Early this week, former New York governor Mario Cuomo used the New York Times op-ed page as a sounding board for his solution to the legislative impasse in the US over embryo research (1). He blames President Bush for sacrificing the promise of breath-taking medical advances using embryonic stem cells on the altar of his personal religious beliefs. “No doubt the president’s belief that human life begins with fertilization is shared by millions of Americans, including many Christians and evangelists,” he writes. “But it remains a minority view…”  

Cuomo’s solution is to submit the question of whether life begins at conception to an expert panel of “respected scientists, humanists and religious leaders to consider testimony from bioscience experts describing when consciousness first appears, when viability outside the womb usually occurs, and how other religions treat the subject”. Their conclusions would guide lawmakers towards what Mr Cuomo regards as a more sensible, democratic and scientific policy on embryonic stem cell research.  

MercatorNet asked Dr Dianne Irving, a medical ethicist who teaches in Washington DC and who has worked as a researcher with the National Institutes of Health, to comment on Mr Cuomo’s view of the human embryo.

MercatorNet: Mario Cuomo claims that the view that human life begins at fertilisation is just a minority religious view. Is this true?

Irving: Of course not. Cuomo poses a scientific question, requiring a scientific answer based on objective scientific facts — not on religion. He should know that science has formally documented as an objective scientific fact for over a hundred years (Wilhelm His’ Human Embryology 1883-85) that sexually reproduced human beings begin to exist immediately at fertilization. Not new! All human embryologists agree. The single-cell human organism formed at fertilization has been categorized for many decades as Stage One in the internationally accepted Carnegie Stages of Early Human Development. Funny as it may seem to those who have not studied human embryology, this single-cell organism is how human beings are supposed to look at that stage of development — we all did.

MercatorNet: Do all human beings begin to exist at fertilization?

Irving: Excellent and perceptive question. No. Human beings can be reproduced sexually (fertilization) or asexually (without the use of sperm or oocytes, e.g., “twinning”, “nuclear transfer”, pronuclei transfer, etc.). In Australia you even have a category of artificially constructed human embryos! The single-cell human organisms resulting from asexual methods are also human beings. Those like Cuomo purposefully ignore these objective scientific facts and reframe the debates because they don’t want the public to understand that the term “stem cell research” now also includes those derived from cloned embryos, or that cloned embryos are now used as “infertility treatments”.

MercatorNet: Why do many scientists share Cuomo’s belief that the beginning of human life is a fuzzy, hard-to-define point? They’re the experts.

Irving: Smoke and mirrors. Such fuzziness and “beliefs” are mind-boggling. All they’d have to do is go to the library and look it up in a human embryology textbook. So they must want to convince the public in order to get away with research that ordinarily the public would not support. They also hope for trillions of dollars in patents and funding, power, influence, etc.

The tragedy is that because Big Biotech “experts” and its supporters — like Cuomo — have proliferated so much false “science” for so long, the public is almost incapable of exerting its usual sound wisdom in these matters. Indeed, these “scientists” are not true experts. The real scientific experts on human embryology are those with PhDs in human embryology — not developmental biologists, cell biologists, mouse geneticists, X-ray technicians, physicians, politicians, theologians, candy store owners or those who recently stayed at Holiday Inns. Yet academically credentialed human embryologists have been shut out of these debates for decades.

MercatorNet: Is there a difference between a human life and a human person? Can scientists legitimately destroy human life as long as there is no evidence of human personhood?

Irving: There is no difference between a human being and a human person. The term “person” should refer to the nature of a thing, not to any fully functional activities — otherwise Cuomo would have to agree with bioethicist Peter Singer that even adult human beings with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, the mentally disabled and retarded, the physically disabled, the comatose — even us when we sleep — would not be “persons”.

To illegitimately distinguish between the terms “human being” and “human person” as Cuomo does is another ruse played by bioethicists and politicians to confuse. Especially influential has been the admittedly arbitrary “scientific” term “pre-embryo” (non-person), a term grounded on false science and formally rejected by the international nomenclature committee on human embryology. Subsequently, a myriad of amusing “pre-embryo substitutes” has emerged — especially in the cloning and genetic engineering debates. They are merely attempts to claim a “reduced moral status” so that these embryos can be destroyed.

But “personhood” isn’t a scientific question; it’s a philosophical one, derived at — presumably — by reasoning from the accurate scientific facts. Quite to my surprise, in my doctoral dissertation I discovered that in all 23 bioethics arguments analyzed for “delayed personhood” the science used was textbook-wrong. So the philosophical concept of “delayed personhood” so derived is invalid — and thus may not be used to justify destroying innocent human beings.

There are many philosophical definitions of “personhood”, but not all of them match the scientific facts or can be successfully defended philosophically in the academy. Most logically damaging for any “delayed personhood” argument is that it must defend a “mind/body split”: if the “mind” and the “body” are two separate and distinct things, then there is no way to demonstrate any interaction between the two separate things — Descartes’ ultimate dilemma and eventual disgrace! On the other hand, starting with the accurate science one can reason realistically back to an immediate personal presence, since there is no “mind/body” split. So evidence of “immediate personhood” can be reasoned to, and thus these human beings should not be destroyed.

Regardless, the purposeful killing of any innocent human beings — the “personhood” issue aside — has never been accepted as legitimate in civilized societies. Where there is legitimate doubt it certainly shouldn’t be done.

MercatorNet: You say that an embryo is a human being. But how can you demonstrate that if it is not even “viable” or just a blob of cells with no consciousness?

Irving: It is no secret that the legal definition of “viability” is now grossly passé. And luckily I don’t have to demonstrate anything: human embryology has, for over a century. A blob of cells is not an organism. If implanted into a womb it would not develop into anything, but simply decay and die. And what about the millions of adult human beings who are not “conscious” — are they therefore not even human beings? Even attempts to identify early physical preconditions for “consciousness” fail, since the physical precondition of any such “markers” is the initial single-cell human organism itself.

MercatorNet: Cuomo has proposed setting up an expert panel of scientists, humanists and religious leaders to settle this question once and for all. Wouldn’t this be only fair in a pluralistic, democratic society?

Irving: We are in deep trouble when invested researchers, humanists and religious leaders meet to redefine the objective scientific facts. What Cuomo is referring to are bioethics committees — the historical result of the formal “birth” of bioethics by Congressional mandate in 1978 with the Belmont Report. “Bioethics” is not “neutral”, but defines itself as a normative ethical theory. So why should that “belief” system be forced on a democratic society? Like bioethics committees, Cuomo only refers to “consciousness”. Such “anthropology” has had devastating consequences when this definition of “person” is transferred to other related bioethics issues such as “quality of life”, euthanasia, physician assisted suicide, “brain death” and organ transplantation, the allocation of scarce medical resources, the use of the mentally ill and children in research, etc.

In this autistic bioethics worldview, terms like “democracy”, “pluralism”, “beliefs”, and “consensus” have been used as code words for years now, as shields behind which decadent concepts can hide and flourish. There is no acknowledgment of or accountability for the objective scientific truth or standards. If the only relevant issues are just “beliefs”, then in such a democracy only the “beliefs” of the powerful majority will win out. The end result is the very corruption, destruction, and usurpation of pluralistic democracy itself.

Dianne N. Irving’s email address is DNIrving@aol.com.

Notes
(1) Mario M. Cuomo. “Not on Faith Alone”. New York Times. June 20, 2005. (Registration required).

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.