Blastocysts and Personhood

So it is time to weigh in on the issue of embryonic personhood.  It is territory fraught with danger, but women’s rights over their own bodies hang in the balance.  So let me risk a little by adding nothing more than a re-presentation of the case against early-term embryonic personhood.

In the earliest stages of pregnancy, the fertilized egg grows into what is called a blastocyst.  What is a blastocyst? A blastocyst is defined as:

A thin-walled hollow structure in early embryonic development that contains a cluster of cells called the inner cell mass from which the embryo arises. The outer layer of cells gives rise to the placenta and other supporting tissues needed for fetal development within the uterus while the inner cell mass cells gives rise to the tissues of the body.

At this stage there are no organs present, no nerve cells to detect pain, etc.  There is just a mass of totipotent cells, genetically human in much the same way that a skin stem cell is human.  The primary relevant difference between blastocysts and other masses of cells in the human body is that the blastocyst has the potential to divide and differentiate into any and all of the many organ systems which make up the human body.

Here I would like to argue that destroying a blastocyst is more like clipping your nails than murder.  Remember there are no nerve cells present, no capacity for memory or thought, no organs at all.  The atheist pro-life advocate will give ground here, because the capacity for personhood in any clear sense of the word is simply missing at this stage of development.  But the religious pro-life advocate holds to a metaphysics that says that the blastocyst is the material aspect of a soul-matter hybrid called a human.  To destroy the blastocyst is to separate the soul from the body, which is, by their definition, murder.  There is no reason why every act of separating the soul from the body must be classified as murder, which implies a moral judgment as well as a factual account of some action.  Sidestepping that problem with the pro-life position, however, let us consider why there is reason to believe no soul inhabits the blastocyst.

Somewhere around 50% of pregnancies do not make it past the initial first few weeks of pregnancy.  The body routinely flushes the blastocyst out just as it does with the vast majority of unfertilized eggs.  So there is reason to suspect, assuming that life is in some way divinely guided, an early stage embryo is nothing more than the initial material condition for the development of a person later on down the road.  If this is not the case, God is busily filling heaven with natural abortions.  This seems like a rather crass approach to what we take to be precious life.

Of course, what I am saying only applies to very early stages of pregnancy, but it is worth noting that life does not start with conception.  At best, conception is a continuation of the life of the father and mother’s gametes, making possible personal human life at some later stage of embryonic development.  And if we don’t view the case as I have described it, then souls have no clear value.


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