When human life is not really human life


When human life is not really human lifeThe problem with science for many religious people is that it is all about doubt. In that sense, science is almost the opposite of faith.

For those of us who are both scientists and Christians this can make life difficult. It is not, as many seem to think, because approaching issues from a scientific or a religious standpoint can lead to different conclusions. We reconcile such different outcomes from different viewpoints and philosophies all the time, throughout our lives—left wing and right wing, adult and teenager, Lions and Blues, Bulldogs and Sharks.

Rather it is because, as a person of faith, many things are held to be certain, not open to question. But as a scientist everything is open to question. Nothing is sacred.

Take one of the great questions of the moment, the morality of research involving embryonic stem cells. Though rarely explicitly stated by either side, the debate really centres around determining or deciding at what point human life begins.

For many people the answer to this question seems simple, evident, and obvious. They believe that human life begins at conception—a distinct, clear, explicit point—end of story. That is what made it easy for President George Bush recently—in vetoing a bill passed by Congress which would have allowed Federal funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research—to equate the destruction of any fertilised human egg with homicide. When asked about the reason for the veto, his press secretary said: 'The simple answer is, he thinks murder is wrong.'

A similar statement accompanied a call by the head of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family, Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, for Catholic stem cell researchers to be excommunicated. 'Destroying human embryos is equivalent to abortion,' he said.

But for many biologists and doctors who are also people of faith, life is not that easy. For starters, if human life begins at conception, what does that make the germ cells that give rise to the fertilised egg? And if every fertilised egg is a human being, why does God allow more than 50 per cent of them to abort spontaneously?

Cardinal's threat to scientists over human embryos researchTo biologists, conception is only the beginning of a long process which leads to the birth of a baby, but just when that bundle of living cells becomes 'human' is not a question scientists find easy to determine. Is it at conception, after implantation in the mother's womb, when it develops a nervous system, when it begins to feel pain, when it can survive independently, when it becomes conscious?

One thing is clear. Just as a seed needs water, soil, and the right temperature and nutrients to grow into a plant, so a fertilised egg will only develop into a human being if it has the right genetic and biochemical constitution, and finds itself in the right place at the right time.

These are not idle observations. They affect the morality not just of stem cell research and abortion, but also of some methods of contraception and many kinds of medical procedures during pregnancy.

Embryonic stem cell research may provide some of the best chances we have of coming up with effective treatments for degenerative diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis and possibly even the world's number one killer, heart disease. But is it moral?

One of the most difficult concepts to grasp seems to be the idea of so-called therapeutic cloning—the initiation of the development of an egg in order to produce embryonic stem cells to be used in research or therapy. The name is an unfortunate one, in that therapeutic cloning has absolutely nothing to do with replicating humans.

The Rhythm MethodResearchers undertaking therapeutic cloning would say that the circumstances under which they stimulate human eggs to develop ensure there is no way the result could ever become a human baby. If that is so, they argue, then the embryonic tissue they produce is not a human life, but the equivalent of laboratory-cultured heart tissue or liver tissue. For those who believe that any developing human egg constitutes a human being, however, the procedure is morally wrong.

A recent analysis published in the Journal of Medical Ethics by philosopher Luc Bovens from the London School of Economics suggests the Rhythm Method of birth control significantly increases the chances of spontaneous abortion. If this is so, he argues, and if human life is deemed to begin at conception, then such a method for birth control could lead to more human deaths than would the use of condoms.

Much depends on the point at which human life begins.



submit a comment

Existing comments

This article raises a multitude of questions and objections for me.

"[W]hat does that make the germ cells that give rise to the fertilised egg?"
Well, what does it make them? Germ cells. These are on the other side of
that "distinct, clear, explicit point", so hardly relevant.

"[W]hy does God allow more than 50 per cent of them to abort spontaeously?"
Well, why does God allow any of us to die? Ask Him. Or accept that
evolution has given rise to a situation in which the death rate of all(?) species at the beginning of their development is very high. It's the way of Nature.

"Just as a seed needs water, to grow into a plant, so a fertilised egg
will only develop into a human being..." A fertile seed is already a
member of the species it belongs to. You don't call it a plant at that
stage, just as you don't call an embryo an adult. Plant is the name for
it at a stage in its life (albeit a stage that covers by far the major part
of its life) and is to be compared with an adult, not human being.

"Embryonic stem cell research may provide effective treatments." But
utility doesn't determine morality.

"[T]here is no way the result could ever become a human baby." I don't say
this isn't true, but I need convincing. What would it become, given the same

"A recent analysis by philosopher Luc Bovens..." Did he dream it up, or
was it based on proper research (which surely would not be carried out by a
philosopher)? We need to be told how this would come about. Anyway, the
Rhythm Method has been out fo date for donkey's years.
Gavan Breen | 10 August 2006

For the non-religious the issue is not the precise instant at which the egg is fertilised. As Tim Thwaites says, that is not a sensible question. Rather, the issue is "what is the value of that thing, situated as it is in a process taking it from inanimate to living, whatever that may mean, back to inanimate". It is an everyday observation that various lives at various stages have different values, and some deaths matter more than others.
Peter Shaw | 13 August 2006

Tim Thwaites is always worth reading.
As he says, an issue about cloning is "the point at which human life begins". Difficulty arises because all lives undergo a process, from inanimate through degrees of animation, to death. Various lives at various stages have different values, and it seems to be a fact of our condition that some deaths matter to us more than others. Acknowledging this opens a big field for debate, which could be useful.
Peter Shaw | 13 August 2006

Having witnessed the extreme suffering resulting from Parkinsons Disease for 2 members of my extended family and their nearest and dearest I am most grateful to Tim Thwaites for his cogently argued article justifying stem cell research. Similarly I am grateful to Fr. Frank Brennan SJ for his recent important occasional address - "Acting on Faith-based Conscience in a Pluralist Democracy." In bringing his argument to a conclusion, he makes this important and encouraging statement: "The citizen who is appointed to a position of public trust in the State is obligated to fulfil that trust in good conscience without renouncing his moral and mental freedom to any church authority, and without placing his civil loyalty and duty at the mercy of any church authority."
David Dyer | 16 August 2006

Tim Thwaites has my admiration for the courage he has shown in reflecting on the hard questions involved. He concludes by saying the "much depends on the point at which human life begins". This is the point I wish to disagree with. i believe that much depends on the point that society chooses to begin with in seeking that which can sustain, progress and/or heal human life.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew, Bombala | 07 September 2006

I wonder whether this differential value of different lives can only be on the basis of age, or are there other potential bases.
I don't understand what 'degrees of animation' means. How can something be partly animate?
Gavan Breen | 29 September 2006

We've updated our privacy policy.

Click to review