Contrary to Patsy McGarry, an embryo IS a human being

Irish Times Religious Affairs Correspondent, Patsy McGarry, wrote an article last week urging the broadest use of the new techniques available in genome editing that aim to decrease the likelihood of children being born with serious genetic defects. The problem with this process is that it involves a form of experimentation on embryos which destroys them. Patsy dismisses this concern because he simply won’t accept that the embryo is a human being. He says: “It is simply wrong to describe a fertilised ovum as a human being. A fertilised ovum is not a human being, it is a biological reaction. It has no head, no heart, no spine, no consciousness. It is a collection of biological elements which is no more a human being than my leg, my arm, any of my organs, even my toe nails. It may someday become a human being, but it is not a human being.”

It is almost impossible to know where to begin in addressing all the non-sequiturs and straw man fallacies found here. His number one straw man argument appears to be that somewhere out there, there is a generally held belief that the human being at the embryonic stage is actually a little homunculus.  He is keen to disabuse us of this notion. However, we have known otherwise for quite a long time now thanks to scientific advances, and those advances ought to convince us that the embryo is human and can be nothing else, even if it doesn’t yet look like a human.

Let’s delve a little more into the science of the matter. At the most basic level it is simply false or at the very least extremely misleading to assert that “a fertilised human ovum’ is not a human being”. As the neurobiologist, Maureen L. Condic has observed, “once an egg is fertilised, it ceases to be an egg and so this term, ‘fertilised egg,’ avoids the central question of what kind of cell is produced by fertilization.

“Indeed it is an uncontested fact of embryological science that once successful penetration of the zona pellucida (the thick transparent membrane surrounding a mammalian ovum before implantation) and the fusion of the male and female gametes occurs a new centrally organized unity is established. In that fraction of a second when the chromosomes form pairs, the sex of the new child will be determined, hereditary characteristics received from each parent will be set, and a new life will have begun.” (G. Kaulger and M. Kaulger, Human Development: The Span of Life (The C. V. Mosby Co, 2000), p. 28.)

What Patsy seems to be advocating therefore, even if he is not aware of it, is the return to an entirely pre-scientific understanding of the human person in its earliest phase of existence. This understanding in turn inevitably gives rise to the domination of the strong over the weak. More tragically it leads to the pursuit of entirely human goals through the employment of anti-human measures.

Again, what Maureen L. Condic has further observed is entirely apposite in the context of deconstructing at least some of the many elementary errors of Patsy’s article: “In considering the question of when the life of a new human being commences, we must first address the more fundamental question of when a new cell, distinct from sperm and egg, comes into existence: when during the interactions of sperm and egg do we observe the formation of a new cell with both a material composition and a developmental pathway (i.e., a pattern of cell behaviour) that are distinct from the cells giving rise to it? These two criteria (unique composition and behaviour) are used throughout the scientific enterprise to distinguish one cell type from another—and if we reject them as the basis for making such distinctions, the only alternative is to make an essentially arbitrary decision.”

So, given that the embryo is a human being, the next question is; what moral value do we assign to it? On the basis that all human beings should be treated equally, it should be given the same moral value as you or I.