Summary Notes: The Embryo as Person
“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” — Werner Heisenberg
National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly article summarised: The Embryo as Person, by Kevin D O’Rourke OP (Summer 2006)
If it is accepted that the human embryo is a person, given they are not autonomous, there is the question of which person/s are responsible for their care, and to what extent. If it is not accepted that the embryo is a person, there is the question of when do they become a person. These questions are both scientific and ethical in nature, but before these can be answered, philosophical considerations should be given to potency first.
Any aspect of reality can be deemed either act, or potency. This concept explains how a being can change in appearance, but essentially remain the same. Of particular relevance to the embryo questions is active potency, that is, the embryo’s ‘inner power’ to drive its natural development during pregnancy, all the way to adulthood post-birth. Therefore, the human person maintains its intrinsic individuality and rationality from its embryonic state into adulthood.
St Thomas Aquinas elaborates that persons are body-soul composites, separate from each other, with will and intellect each. Therefore, arguably, the form of an adult person is not different to when this person was an embryo, but those who support the concept of delayed animation have challenged this. Either way, the contemporary concept of personhood is more Lockean, and therefore less ontological, than Thomistic.
John Locke based personhood on the person’s activities, such as conscious thinking, which leads to pleasure or pain. Present-day philosophers and bioethicists have followed suit in basing personhood on consciousness. Some, still, argue for other capacities in addition to consciousness to base personhood on, such as neocortical function, self-awareness, euphoria, and human relationships, but these have been examined outside the ontological context.
A consequence of the Lockean approach is that it is possible to believe that one can be human, but not a person, if the human has no consciousness. This perspective argues that some humans, such as embryos, infant humans, those who are profoundly intellectually challenged, and those in a vegetative state, are human non-persons. Consequently, there is no obligation to give them moral consideration, because they cannot intellectualise, nor can they be intellectually understood. Finally, because of their perceived lack of rationality, they do not have autonomy demanding respect. But do people lose (more of) their personhood when they fall asleep? Are the Lockeans implying that there is a consciousness act-potency spectrum?
The alternative perspective, rebuts that the ‘vegetative’ argument demeans the egalitarian value of the dignity of the human person, on the basis that the person is a body-soul composite, whose state of flux between act and potency does not change their personhood, from conception to natural death. Therefore, the person’s state of consciousness, or lack thereof, is not a consideration for determining dignitary value. The pro-life vs pro-choice debate has highlighted different perspectives on what constitutes personhood.
Whilst it appears that the soul is embodied at point of human fertilisation, the Catholic Church has not explicitly defined this to be the case, probably because biology is an evolving science. Nevertheless, the human embryo is a person because they still has remote potency, and therefore has a right to life. The author suggests pervasive, science-based, but compassionate, education about what he raised in his article is what is required to rebuild a culture of life.