in one category or the other, and assign all rights and privileges to one and none to the other. In fact, we can’t do that, not objectively. We would have to make some sort of consensus decision about where to draw the line, it would necessarily be somewhat arbitrary, and someone would have an issue, no matter where we drew it. I think I covered why there’s no good point at which to draw the line pretty conclusively already(fertilization, cell division, transcriptional activation don’t have discrete beginnings and ends), but my real argument is that trying to draw a line anywhere, be it at fertilization or birth or whenever is a fool’s errand.

    There’s no risk to human life and dignity by inhumane mad scientists. Certainly there are evil people, but it doesn’t take a panel of ethicists to reach a consensus decision on why Dr. Mengele was an evil dude. Even with no decision on where life begins, we understand that what he was doing was wrong. Mankind doesn’t need a panel of experts defining who gets human rights and who doesn’t, and in fact, the whole debate about when life starts only serves to provide a job for the increasingly marginalized religious authorities.

    So I hope you’re not disappointed that I’m not addressing your well-organized argument point by point. It’s just that I don’t think it’s an argument we need to be having. With all the killing going on these days in the name of religion, I kinda feel like this something we need to grow out of. Maybe society is better shaped by evidence-based public policy than by religious dictate? The people assessing the evidence are still going to be moral people, right? It’s not like the world would descend into chaos and anarchy overnight if people weren’t religious anymore. There’s more than just fear of damnation in the afterlife holding people back from being selfish and psychopathic. In fact, the more secular societies tend to be the more developed ones.

    I’m a little disturbed by how easily you dismiss human rights for alternative forms of consciousness, too. Do you really think a non-biological intelligence would never be eligible for human rights?

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