What is the nature and status of the human embryo? This is a deep question which has engaged great minds for many centuries. It draws together the natural sciences  and philosophy and, for some, also theology. It is a matter on which individuals and peoples and nations differ, as is evident from the divergent laws in Western democracies. If we think the answer to this question is obvious then the danger is that we are merely reflecting uncritically the ideas of our own culture and of our own circle. If we do not look seriously outside this circle then there is every chance that we will overlook the significance of these embryonic lives.
What is an embryo?
What is an embryo? The word presents itself as the name of a kind of thing, a genus of which there are different specific types, mouse embryo, rabbit embryo, human embryo.
To call something an embryo is not to identify the genus, the kind of thing it is but rather to identify the stage of development of a thing. In this way, the word “embryo” is like “neonate” or “adolescent” or “fledgling”. It is a description, not of the essence or nature of a thing, but of its stage of life.
An embryo is the very first stage in the development of a multicellular organism which, all going well, proceeds from a single fertilised cell, though the multiplication and differentiation of cells, to the development of internal and then external organs and structures characteristic of the species to which the organism belongs.
Because an embryo is always an embryonic something, it is helpful sometimes to use the adjective, to bring out the meaning of the noun. A mouse embryo is an embryonic mouse; a human embryo is an embryonic human.
This should remind us of another important truth: people are animals too. We often use the word “animal” in contrast to human being. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, for example, does not campaign to prevent cruelty to humans. Certainly, human beings are unique among animals, but we are members of the animal kingdom, of the phylum chordata, class mammalia, the order primates, and species homo sapiens.
It is because we are animals that we eat and sleep, conceive and nurture offspring and eventually die. It is because we are animals that we have a life-cycle. We can reflect on our beginnings and endings in ways that no other animal can, as far as we know. We can welcome conception and birth and plan for decline and death, but the reason we come to be and pass away is that we are animals. And the first stage in the life of the kind of animal we are is the embryonic stage.
Every one of us has passed through many phases of life, embryonic, foetal, neonatal, infant, adolescent, to reach our present stage of life. I was once a new-born baby. I have no memory of it but my mother has embarrassing photographs to which she can point and say, “this was you as a baby”. These days some people’s parents also have embarrassing ultrasound pictures of them in the womb and some people even have a picture of themselves as an embryo so their mother can say “Look – that is you as an embryo before they put you inside me”.
What then is the significance of destroying a human embryo? It is destroying a human being at the first stage of his or her life. I was once a baby and had you killed that baby you would have killed me and I would not have been here today. At the embryonic stage, there are no feelings to hurt, no pain or fear, but there can still be injustice. Destroying an embryonic human being is homicide and homicide is generally unjust, at least where the death is intended and the victim is not himself an unjust aggressor.
Thinking the unthinkable
The nature and moral status of the human embryo is not something that can be resolved in a few lines. There are arguments and counter-arguments. Nevertheless, there is at least a prima facie case for holding that a human embryo is an embryonic human being. If so then destroying a human embryo is ending the life of a human being. Why, then, especially in a contemporary British context, do advocates of embryo experimentation regard it as it as beyond all doubt that the destruction of a human embryo could not possibly constitute “homicide”?
At least two reasons may be offered: In the first place, to recognise that human embryo destruction constitutes homicide would threaten practices that are deeply embedded in our society, principally abortion and In Vitro Fertilisation, at least insofar as IVF involves discarding and experimenting on human embryos. The acceptance of these practices is the starting point for arguments in a contemporary British context and it is thus almost unthinkable that these practices might involve a grave and ongoing injustice.
Another reason this conclusion is regarded as obviously false is that people rarely engage seriously with those who take a different view. People work and live in professional or virtual worlds where their own, or broadly similar, views are reflected. Britain is also insular in another way: we are an island people and it is not unusual to host conferences in which there are no speakers not based in this country. Hence views that are mainstream elsewhere, here appear quite exotic.
European policy perspectives
There is much to admire about the United Kingdom but, in my experience, discussion of embryo policy in this country typically lacks humility. Indeed, it tends rather to the self-congratulatory while at the same time showing no awareness of its own insularity. Having compared different legislative regimes, the framework that exists in Germany, for example, while still imperfect, is certainly more adequate to the requirements of justice and to the nature and status of the embryonic human being than is the regime in the UK (excluding Northern Ireland).
To the extent that the UK has engaged with other countries on embryo policy it has been to promote its own research agenda and further its own commercial interests. Arguably, the influence of the UK in this respect has been corrupting, though happily it has not always had its own way. “Brexit” almost certainly will lessen British influence over human embryo research policy in Europe. This is to be welcomed. Without the malign presence of the UK, countries who remain in the EU will perhaps be better able to maintain their resistance to the constant pressure to commercialise technologies that rely on the unjust destruction of embryonic human beings.
Dr David Albert Jones is the Director of The Anscombe Bioethics Centre in Oxford, England. A version of this paper was presented at the annual conference of the Progress Educational Trust: “Rethinking the Ethics of Embryo Research: Genome Editing, 14 Days and Beyond”, in London, on December 7.
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