06 February 2010

Zygotic Inquiry IV

This is forth in a series (started here) of an email conversation about beginning of life issues.


Way back, I thought it prudent to wait a while before responding to your last email ("I may not have as much time to write long emails after tomorrow").

I would like to first take up the issue of personhood (again). You said, "I do not believe it is possible to say 'this is a person and that is not' based on legally-decided criteria, but I will admit I do not believe a zygote is the same as a child, it has the potential to become one." I totally agree that a zygote is not a child in the same way that a 2 mo. infant is not the same as an adult (say, >30 yrs). There are criteria of being a human that are met by the adult that the infant cannot realize in actuality. An infant cannot reproduce since the reproductive organs do not function yet. The infant cannot actually communicate about last week. Yet, the infant has the potential to become an adult.

I don't think there can be any argument about the above observations, but do you really mean to say that the "[human zygote (with a gender assigned at fertilization)] has the potential to become *a person*"? In other words, are you saying that an infant has moral worth that needs to be protected and the human zygote potentially has moral worth which s/he does not have at his/her level of development? Please advise on these important questions for my understanding of your position (I'm still not clear, sorry).

At this point, I would like to posit an important distinction between potential and capacity, or passive potential and active potential. I pile of metal and parts has a passive potential to become a car since outside forces must do the work to assemble the car. A monarch caterpillar has the active potential to become a monarch butterfly since the monarch itself causes itself internally to obtain wings. Active potential is a peculiarly particular aspect of biological systems. A monarch will never have the capacity of talking about last week while a human does not have the capacity to fly with wings.

"By binary system I do indeed mean that I do not see life as a black and white situation. Before you formed a brain, your cells were alive, yet when your brain dies, 'you' will be considered dead, even though many cells in your body will still be functional. It is an uncommon position, I do not expect anyone to sympathize with it, and I understand many people actually find it somewhat unpleasant."

This phrase curiously mixes beginning of life ideas with end of life ones. On its face, it seems (probably mistakenly in confusion) that if one does not have a brain, s/he is dead. Further, a zygote actually is forming a brain from fertilization in that the zygote has the information (programmed) to form the brain internally. However, objectively the human zygote is not dead since it is constantly creating by itself the systems of the body including the brain. The human without a brain with an active potential of human cognizance has already lived its life to its conscious end (although s/he still has worth / is a person; see below).

The criterion of having a functioning brain (human level cognition) is a troubling one since in a metaphysical sense, if one does not have this, one is not a person (moral worth attached as a human). (I disagree that this is "an uncommon position".)

Consider the example of a reversibly comatose human. S/he does not have human level cognition in actuality, but they have the active potential, or capacity to gain it in a finite time. This state is analogous to a human zygote: the human zygote has the capacity to gain human level cognition in a finite time. The fact that one has an actual brain is irrelevant since they both have the same potential (finite time needed) to gain human level cognition. Of course this assumes that the reversibly comatose human has moral worth, or is a person.

So, please permit me to deal my cards. To have moral worth as a person does not come down to what one does (human level cognition), but what one is (capacity for human level cognition). As soon as a human zygote is created with a gender (no longer gametes of sperm or egg; "fertilized egg" is a misnomer since an egg has no gender), they must be protected as every other person must be protected.

"Whether or not abortion is made illegal again, it will continue, if you believe it can be stopped by purely legal means than you are doing nothing but perpetuating an illusion. People will still be able to obtain the drugs and even the procedure itself via illegal means.

"As a religious person, and therefore a student of the nature of humanity, do you really believe humans, especially scared, desperate ones, wouldn't do these things, just because the government threatened them?"

Even though it may seem convoluted in some way, can't your observation be said about all crimes? As a Christian, I realize all people sin, some to criminal proportions. However, the rule of law set by our US and state constitutions must be observed unless they be ignored and lay the path toward anarchy and destroy the common good.

Obviously not all crimes carry the same weight in penalty. However, crimes against humanity (even if technically legal; I suggest reading Dr. King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" ) cannot be condoned by any civilized society including ours.

Slavery was once legal. Now, even though its still illegal, slavery/human trafficking is still going on right under our noses in this country. Should it become legal again? Of course not.

About the ESCR ("morula-derived stem cells"), none of the articles mention what is done with the embryos after they survive the taking of some of their cells.

Well, I'm done for now. Let me know what you think.

BTW, I noticed you like debates on line. I didn't know if you saw this one: .

Good day,

Mr. gmb3,

Thank you for waiting, my schedule has indeed been extremely full in recent weeks, and I am taking advantage of my Thanksgiving free time to respond to this message before I have to return to my previous schedule.

Before anything else, I would like to address your question about the morulas used during the research we discussed earlier. While I do not have an exact answer, I do know that many embryos are either re-frozen, or discarded. If you wish to know more, I suggest you contact the researchers themselves about the matter.

Regarding your position on personhood, I do not view the matter in the same way as you do. Nor do I, as you seem to insinuate with your comments regarding communication and reproductive ability, have some kind of check off list about whether or not something has a “moral worth”. Furthermore, while I do understand your analogies regarding the two types of potential you have outlined, I do not agree with your position that a potential brain is equal to that of an active one. I apologize for troubling you, but as someone who does not believe in the metaphysical, I have no evidence that there is any sort of consciousness or “anyone” in a given body if there is no brain activity.

You bring up the case of a reversibly comatose human, but not an irreversibly damaged one. If a person has been damaged to that extent, then I do believe that what has made them, them, is indeed dead. Furthermore, while the body that remains is human, there is no “person” inside. In the case of a reversibly comatose human, they are still functioning to a degree as to be visible to outside forces, perhaps not physically, but brain scans are fantastic sources of information, and there are obvious differences between someone in a vegetative state, and someone who is simply trapped. If moral worth is a matter of one’s capacity for human level cognition, then one is presented with a new problem as adults with severe mental handicaps may have cognitive abilities below those of a healthy infant.

Your conclusion that a zygote must be protected rests on the following propositions: that there is such a thing as moral worth, that people have moral worth, and that people are those members of homo sapiens who are capable (or will eventually be capable) of “human level cognition”. However, I do not agree with these propositions, as such I cannot accept the conclusion, nor will I be able to change your mind of the matters (not that I would ever intend to do so). I am grateful for having someone with whom to speak, and I hope I have helped you in some way, but it is impossible for us to reconcile or differences on this issue once we move beyond the black and white of what is observable and testable.


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