Challenge: Early Embryos Aren’t Individuals

Posted: January 10, 2012 by Amy Hall in Do the Right Thing, Weekly Challenge

If you haven’t heard this argument yet, you will at some point:

Early human embryos sometimes split into two and become twins. Some of these will even recombine to form one human embryo again. So, since individual human life isn’t established until sometime after the first few weeks of life, both abortion and embryonic stem cell research are morally permissible during this time.

How would you argue against this reasoning? Give us your thoughts, and Alan will give us his on Thursday.

  1. – a point that needs to be questioned and thought about would arise from the use of the qualifier “permissible” in the argument. We’ll likely arrive at the conclusion that the argument really means “morally preferential according to a standard that I feel comfortable with” rather than “a moral standard that possesses sufficient warrant to validate the permissibility of any one particular action/event”.
    – another point in the argument, a “red herring” IMO, rests in granting that although human life may be established “at some point after the first few weeks of life” it is OK to terminate that life up until that human life becomes recognizable as “an individual” or “individuals”. This point does little or nothing to inform how we might validate whether or not the “early human embryo” in question is actually worthy of being deemed a “life” or “lives” that are morally permissible to terminate.

  2. bobby says:

    if i heard someone ask me this Question i would ask them to “quote me an embryologist or scientist or agrees with there thesis?” because its not enough for them to assume human life dosent begin at Fertilization even if an embryo can split and recombine back into one.

  3. The argument itself admits in either case that it is human life. If it is indeed human life, whether the embryo remains a single individual within the first few weeks or becomes two individuals is irrelevant. One thing is for certain: there is at least one individual human life already established. And shouldn’t the possibility of destroying not one but two human lives be of even greater concern, anyway?

  4. Sam Harper says:

    Robert Wennberg, as quoted by Francis Beckwith in Politically Correct Death:

    “Imagine that we lived in a world in which a certain small percentage of teenagers replicated themselves by some mysterious natural means, splitting in two upon reaching their sixteenth birthday. We would not in the least be inclined to conclude that no human being could therefore be considered a person prior to becoming sixteen years of age; nor would we conclude that life could be taken with greater impunity prior to replication than afterward. The real oddity–to press the parallel–would be two teenagers becoming one. However, in all of this we still would not judge the individual’s claim to life to be undermined in any way. We might puzzle over questions of personal identity…but we would not allow these strange replications and fusions to influence our thinking about an individual’s right to life. Nor therefore does it seem that such considerations are relevant in determining the point at which an individual might assume a right to life in utero.” (Politically Correct Death, p. 97)

  5. Dawn says:

    It seems as though being an “individual” is an irrelevant distinction. Regardless of whether there is an individual, there is still at minimum one living human that is growing.

    Even if this argument was valid, it still doesn’t help the abortion advocate since most women don’t even know they are pregnant until well past the “first few weeks of life.” So using their own logic, abortion is not morally permissible past the first few weeks of gestation, which would eliminate the vast majority of abortions.

  6. If we cut a flatworm in half we get two flatworms. Does it follow that there was never a distinct flatworm to begin with?

    This objection does nothing to refute the scientific evidence that from the earliest ages of development, the unborn are living, distinct and whole human beings. Even if they may split or later recombine, it does nothing to prove that there is no distinct human being prior to the split.

    True, we don’t really know if the process causes the original organism to die and give rise to two new embryos or if the original engages in some sort of asexual reproduction, but this does nothing to refute the case that there is a distinct human being prior to the split.

    Also, would it follow that any one of us can potentially be cloned, none of us are distinct human beings?

    Finally, seeing as only a very small percentage of embryos even have the capacity for twinning and it usually will occur prior to a woman discovering she is pregnant, this objection is nullified all together.

  7. There is a spectrum of personhood, from none (single cell) to plenty (baby). Pro-life advocates agree with this spectrum when they focus on late-term abortions rather than Plan B.

    I talk more about that here: “A Defense of Abortion Rights: the Spectrum Argument.”

    • Amy Hall says:

      The reason to focus on late-term abortions isn’t because they think there are different degrees of personhood, it’s a tactical decision. I don’t see any way to separate “human being” from “personhood.” Human beings, by definition, are persons. Regardless of their current ability to express it.

    • Bob
      Please don’t forget that the point on the spectrum at which the embryo possesses its own unique DNA is not a fuzzy point. It is quite clearly and specifically delineated.