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

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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

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Author: Elizabeth

I am in my mid thirties, a medical student and mother to four amazing little girls. My first venture into pro-life writing was when I wrote an essay on abortion in high school, but I didn't become passionate about protecting the unborn until after I had my first daughter in 2010. I hope my writing will help those who have questions about abortion, and help to build understanding of the arguments surrounding abortion.

6 thoughts on “The Embryo/Foetus as a Living Human Person”

  1. How far will you take this argument about essentialism? If a woman is carrying an embryo that has an essential personhood and therefore all the accompanying legal rights, can the woman be prosecuted for neglect, as she would if the child were born? If she goes a couple of days without eating, or she smokes, or she takes medication that she urgently needs but which will damage the child (e.g. chemotherapy), what about the foetal rights then? Does the state have the right to intervene, as it would if she was neglecting a child? Does she have any rights at all over her body once she’s conceived?

    1. Thank you for your comment. You raise some valid points and I appreciate your interest.

      In an ideal world, every person, whether a pregnant woman or not, would be willing and able to lead a healthy lifestyle. Obviously that is not the case. The decisions we make that relate to this ideal I would categorise under two main headings: lifestyle decisions and medical decisions (with some overlap occurring between the two).

      Lifestyle decisions would involve the points you raised about nutrition and smoking, as well as things like exercise, drug-taking and alcohol consumption. As is the case with any parent of a born child, lifestyle decisions are, for the most part, left to the individual. For example, parents should be encouraged and supported to provide a balanced diet for their child, but that will not prevent an individual from feeding their toddler McDonalds every day. And as things stand, the state does not mandate that they cannot do this. Unless lifestyle choices lead to extreme consequences, such as abuse and neglect, parents are trusted to make these decisions. It would be impractical to have it otherwise. In the same manner, a pregnant woman is trusted to make these decisions for her unborn child. Should her decisions lead to extreme consequences, such as extreme weight loss (as in anorexia) or potently harmful physiological effects (such as a drug overdose), then I believe it is appropriate for external strictures to be placed upon the mother, such as involuntary commitment to hospital or a mandated rehabilitation program. These are actions that are not infrequently imposed upon individuals in general, out of concern for their own health or the impact that their actions have upon others.

      Medical decisions would regard medical treatment, such as the chemotherapy you mentioned. In this case, as long as the life of the foetus or embryo is considered of equal import (neither greater nor lesser) than the mother’s in the course of making a decision, then such decisions can be ethically made. If a mother is facing a terminal prognosis if treatment harmful to the unborn child is not undertaken or is delayed, then I believe she is ethically able to choose to have that treatment. It is akin to other situations where one of two evils must be chosen, such as separating conjoined twins when the separation will result in the death of one. The caveats would be that the life of the unborn is given equal weight and not dismissed as irrelevant or inconsequential, and that the treatment is directed towards treating the mother (i.e. it would be recommended were she not pregnant, but otherwise in the same situation).

      It is also worth pointing out that women are constrained in the decisions they can make, even if they are simply of child-bearing potential. Certain medication cannot be prescribed to pregnant women or women of child-bearing age, and certain medical procedures (such as implantation of a mechanical heart valve) will not be carried out on women who may still potentially become pregnant. We accept these constraints because society places at least some value on the unborn child, particularly if it is a wanted child.

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