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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog

We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.

 
From Chapter 1 of The Ethical Brain:
...is it right to attribute the same moral status to that human embryo that one attributes to a newborn baby or, for that matter, to any living human? ... The implications of determining the beginning of moral status are far-reaching, affecting abortion, in vitro fertilization, biomedical cloning, and stem cell research. The rational world is waiting for resolution of this debate.
Gazzaniga here frames a debate separate from the beginning of human life. In this debate, it is possible to believe human life begins at conception and still support ESC research, abortion, IVF, and/or cloning. What matters in this debate is whether an embryo in a particular stage of development should receive the same moral respect given to a newborn baby.

A good many people would still argue yes. It is common for those who base their argument on the continuum point of view to confer full moral status on the zygote, believing that any other decision is arbitrary and unfounded.

Others might accept the continuum, but assign varying degrees of moral status based on embryonic or fetal development. Like Hans Martin Sass, who looked at established definitions of brain death and reasoned that society could reach a consensus for protecting embryonic life by applying similar criteria for brain life, many look to brain development for guidance.
The embryonic stage reveals that the fertilized egg is a clump of cells with no brain; the processes that begin to generate a nervous system do not begin until after the fourteenth day. No sustainable or complex nervous system is in place until approximately six months of gestation.
Others ignore it completely:
The fact that it is clear that a human brain isn't viable until week 23, and only then with the aid of modern medical support, seems to have no impact on the debate. This is where neuro "logic" loses out. Moral arguments get mixed in with biology, and the result is a stew of passions, beliefs, and stubborn, illogical opinion.
Sass, incidentally, theorized that prior to the beginning of cortical neuro-neuronal synapes (70 days after conception) abortions and presumably stem-cell research would be morally permissable. Sass's thesis is a cautious one, as any thesis should be if it hopes to achieve any degree of consensus in this debate. As Gazzaniga points out:
The brain at Carnegie Stage 23 [approximately eight weeks], which has slowly been developing from roughly the fifteenth day, is hardly a brain that could sustain any serious mental life. If a grown adult had suffered massive brain damage, reducing the brain to this level of development, the patient would be considered brain dead and a candidate for organ donation.
Still, the argument goes, brain death signifies the end of something. The early stages of brain life signify the beginning of something, and that something is a human being and should be both respected and protected as such. These arguments overlook the fact that up to 80% or more of embryos never implant; that it is an enormous stretch to believe that God or nature endows every single zygote with a human destiny only to kill 80% of them by the 10th day. How perverse is that?

Also ignored is the fact that twinning usually occurs in the first fourteen days, as does the much rarer event of two separate embryos merging into one to form a chimera. In these cases, we have either one individual "human being" splitting into two separate "human beings," or two separate "human beings" merging into one individual "human being." Do you see the fallacy of arguing that these are actually human beings before such drastic changes occur?

Gazzaniga takes these arguments into much greater detail in this chapter. I urge everyone interested in stem-cell research, abortion rights or just bioethics in general to read it. If nothing else, it will certainly force you to consider some provocative questions.

I myself continue to agree with Gazzaniga that "assigning equivalent moral status to a fourteen-day-old ball of cells and to a premature baby is conceptually forced. Holding them to be the same is a sheer act of personal belief."


Brain Pills
Roe v. Wade
Stem Cells
Stem Cell Fight!
Bearing Right
Moral Monkey?
Op-ed
Dave's site
Stem Stall
Screamers
Bush the hypocrite

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