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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.

I encourage you to read Dr. Harvey's article, a version of which originally appeared as "Distinctly Human: The when, where and how of life's beginnings" by John Collins Harvey (February 8, 2002) 2002 Commonweal Foundation. While Jack has a great deal of respect for Dr. Harvey (as would just about anyone familiar with his notable career), he still questions some of the doctor's arguments regarding the beginning of human life. Read Dr. Harvey's article, then read Jack's "letter," and let us know what you think.

Dear Dr. Harvey,

I read with interest your article “Distinctly Human: The When, Where & How of Life’s Beginnings.” I discovered it on the Family Research Council Web site.

While you make some compelling arguments for human life beginning at conception, I present some counter-points for your consideration:

1. You seem to contradict your own argument with the statement “the upper part of the brain, the cerebral cortex, serves as a biological substrate for our ‘personhood’.” If the cerebral cortex is indeed crucial to “personhood,” why invest an embryo with all the rights and moral considerations of a person before the cerebral cortex forms? A functioning cerebral cortex makes the human brain unique (as opposed to other animals). This furthers the argument that a fetus is not a “human” being until about week 20 – 22 when such functioning begins, coincidentally in the same window of time as quickening.

2. In your discussion of in vitro fertilization, you mention the “spare embryos” created by this process. Yet you do not mention whether you consider it immoral to freeze embryos in the first place, or how you propose to deal with the “spares.” It is unimaginable to leave them frozen indefinitely, since the U.S. alone already has approximately 400,000, and that number is growing. If we cannot leave them frozen, do we discard them? Bury them? Is it less moral to use their stem cells for potentially life-saving research than freezing and/or discarding them?

3. It seems a good deal of your argument depends on accepting the embryo’s essence as human. You cite the presence of forty-six chromosomes as proof of this. I question whether this constitutes proof of humanness. It is my understanding that genetic uniqueness resides in the gamete. Further, even though all forty-six chromosomes are present in the zygote, the information dictating specifics of an individual depends upon later events, like differentiation.

I also question your dismissal of twinning as unimportant to this discussion. If the zygote is indeed “a living human being,” how do we explain its split into twins or triplets? If the zygote has 46 chromosomes, it cannot be two or three embryos. Yet it will become two or three embryos at some point after conception, even as late as two weeks.

If we allow the question of ensoulment into this discussion, it becomes even more muddled. Did the original embryo have a soul? What about the embryos resulting from the split? Did they receive their souls after the split? Or, if ensoulment occurs at conception, did the original embryo contain all three souls?

And what of the rare instances in which two embryos merge into one? If the original two embryos were destined to become certain individuals, this merge could not happen, especially given that embryos of opposite sex can merge. The resulting chimera contains different sets of chromosomes. If, as you state, “all this development takes place in an orderly pattern directed by DNA and proteins that make up the chromosomes,” were the multiple embryos destined to become a single embryo all along? Which set of chromosomes determined the merge? And what to make of the intersexual individuals that can result from opposite-sex embryos merging? Again, thinking of ensoulment, does a chimera have two souls?

These are but some of many questions that prevent me from accepting that human life begins at conception. (I did not attempt to bring in various Biblical references that support human life commencing much later.) My own belief is grounded in brain development, with human life commencing somewhere during the third month.

I would welcome the opportunity to discuss this further.


Jack Sisson

(Dr. John C. Harvey is professor of medicine, emeritus, at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, D.C.)

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