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A Human Person, Actually

Peter Lawler

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A powerful philosophical case for protecting embryos.

Embryo: A Defense of Human Life
Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen
Doubleday, 256 pp., $23.95

In their bold new book, Embryo, philosophers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen defend the proposition that the embryo—the organism that comes into being as the result of fertilization, the union of sperm with oocyte—is in fact a human being. And that means that an embryo has “absolute rights.” An embryo should never be used as a means to pursue someone else’s ends, however laudable or life-saving, they say. Certainly, embryos shouldn’t be killed to assist frustrated parents attempting in vitro fertilization (IVF), or even to further pathbreaking medical research. The authors stop well short of recommending all of the potential changes in law that would necessarily follow from their argument. All they ask is that scientific research that involves the killing of embryos be outlawed—or, at the very least, that it be denied public funding, and that future IVF procedures be practiced in such a way that they do not produce surplus embryos that are ultimately discarded. The authors oppose what they see as brutality motivated in part by good intentions—brutality they hope to correct with moral reasoning based in scientific knowledge. Open-minded readers should find their case powerful.

The embryo, George and Tollefsen argue, is a whole being, possessing the integrated capability to go through all the phases of human development. An embryo has what it takes to be a free, rational, deliberating, and choosing being; it is naturally fitted to develop into a being who can be an “uncaused cause,” a genuinely free agent. Some will object, of course, that the embryo is only potentially human. The more precise version of this objection is that the embryo is human—not a fish or a member of some other species—but not yet a person. A person, in this view, is conscious enough to be a free chooser right now. Rights don’t belong to members of our species but to persons, beings free enough from natural determination to be able to exercise their rights. How could someone have rights if he doesn’t even know that he has them?

George and Tollefsen argue that the distinction between human being and person depends upon a contemporary philosophical prejudice that has no basis in reality. This “dualism” originated with Immanuel Kant, who held that free persons aren’t determined by inhuman or merely animal nature. Kant’s unempirical view is that there’s nothing natural about our freedom—and so there’s nothing natural about our rights, either. But contrary to Kant, we are, by our natures, the animals given the capabilities for personal freedom; we are, so to speak, hardwired as social animals, given the responsibility to live and act well in light of the truth. Human nature isn’t an oxymoron.

Read the entire article on the City Journal website (new window will open).

Posted: 26-Apr-08



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