I call your attention to a book I haven't read yet but soon shall, a book that may very well help turn the tide of public opinion in the abortion/embryonic research/stem cell debates. The book is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen. In a review of the book in today's online edition of the New York Sun, Christopher Willcox predicts:
This book is likely to make a lot of people crazy: It is a radical, even audacious, assault on the emerging technologies that would harvest living human embryos for medical research purposes. It is absolutist in its claim that human life begins at fertilization, when the male and female gamete, each bearing 23 complementary chromosomes, combine to create the single-cell zygote that will implant itself in the uterus and, in due course, become a man or woman. The argument's implications, not only for embryonic research but for abortion and some forms of contraception, are obvious: If it's human, you shouldn't kill it. That the argument relies on no sectarian religious tenet will only further aggravate those who disagree — it is much easier, these days, to dismiss religious scruple than scientific fact and logic.
In exploring the relevance and the logical destination of the "sentience" argument for disregarding the humanity of the embryo,
Messrs. George and Tollefsen then review the philosophical underpinnings of pro-research arguments, ranging from René Descartes's theory of sentience ("I think, therefore I am") to the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and the "greater good" theories of John Stuart Mill. It appears that the most salient arguments for withholding moral respect and, thus, protection from embryonic life are the absence of a developed brain and the promise of treating terrible diseases with the stem cells harvested from embryos.
But once the embryo is defined as human — as the science of embryology clearly defines it — the sentience argument falls short. Why not also harvest organs from the severely retarded or the comatose? The history of assigning value to individual human lives based on perceptions of inferiority or inconvenience has not been a pretty one, and the "greater good" argument is undeniably stronger, provided that the extravagant claims made for embryonic stem cells are not exaggerated. (The authors and many others believe the claims are, in fact, exaggerated.) But it, too, falters when one considers the history of reckless medical experimentation — the notorious Tuskegee syphilis trials, for instance, or the radiation tests performed on the unsuspecting by the military.
In the end, however, the argument really boils down to the intrinsic value of human life. According to the "settled" law, a fetus has a value if it is wanted by its mother or, in some cases, if it can survive apart from her. A fetus lost in a car wreck represents a tort claim on an insurance company. But a fetus lost to an abortion has no more legal standing than a baked potato.
Let's hope this work gets a wide and open-minded reading, leading to an increased understanding of "what God hath wrought" at the moment of conception.