The Embryo/Foetus as a Living Human Person

Introduction

Whether or not we regard the unborn child as a fully human person can completely change the way that we perceive abortion.  Consider these excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Preamble and Article 3) (emphasis added):

“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.” (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/)

The moment we acknowledge the embryo or foetus as a fully fledged member of the human race, we also acknowledge that abortion is a severe and unjust infringement on the humans rights of this being.  That is why the biological and philosophical status of the unborn child is pivotal to the abortion debate, and why those on both sides must be able to justify fully their position on this point in order to justify their position on abortion.

The Embryo/Foetus is Human

An unborn child has:

  • Human parents
  • Human cells
  • Human DNA
  • Progressively distinct human physiology

It is difficult to see how the inclusion of the embryo/foetus as a member of the human race can even come into question.  One might ask: what would the alternative be?

The Embryo/Foetus is Alive

There are certain biological properties that help us to define what is alive and what is not.  A living organism displays a variety of these properties

Order

The embryo/foetus has a structure that shows visible order; the cells act together in a coordinated fashion to give regular and predictable results; they show distinct and ordered patterns of gene expression.

Boundaries

The embryo/foetus maintains boundaries between itself and the outside environment, distinguishing itself from it and enabling its recognition as a distinct entity.

Energy Processing

The mitochondria of embryonic and foetal cells use aerobic and anaerobic respiration to generate ATP – the energy molecule needed for biological processes.

Environmental Response

According to environmental input, embryonic cells can alter gene expression, alter intracellular signalling, undergo metabolic stress and undergo apoptosis.  Once the appropriate systems have been developed, the foetus can react to sound and noxious (painful) stimuli.

Growth and development

In a suitable environment, the embryo/foetus goes through undeniable growth and development from the very moment of conception.

Reproduction

The embryo or foetus is obviously not capable of sexual reproduction, but an mind-boggling number of cell divisions take place as  a single cell replicates and divides to become trillions of cells.

The Embryo/Foetus is a Person

Is the embryo or foetus human?  Yes.  It is alive?  Unquestionably.  But then, so is my appendix.  And yet it’s not an issue if I choose to have it removed.  So what is the difference between an appendix and a embryo or foetus?

The most obvious difference is that, left to its natural course without interference, an appendix will not manifest as a newborn infant in nine months time.  The acknowledgement of this potential allows us to distinguish the embryo or foetus from other organised structures within the human body; from its conception it is unique.  However, it is important not to wholly define the embryo or foetus by its potential, as this is a denial of its intrinsic and current properties (of which more will be said).

The majority of those who accept or advocate abortion argue that there is a distinction to be drawn between the embryo or foetus and the newborn infant*.  Once the child is born and, in some cases, has drawn its first breath, then and only then can it be acknowledged as a life to be valued and protected (some are a little more generous and allow that the foetus should be protected from a certain time-point onwards; perhaps when it could be viably born, or perhaps when it can theoretically feel pain).  These points of view rest upon the idea that until a certain transition has occurred or a certain stage of development is reached, the embryo or foetus is not a person, and hence not entitled to the rights and protection that all reasonable human beings ought to extend to other persons.

What defines a person?  The straight answer is that there is no consensus.  The difficulty with this is that, though it is unmeasurable, we cannot allow personhood to be subjective.  If personhood is in the eye of the beholder, what right have we to criticise the mother who wraps her newborn child in a plastic bag and leaves it in a dumpster?  Instead we recognise that there can be a legitimate moral imperative to restrict the actions of individuals, regardless of their personal opinion.  Thus it is also true that we cannot allow our treatment of the unborn child to rest on what individual people do or do not believe.

Generally speaking, thoughts on the topic tend to fall into one of two ways of thinking: a person is defined by their capabilities (functionalism), or a person is defined by their nature (essentialism).  To put it simply, functionalism says, “I think and feel, therefore I am person”, whereas essentialism says, “I am a person, therefore I think and feel.”

To some extent, the functionalist approach is irrational, being that we do not confer or withhold personhood from any born person on the basis of their capabilities – it is enough that they have been born as human offspring to human parents.  An example of a functionalist definition is to say that unless an individual is capable of rational thought, they are not a person.  Obviously this excludes the unborn child.   The dangers inherent in such an approach to defining personhood, and hence how an individual is to be treated, should be obvious:

  • Any capability-based definition of personhood that excludes the embryo or foetus will inevitably exclude other distinct groups, such as newborn infants, the mentally disabled, those on life support, etc.
  • Denial of the personhood of the embryo or foetus on the basis of capability leads to unpalatable, and yet logical conclusions, such as the diminishment of the moral status of the newborn and the acceptability of infanticide.**

On the opposing hand, essentialism argues that personhood is possessed by virtue of simply being a human being, without regard to capabilities.   This is an inclusive approach, acknowledging the human race as a whole without distinction or prejudice.  An important point to note when considering this is to realise that although the physical structure of the embryo or foetus changes as it undergoes development and maturation, the nature of the unborn child does not.   The nature the embryo or foetus possesses is the same nature it will possess as an infant, a child, an adolescent and an adult.  It is this nature, present from the first moment of existence, that entitles the embryo or foetus to be acknowledged as a person.

* Please note that there are who those advocate that no such distinction should be drawn, and that the life of the unborn child and the newborn is equally disposable.

** The beginnings of which are already seen in countries such as the Netherlands, where euthanasia of infants is permissable by law.

Conclusion

It is an honest, and yet hard to understand, abortion supporter who can acknowledge the true nature of what is occurring in the “termination of a pregnancy” and “removal of the contents of the uterus”.  My hope is that you will take the time to consider what it means to deny admittance to the human race, and therefore the most basic of human rights, to the smallest and most vulnerable among us – what it means when we define what it is to be human according to our own prerogative.

Bibliography

Abrams R. M. & Gerhardt K. J. (2000) The Acoustic Environment and Physiological Responses of the Fetus Journal of Perinatology 20:830-835

Aburatani S. & Fujibuchi W. (2012) Inference of specific gene regulation by environmental chemicals in embryonic stem cells Journal of Molecular Biology Research 2(1):54-64

Campbell N. A. & Reece J. B. (2005) Biology: 7th Edition Pearson Education Inc. San Francisco

Fleming T.P.,  Kwong W. Y., Porter R., Ursell E., Fesenko I., Wilkins A., Miller D.J., Watkins A. J. & Eckert J. J. (2004) The Embryo and Its Future Biology of Reproduction 71:1046-1054

George R. P. & Lee P. (2009) Embryonic Human Persons: talking point on morality and human embryo research EMBO reports 10(4):301-306

Giubilini A. & Minerva F. (2013) After-birth abortion: why should the baby live? J Med Ethics 39:261–263.

Gupta A. & Giordano J. (2007) On the nature, assessment, and treatment of fetal pain: neurobiological bases, pragmatic issues, and ethical concerns Pain Physician 10:525-532

Hauskeller M. (2011) Believing in the Dignity of Human Embryos HRGE 17(1):53-65

Knoepffler N. J. & O’Malley M. J. (2013) After-birth and before-birth personhood: why the baby should live J Med Ethics 39:11-14

Lee S. J., Ralston H. J. P., Drey E. A., Partridge J. C. & Rosen M. A. (2005) Fetal pain: a systemic multidisciplinary review of the evidence JAMA 294:947-954

Lloyd-Thomas A. R. & Fitzgerald M. (1996) Reflex responses do not necessarily signify pain BMJ 313:797-798

Prescott L. M., Harley J. P. & Klein D. A. (2005) Microbiology: 6th Edition The McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., New York

UN General Assembly, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 1948, 217 A (III), available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b3712c.html %5Baccessed 3rd June 2013]

Van de Velde M. & De Buck F. (2012) Fetal and maternal analgesia/anesthesia for fetal procedures 31:201-209

Wilding M., Coppola G., Dale B. & Di Matteo L. (2009) Mitochondria and human preimplantation embryo development Reproduction 137:619-624

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Terminolgy

A lot of different terminology gets bandied about in the abortion debate.  Which terms you use seems to depend upon which side of the debate you are on. Because of this, I thought I would share my thoughts on some of the terms used, and acquaint you with the ones I will be commonly using in my writing.

“Embryo” and “foetus”

Both refer to the unborn child at different stages of development.

  • An embryo is the unborn child to approximately the eighth week after conception (approximately the tenth week after the last menstrual period).
  • A foetus is the unborn child from the eighth week after conception to birth.

I have no difficulty using the terms embryo and and foetus to refer to the unborn child.  This is because these terms simply refer to a stage of development, as one might use the terms infant, adolescent, adult, etc.  And while I dislike the de-humanising way some may use these terms, I don’t feel that that is sufficient reason for me to desist from using the scientifically accurate descriptions.

Terms for the unborn child that I have seen used in what appears to be a euphemistic manner, and will not use, are:

  • Product(s) of conception
  • Conceptus
  • Contents of the womb/uterus
  • A pregnancy
  • Pregnancy tissue
  • Clump of cells
  • Tissue
  • Uterine matter

I am aware that some of these are covering terms intended to include the embryo/foetus and the placenta.  However, I feel it is important – in the context of the abortion debate – to draw a distinction between the embryo/foetus and supportive tissue.

“Abortion”

Used to refer to the loss of the embryo or foetus from the uterus, but there are several different types of abortion:

  • A spontaneous abortion is a miscarriage.
  • An induced abortion is an elective procedure.
  • A therapeutic abortion is one undertaken to prevent harm to the mother or when the foetus would be born with severe birth defects.
  • A medical abortion is achieved through taking medication that will result in the expulsion of the embryo or foetus through the cervix and the vaginal canal.
  • A surgical abortion is removal of the embryo or foetus through surgical means, such as suction or forceps.

An induced abortion is also often referred to as a termination of pregnancy.  For simplicity’s sake, I will use ‘abortion’ to indicate induced abortion, with clarifying terms as necessary.

“Pro-life”

This is my preferred term for those who oppose abortion.  My reason for this is that I believe it defines the heart of the issue – the belief that each abortion results in the wrongful taking of a life.  Alternative terms include:

  • Right-to-lifer
  • Anti-abortion
  • Anti-choice

‘Right-to-lifer’ carries the same connotations as ‘pro-life’, but I prefer pro-life for aesthetic reasons and because it is the more widely used and recognised term. ‘Anti-abortion’ is not my preferred term, but I still find this to be an accurate description of my position, if not as explanatory as ‘pro-life’.  I strongly object to the term ‘anti-choice’ for two main reasons:

  1. It attempts to redefine the core issue at the centre of the abortion debate and shift the emphasis away from the position of the embryo/foetus as a human being with a right to life.
  2. It fails to acknowledge that choice restriction is necessary if one is to live as part of a functioning society; I would accept the designation provided those against murder, rape, theft, drink-driving, etc. would also accept the same.

“Pro-Choice”

This term describes those who accept abortion, ranging from those who believe it is a necessary evil, to those who avidly advocate for its acceptance and utilisation.  With respect to those who don’t believe that abortion is a good thing, while still supporting it as an individual choice, and as I also wish to avoid being unnecessarily antagonistic, this is the term I will be using.  Other terms include:

  • Pro-abortion/pro-abort
  • Pro-death
  • Abortion rights advocate/activist

I am aware that many who consider themselves to be pro-choice object to being called ‘pro-abortion’.  I think this can be a valid objection, and hence the reason why I will use the term pro-choice. However, there may be individuals who may be more appropriately referred to as pro-abortion, and you may see this as a statement of my belief that this person crosses the line from tolerance of abortion to advocation of it.

‘Pro-death’ is an extreme term, and one that I will only use to describe an equally extreme position, such as advocation of blanket application of abortion for any embryo/foetus who will not be born perfectly formed and healthy.  I prefer, on the whole, to steer away from emotive terms such as this, as I think they can obscure the key issues and degenerate it instead into an emotional slinging match.

‘Abortion rights activist/advocate’ is a term I will use to describe someone who is politically or social active in their defense of abortion.

Thank you for bearing with this somewhat dry entry.  My next entry will be discussing the status of the embryo/foetus as a living, human person.

Introduction – About Me & My Beliefs

(Briefly) About Me

I am 32 years old, a mother of three and a 1st year medical student.  I also have a nursing degree and a biomedical science degree.

My Beliefs

I believe that a new human life is formed at the moment of conception.  I believe that this life deserves respect, and that the taking of this life is equivalent to taking the life of any born human.

My beliefs are based upon medical, scientific and philosophical foundations.

I believe that unless the physiologically inevitable outcome of a pregnancy is the death of both the mother and the unborn child before the child can viably survive birth, elective abortion should be prohibited.

Why the Blog?

I created this blog as a place to rationally express my beliefs, and in the hope that I might alternatively encourage those with similar beliefs and influence others to consider carefully what they believe about abortion – and perhaps change some minds.

Ultimately I hope for the most important outcome of all; that lives might be saved.