The criterion of the manifestation of activity that is specifically human
In contemporary secular bioethics, discussion about the status of the embryo is shaped above all else by the anthropology of identity theory. This theory, which originated in Australia and which is accepted by many ethicists in the Anglo-Saxon world and – albeit unconsciously – by many medical doctors as well, is characterised by a strong dualism which separates the biological nature of man and the specific functions that render him a person. That which is specifically human is psychological consciousness, the rational faculty and the capacity for social communication. It is clear that in this vision the embryo could never be a person before a certain development of its nervous system.
Tauer thinks that when the nervous system has developed to the point of registering certain experiences that come from the environment the embryo has matured a ‘mental personality’ which draws the embryo near to being a person in the strict sense. These experiences can be unconscious but as we know from psychoanalysis they can already lead to the formation of memories that act subsequently on the consciousness. On the basis of this, Tauer thinks that there are sufficient reasons for attributing to the embryo in the seventh week not only a moral value but also the beginning of being a person in a morally significant sense.
Others, such as McMahan, believe, instead, that the embryo becomes a human being at a subsequent moment: ‘I believe that the most credible view is that we are embodied minds… I began to exist when the brain of this body – my body – acquired for the first time the ability to have consciousness’. This implies that the human being begins his or her existence between the twenty-eighth and the thirtieth week.
Engelhardt, on the other hand, in order to be able to speak about a person requires the actual presence of self-awareness, a manifest rational activity and a manifest capacity for social communication. Given that such functions are probably present only a notable time after birth, the unborn and the newly born – including mentally handicapped people who have never had a rational capacity – are said not to be human persons to the full with the accompanying connected moral status. Before being persons they are said to be only human beings in the biological sense. This demonstrates the urgent need for careful anthropological reflection on the human biological nature of the early embryo.
This vision has various practical consequences for other fields of medical ethics as well. If applied strictly, a patient in a permanent vegetative state could no longer be seen as a person. And some have suggested that he or she could thus be seen as a donor of organs.
A fundamental objection to identity theory is that it encounters difficulty in explaining the human person as a unity. The human being is considered in antithesis to the human person, like biological nature and spiritual nature, that is to say the rational capacity.
The intrinsic finality: the embryo, even were it not yet a human individual, must be respected as such because of its intrinsic capacity to become that individual
Assuming that the early embryo is not a human individual, would it not be obvious to conclude that its elimination by means of procured abortion and its use in research or in ‘therapeutic’ cloning are licit, specifically because of the fact that they do not involve the killing of a human individual? McMahan’s view is that ‘this would not amount to the killing of one of us but only the prevention of their existence’. As an argument in favour of the licit character of procured abortion or experiments with embryos, reference is made to the fact that the Christian tradition preferred the theory of delayed animation until the nineteenth century. This raises the question why Christian theologians, although accepting this theory, unanimously rejected abortion – until the second half of the century – even when it took place before the assumed moment of animation. Here the famous text of Tertullian is indicative: Given that killing is always forbidden, the destruction of a foetus during the period in which the blood is transformed into a human being is also illicit. The prevention of birth is the same as early killing; it makes no difference whether one kills life already born or interrupts life already on its way to birth and being developed: he who will be a man is already a man, just as the fruit is already in the seed.
By the transformation of blood, Tertullian was alluding to conception as understood by Aristotle, in whose view the blood that was in the womb was not expelled during pregnancy, as was the case in normal periods of menstruation, but remained there and was transformed within the body into an embryo under the influence of the active force of the male semen. When this process was still under way, Tertullian affirmed, there was something in the womb that should be respected as a human individual, at least because it would become a human individual. As an argument to strengthen this thesis it was added that every fruit is already virtually present in the seed.
The fundamental argument in this text is that the process of the development of the embryo takes place in a way that has a purpose. In the conceived human being, and above all in the semen, there is the intrinsic finality of becoming a human individual. From this springs the need for respect. In his commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke, Ambrose says that ‘to check your levity you recognise the hands of Your Author who forms a man in the womb. He is working and you violate with your lasciviousness the secret of the sacred womb?’ Here one is not dealing with abortion. Ambrose seems to state that unchecked sexual passions lead to sterility. Whatever the case, he teaches us that the formation of the embryo in the plan of the creative action of God is a process with a finality. We can find the same thought in St. Augustine: ‘And yet in all men who are born ill, God, in forming the body, in giving them life and nourishing them, does that which is good’. He is not thinking of a direct intervention on the part of God upon the biological development of the embryo but of a transcendental causality that includes the direct biological causes (the causae secundae). The same finality linked to the doctrine of the creation is evident in the way in which St. Thomas Aquinas describes the origin of man.
The prevention of procreation has been seen by Christian theologians as a rejection of the fulfilment of a purpose of marriage which is established in the order of the Creation. And it was on the basis of this thought that the Fathers of the Church and medieval theologians placed on the same level the use of means to bring about sterilisation (contraceptives), the killing of a (both an animated and not yet animated) foetus, and infanticide: However they betray themselves when they reach the point of exposing their own children born against their will. They hate raising and keeping near to themselves those children that they feared to generate. When, therefore, dark inequity becomes cruel towards their own children, generated against their wishes, a clear inequity is brought to light and a secrete turpitude is bared by a manifest cruelty. At times, this voluptuous cruelty, or, if one wants, this cruel voluptuousness, is pushed to the point of obtaining contraceptive substances and in the case of failure to the killing in some way in the womb of the conceived foetuses and their expulsion, with the desire that their own child perishes before living or, when it is already living in the womb, that it is killed before being born. There can be no doubt: if both of them are of the same stamp, they are not spouses; and if they behave like that from the outset they do not unite in marriage but in lustfulness. If then it is not both of them who behave like this, I would venture to say that either she in a certain sense is the prostitute of the husband or he is the adulterer of the wife’.
Although in the view of these theologians abortion before animation could not be held to be murder, nonetheless they refer to an illicit intervention because this violates the intrinsic finality of the embryo to reach the moment of animation. At the most in certain circumstances the abortion of the foetus, seen as being inanimate, is assessed in a less severe way or, in a case where the life of the mother is in danger, it is explicitly allowed.
The return of the theory of delayed animation amongst Christian theologians with the passing of the centuries does not in any way, however, support the conclusion which holds that on the basis of Christian Tradition abortion or the elimination of embryos for research purposes is legitimate. This Tradition also attributed to the inanimate embryo a moral status and a connected dignity because of its intrinsic finality. According to contemporary biology, this is to be found in the development programme that is carried out under the guidance of the chromosomes, whose composition has been established since conception. If one wanted to use one element from Tradition, why are the other elements of Tradition neglected, elements that are compatible with the data of contemporary embryology?