Looking for Life (In All the Wrong Places)
Human Embryos, Human Beings: A Scientific & Philosophical Approach. Samuel B. Condic and Maureen L Condic, from The Catholic University of America Press, 2018 (299 pp 978-0-8132-3023-8, $29.95).
Human Embryos, Human Beings is not a book about abortion. Yet it is a book everyone who wants to take an informed view of the subject should read, because it addresses one of the two fundamental questions at the heart of the matter.
When all is said and done, where one stands on abortion involves a binary choice—should a woman have a fundamental right to decide on the future of her pregnancy or not. There is no comfortable middle ground, because there is no intellectually honest compromise to be made. Either one agrees that a woman (and her doctor) should be able to act on individual conscience—or they should not. To say that she may, but only in this or that circumstance (whether that circumstance be reason or time limit), is to take that decision—and indeed, the responsibility for it—from her.
What sits under human intellectual decision making is our attitude to two key questions: the first concerns how we think about a woman’s self-determination (essentially her moral autonomy and her bodily integrity); the second concerns the status of the human embryo from conception to birth. This book does not address the first question at all. That is outside its scope, which is to focus entirely on the ontological status of the human embryo in light of the most-recent biological evidence.
The authors—a philosopher and a neuroscientist—construct this thesis: Both sound philosophical reasoning and the available scientific evidence support the claim that a human being is present in utero from fertilization onward and, as importantly, there is no scientific evidence to support the claims that what is human in the being appears only at some time after. The huge range of philosophical approaches to what human life and human living means is addressed with less rigor. This is frustrating, because it would be exciting and interesting to know how the authors engage with those modern European thinkers who are most concerned with human life. This is a common frustration within the discipline of philosophy, however. Suggesting to an Aristolean that they might learn from Hegel or Heidegger is almost like suggesting an embryologist create a chimera from a mouse and a squirrel.
Philosophically, Human Embryos, Human Beings is a careful application of Aristotle’s theory of hylomorphism—his notion that an individual thing (substance) is constructed of matter and form. For Aristotle, a soul is understood to be that which makes a thing alive—a basic property of a living thing—and a soul is related to its body, inseparable in life and always in unity. Accepting this, the Condics summarize: “[I]t is impossible to explain how human beings change over their lifespan while remaining fundamentally the same individual” (p259). So, for them, there is an essential continuity and an essential “sameness” from conception to death. Once a new individual life is created, it grows and develops, at all times having the qualities essential for what it needs at that time and progressing towards what it will become. Living is a continuum from conception—when life becomes organized to become a human—until death. The practical application of this is straightforward. If we understand that an embryo is human and alive, and we suppose that it has a biological intentionality to grow and develop into one of us, then it is one of us already.
For the Condics, the humanity of the embryo is there to be discovered; it is an objective fact. They do acknowledge that “while science can tell us with accuracy what an embryo is made of and how its various parts interact, and in this way is a necessary precondition for answering the question, science is silent on the question of what the embryo is metaphysically, and is thus not sufficient” (p7). This is why philosophy is required. Science can tell us what the embryo is, but it cannot resolve the moral status we give it. That is where we must reach into the world of meaning and values, and where we may turn to ethics and the philosophical approaches on which ethics is based.
Central to this for the authors is that they are scientific and moral objectivists—that is, things are as they are objectively “as fact,” existing for us to “discover.” For the Condics, the value of things is inherent in entities themselves, regardless of the circumstances. They reject the notion of approaches that suggest that value has a subjective element and is determined by those doing the valuing. Much of this book stands as a reply to the ethicist Ronald M. Green, who, as the authors quote him at length, I shall, too. Green’s influential article on life’s beginning and end laid out the foundation for a paradigm shift in how we think about decision making. He explains:
“[H]owever we may become accustomed to viewing our judgements about personhood as a fixed passive response to the qualities existing out there in an entity, these judgements are, rather, the outcome of a very active, complex decision on our part. In this process, the qualities possessed by a class of other beings are weighed in terms of our broadest human interests and needs. The particular judgement of a class of being as being protectable results when we as adult human beings decide that a set of qualities in that that kind of being is sufficiently important in terms of our interests to merit the restraint on our liberty that an acknowledgement of personhood involves. Furthermore, it seems to follow from this view that not just the nature of the entity, its inherent qualities that shape our thinking, but at least three different major considerations in a relational whole. These include the nature of the entity, the impact of its mistreatment on our broadest human interests and the specific implications its protection has for our liberty.” (Green, Ronald M.  “Towards a Copernican Revolution in Our Thinking about Life’s Beginning and Life’s End,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal. 66. 152-173. cited pp. 13–14)
Following what has become known as Kant’s “Copernican revolution” in The Critique of Pure Reason (1781), when he reversed the traditional relationship between the subject and object to make the subject central to the theory of knowledge, so Green situates us and not the embryo as central to determining its moral status.
The Condics reject this approach as a method of declaration, or fiat. For them, embryonic life is what it is intrinsically (what it is), regardless of, and despite, its relationship to us. The thinking behind the Casey decision is emblematic of what they see as a cause of concern. A ruling that states that “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life,” is sufficiently important to be “at the heart of liberty” (Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v. Casey, 505 US. 883 ) is anathema to this objective discovery. It suggests—in line with Green’s Copernican revolution—that, when we consider the questions What does it mean to be human? When does life begin? When does it begin to matter?, there are no universal or provable truths that can be discovered in the embryo itself—or indeed, at all.
For the Condics, this conjures up a vision of epistemological chaos in which each of us gets to decide what is true for us—and it is easy to understand their concern.
The special moral status we attach to human life seems too precious to relativize and, set within the framework that the Condics construct, it seems to set us clearly on the road to Hell. As they ask at the start:
“If being human is ultimately the result of a decision on our part, a decision proceeding fundamentally from our will and our interests, rather than from something outside ourselves, then what does this mean to being human and to the decisions we make regarding humans?” (p9)
After all, isn’t that what Hitler did in deciding that Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and the “mentally defective” were less than human? The question it begs is whether we think humanity is capable of confronting this question and drawing humane conclusions. Do we trust ourselves to decide?
Human Embryos, Human Beings is an excellent application of Aristotelian thinking as developed by Augustine and Aquinas, and it provides an equally thorough explanation of embryology and attendant biological sciences. However, it leaves much heavy lifting to be done if its case is to stand up in comparison with, not just Green, but also thinkers as diverse as Michael Tooley (Abortion and Infanticide, 1983), Ronald Dworkin (Life’s Dominion: An Argument about Abortion and Euthanasia, 1993) and Jeff McMahon (The Ethics of Killing: Problems at the Margins of Life, 2002), to name but a few.
All would agree that a human embryo is living (not dead) and human (not any other species); this is indisputable. The case that the human embryo is “destined” or “programmed” to be born into human life is overwhelmingly compelling, since it cannot become a kitten any more than a kitten can become a wolfhound. The substantive and substantial discussions about “potentiality” (is an embryo actually or potentially human?) and about “personhood” reveal, more than anything, that much depends on what we mean by these terms. If one’s definition of a human person is a self-conscious, rational individual, you exclude embryos and the newly born. If one’s definition of a human person is an entity “intended” to become one, this includes the earliest blastocyst.
The Condics’ argumentation is sound. Yet it fails to persuade me that it is either morally wrong or intellectually impoverished to agree with much of what they say and yet still uphold the inviolability of a woman’s right to decide on the future of her pregnancy.
The problem is this: Philosophical and scientific systems of thinking are self-referential and closed to matters outside their structure. For the most part, they are, of necessity, abstract and rarefy that which they consider—separating it from all else. From a scientific or an Aristotelian perspective, we can think about a human embryo and weigh what it is and what it represents as “a human embryo.” In the world, however, that is not how a human embryo is. The progressive, organized and “intentional” development from a zygote to a morula to a blastocyst happens, just as Maureen Condic so correctly illustrates in her diagrams. In reality, the truth of embryonic development is as much about the basic geography of where this cell division takes place as how it takes place. Is it in a woman’s uterus, where it might naturally flourish to fulfill its human potential? Is it in a petri dish created for scientific observation and intended only to advance human knowledge? Is it in a woman’s fallopian tube, where its growth is naturally limited and could end its host’s life?
Human embryos are our future selves. They are the next generation of what humanity is now. Because of what the human embryo represents, why would we not accord it as much value, and as much protection, as we can? But that value and protection have to be decided and determined in relation to the real circumstances of its existence. When its existence is in a woman’s body, that must qualify how it is regarded, because her life cannot be ignored. To see only the inviolability embryonic human life which is biological, denies the inviolability of the woman’s human life, which is biological and biographical. That actual lived life, with its preferences for the moment and its plans for the future, are as much a part of human life as DNA. Indeed, the human quality of human’s life is what the embryo is organized to develop towards.
Context matters for every embryo created, and its value is contingent upon that. We can accept that, even as we accept that an embryo is human life and that human life should be inviolable … sacred even. In the lives we live, we are driven to make decisions, in the world in which we are thrown into and on life’s terms. A knowledge of science and Aristotelian principles may be of no more help to practical reasoning than a guide to Sudoku helps solve a crossword puzzle. This is why the Condics were absolutely wise to leave their work without drawing conclusions for the life-world. There is so much more to life than science, and the Condics are right to observe that science cannot solve the problems of meaning and value that we give to embryos. However, life is also much more complicated than philosophy—particularly when the life being considered is in a living woman’s womb.