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The Once and Future Person
Lukas Halim • How many cells must an embryo have, before you can call him a man? • October 2001

What would be the top national news story, had the attacks of September 11th not occurred? Most likely, the continuing controversy surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells for medical advancement. Every politico has voiced his opinion on this issue. And showpersons haven’t been silent either—earlier this year, Christopher Reeves and Mary Tyler Moore put in their two cents: “The better, moral choice is to donate them to research, the way people donate organs, to help millions of Americans have a better life.” There are many questions wrapped up in this seemingly reasonable statement: Is it permissible to kill another human to save the life of another human? Are these embryos even human? How can we know? And isn’t it all just relative anyway? 

Many students at Yale claim that there is no way to make moral judgments, and so they dismiss the question—whether it is moral to destroy human embryos—as irrelevant.  But the same people, who refuse to make moral judgment, will in the next moment speak about the great benefits of medical advancement. Since there are such great benefits associated with the destruction of these embryos, stem cell experimentation is imperative. However, this line of thinking is heavily flawed: No one can talk about the concept of “benefit” without possessing some sort of value system. In this case, the person who extols the medical benefits of embryonic stem cell research is declaring medical advancement to be more important than the growth and birth of the human embryos.

Some argue that all values are relative. This is true in the limited sense that all moral judgments require a subject, a human person, to make them.  But this does not, in itself, mean that any moral judgment is as good as another.  Everyone, even moral relativists, have the experience of knowing that an act is wrong, in a universal sense—the staunchest moral relativists will always condemn slavery.  The experience of universal norms does not conflict with the findings of science, nor does it conflict with the fact that people disagree about moral judgments.

There are those who claim that particular human lives can be sacrificed if necessary for the good of society.  On this understanding, one thing–pleasure–becomes the only desirable end.  Professor Peter Singer, a well-known proponent of this view, argues that the greatest good for the greatest number can justify the murder of disabled children.  If morality is to be so totally divorced from common sense, then one may as well propose that the purpose of life is to eat cherry tomatoes.  Certainly pleasure is good, but there is no rational basis for claiming it is the only good.

“But a human embryo can’t be compared to a conscious human being!” If consciousness or rationality defines who is and who is not human, then the comatose and retarded are in serious trouble.  After all, a severely retarded person could be less sentient than an ape, and so less human.  

In order to really talk about stem cell research, we must decide which lives have to be respected.  Roughly speaking, most grant that human beings or human persons have a right to life.  But what constitutes a “human person” is not so clear.

Identity for physical objects is difficult to define.  To see this, imagine a rowboat.  Imagine that the boards of the boat are replaced one by one over time, as they wear out.  After a long enough period, all the parts of the boat will have been replaced.  Then, the old pieces of wood are reconstructed so that you have two rowboats.  Which one is the original?  It isn’t clear.  We really can only talk about being more or less similar to the original boat.

This isn’t true in the case of humans.  It isn’t as though the person you are right now might later on be only half you, and half someone else.  Granted, people change.  But even if someone gains 100 pounds, changes every opinion he ever held, and is beset by amnesia, he will still be the same person.  Every seven years nearly every molecule in our body is replaced, but this doesn’t mean that a new person replaces the old in the same period.  The reason is this – all the while he was the same human organism, who  orchestrated all of the functions necessary for survival.  At various points he was asleep, and yet he was the same person because his human organism did not cease to exist.  It was there all the while.

If human identity is not grounded in the human organism, everything goes to pieces.  We cannot really say, “I will see you tomorrow” because “I” will not be here tomorrow.  More importantly, we cannot say, “I will love you so long as I live.”  If we do not have stable identities, we will not be able to make promises.
If we do have stable identities, then man’s life begins before he becomes conscious, before we even developed a brain.  Consciousness does not make us human, because if it did we would cease to exist when we became unconscious.  People change their minds about things, remember and forget, sleep and dream.  The human organism underlies all of these changes.  The physical brain does not define our identity, because if it did, we would have to ask how much brain is required for humanity.  The neural system grows gradually, and then declines because of illness or accident; one does not accordingly become more or less human.

Of course, we should note that death means brain death.  But this is because the human organism cannot sustain life without the brain, once it has developed.  An embryo, an eighteen year old, and person suffering from severe Alzheimer’s all have one thing in common: They are all integrated human organisms.  A skin cell has all the same DNA as a person.  The differences is that the skin cell is not a separate organism, but part of a whole human person.  If a skin cell is manipulated by researches, it may be able to grow into a human person.  A part of a larger organism can be killed – amputation is not murder – but once a cell is manipulated so that it is a separate organism, a new human life has begun.
The choice is clear.  We can either value all human beings as valuable, or we can set qualifications.  Communists, Scientologists, Nazis, slave-owners, and abortionists all choose to set qualifications and accordingly have different opinions about which human beings are worth caring about.  It is better not to be so selective.

Lukas Halim is a senior in Trumbull College

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