March 15, 2008

Embryos are human life

At what point does the life of an individual human being begin? This is the central and most significant question raised by the issue of abortion. Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen address this and other related ethical questions in their just-published Embryo: A Defense of Human Life [Hat tip: Camillo].

According to the authors the embryonic stage is, like the fetal stage, the infant stage, and the adolescent stage, one stage in the development of a single human being who begins his or her existence from the instant of conception. As George and Tollefsen explain:

Human embryos are not […] some other type of animal organism, like a dog or cat. Neither are they a part of an organism, like a heart, a kidney, or a skin cell. Nor again are they a disorganized aggregate, a mere clump of cells awaiting some magical transformation. Rather, a human embryo is a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development. [p. 3]

Based on this, the authors argue that the human embryo is a human person worthy of full moral respect and that it is “morally wrong and unjust to kill that embryo, even if the goal of the embryo killing is the advancement of science or the development of therapeutic products or treatments.” [p. 17]

It is also to be pointed out that while typically, right-to-life arguments have been based explicitly on moral and religious grounds, in this book the authors eschewed religious arguments and used a rigorous scientific and philosophical approach.

Robert George is a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics and is a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University. He is the author of several books including Making Men Moral and In Defense of Natural Law. Christopher Tollefsen is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina. He is the author of the forthcoming book Biomedical Research and Beyond.

See Keith Mathison’s review to learn more about the book.


  1. I feel that defining an embrio as a full human person could take to some paradoxical situations.

    Consider for example miscarriage. It is extimated that 25-30% of embrios fail to implant and never develope into a foetus.

    If embrios are persons, then miscarriage is a worse disease than cancer or heart attacks. We should devote the resources now allocated to cancer research to miscarriage research instead ?

  2. I’d say that, in general, the strength of a theoretical statement such as the one according to which “embryos are human life” cannot be invalidated by its practical consequences, however paradoxical they might be. Anyway the authors think that the embryo is a complete and whole organism, though immature, that if it is not yet a rational being, it has however the capacity to develop into it.