Saturday, March 5, 2016


by Richard Stith
Firsts Things - Institute for the Psychological Sciences

An ultrasound video of an unborn child sucking its thumb makes a case against abortion that reason hardly need supplement. But a zygote photographed just after an in vitroconception is not so easily recognizable as a human being or person. Pro-lifers often assume that this difficulty has been overcome by modern science. Since the 1820s, when evidence of ovular fertilization first became known, it has been clear that the life of a human being runs from conception to death.

Scientific knowledge that each of our lives began with conception, however, is insufficient to convince many people that an embryo is already one of us. Michael Kinsley, writing in 2006 in theWashington Post, expressed his utter bewilderment at opposition to embryonic stem cell research. “I cannot share, or even fathom, [the anti-research] conviction that a microscopic dot—as oblivious as a rock, more primitive than a worm—has the same human rights as anyone reading this article. . . . Moral sincerity is not impressive if it depends on willful ignorance and indifference to logic.”

Of course, Kinsley’s intuition that an embryo is “as oblivious as a rock” depends on his own obliviousness to what he must know about the embryo’s inner directedness and connection to its environment. To say that “embryos are merely ‘clumps of cells,’” writes Jon Shields, “tends to obscure scientific truth itself. This characterization suggests that an embryo is not biologicallydifferent than what we might find under our fingernails if we were to gouge a bit of skin from our arms. It is to imply erroneously that they lack coherence, integrity, and self-direction as ­organisms.”

Richard Stith is a research professor at Valparaiso University Law School.

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