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Human Rights and the Human Embryo

The following is testimony delivered on October 18, 2001 to the Joint Committee on Health Care, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, at Worcester State College—Ed.

I would like to thank the co-chairs and the committee for the invitation to speak at this hearing. I am providing this testimony on behalf of The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Boston, which for nearly thirty years has engaged in research and education on ethical issues in medicine, biotechnology, and the life sciences.

The Ethical Problematic

This testimony will present what I understand to be the reasoning of the Roman Catholic Church on the ethical standing the human embryo used in embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). The Catholic Church does not regard adult stem cell research or cord blood stem cell research as ethically problematic so long as appropriate ethical criteria are met, such as the proportionality between benefit and risk and the obtaining of informed consent. The Church holds that from the moment of its formation the human embryo is the proper bearer of fundamental human rights. Integral to that position is that the embryo is an actual individual with a human nature. How these two aspects of the embryo lay the foundation for the embryo's human rights vis B vis ESCR is what I will briefly outline in this testimony.

The Embryo as an Actual Individual

The Church's teaching on the beginning of human life has always deferred to the established scientific knowledge on the question. On basis of the latest scientific data, the Church concludes that from the moment the human zygote is formed a new individual human exists. This point has been explicitly made since the Declaration on Procured Abortion in 1974, and more recently has been reiterated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith in 1987 and by Pope John Paul II in1995 (The Gospel of Life, n. 60). In its 1987 teaching the Congregation stated the following:

  The Congregation recalls the teachings found in the Declaration on Procured Abortion: `From the time that the ovum is fertilized, a new life is begun which is neither that of the father nor of the mother; it is rather the life of a new human being with his own growth. It would never be made human if it were not human already.' ... This teaching remains valid and is further confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by recent findings of human biological science which recognize that in the zygote resulting from fertilization the biological identity of a new human individual is already constituted. (Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation I, 1)

In order to understand why the Church holds that the human embryo is an individual human being and the subject of human rights, it will be helpful first to delineate the precise sense in which the embryo is one and unified. For the contrary position holds that the embryo is not an individual, and, therefore, is not due full respect, until after that stage at which its cells differentiate into specific types.

To describe the human embryo as an individual is to understand that it cannot be divided into many beings. In other words, if the embryo is an individual, it is actually one and not many beings. The embryo as it actually exists is one and undivided, but is also capable of division into parts. This makes the embryo a "composite unity." The embryo is an intrinsic unity or whole of parts in which the parts by their very nature are ordered to each other and to the whole. Thus, the unity of the embryo is not extrinsic to it, in which case its parts would be unified merely because they share in some incidental activity, or because they would be positioned together in a particular arrangement.

From the moment the zygote is formed the activity of the embryo is highly regulative. This regulative activity is a manifestation of the embryo's intrinsic unity. The blastomeres interact with each other and compensate for each other in a variety of different ways. These cell-cell interactions are critical to the life and development of the embryo. The future of each cell is inextricably connected to the interactions it has with its neighboring cells and its environment. All of this activity indicates that the various parts of the embryo act primarily for the good of the whole.

During the two- to eight-cell stage of development, each cell of the embryo (in addition to its actual functioning) has the potential to form any part in a later stage of the embryo, and to form a complete new embryo.1 The unrestricted nature of these early cells is referred to as their totipotency. Obvious differentiation of the embryo's cells does not occur until the eighth day, and twinning may occur between the fourth and fourteenth day of development. The formation of embryonic stem cells occurs from the fourth to seventh day of development. It is argued by some that the lack of differentiation and the potential for twinning precludes the early embryo from being an individual, because the embryo during these stages is not genuinely indivisible—that is, dividing it could result in another organism.

However, the lack of differentiation and the potential for twinning does not disprove that the embryo is an actual individual human being. What makes a composite being an actual individual is that its parts function primarily for the good of the whole. The embryo's potential to become another embryo is certainly there, but it does not affect its actual state as an individual.2 This aspect means that the early embyro is only a potential plurality, not an actual plurality, and this potential plurality does not contradict or interfere with the actual unity of the embryo. Any new embryo that might emerge as a result of the division of an embryo during these stages has no distinct real existence before that division. It begs the question to assume that the actual individuation of the embryo is incompatible with its potential multiplicity. Indeed, this assumption also ignores the fact that every material living thing is virtually many things which are capable of independent existence.

Individuals with a Human Nature

Reasoning from the evidence, the Catholic Church is able to conclude that from the first moment the embryo is engendered it is an actual individual human being. This fact about the embryo is a sufficient basis upon which to secure the fundamental human rights of the embryo. It is an important point to stress: the Church does not believe it is necessary for establishing those rights to affirm a particular philosophical position on the question of whether or not the embryo is a person (see the Church texts cited above).

Some view the human embryo as a potential person, and on that basis argue either for or against its human rights. The notion of potential personhood implies that full personhood is defined only in terms of actual characteristics and functions, and that because the embryo is naturally developing toward actually having these characteristics and functions, it either has or does not have the same rights as actual persons. The problem with this and any functional view of personhood is that it erroneously assumes that what is real about an individual is restricted to that which is actual. The real existence of an embryo, however, includes both what is actual and potential about its human nature. Both the actual and the potential are constitutive of what the embryo really is. It seems to me that the embryo is a rational, free being even though these characteristics, and the physical organs supporting them, are not actually present and operative (although the physical substrate for these characteristics are in fact present genetically).

The Embryo as a Bearer of Rights

The human embryo is an actual individual with a human nature and as such is the subject of human rights. The life of the human embryo must therefore be fully protected and respected. It is not an ethical justification of ESCR that a donated frozen embryo from IVF will not continue in its development, or that the parents have consented to destructive research on it, or that it is unable to feel pain, to suffer, and express preferences, or finally that other individuals with illnesses possibly curable through stem cell therapy might benefit from its sacrifice. All of these facts have no moral claim over the human dignity of the embryo, just as any similar facts would not hold moral precedence over any human being at any other stage of life. Moreover, the use of cloning in connection with ESCR, while biologically advantageous, would do nothing to improve the morality of the research, because it only adds further indignity to the process by the fact that a human individual is engendered and genetically manipulated for no other purpose than research.

Embryonic stem cell research destroys individual human beings. This research is an immoral means to achieve what is a most laudable and good end, the amelioration and cure of disease. But the end never justifies the means because every human act is subject to the same moral criteria. To prohibit ESCR is not to abandon those who might benefit from this research, because they may benefit equally if not more from the promising findings of adult stem cell and cord blood research, as we have heard today.

Thank you.

1 See K.L. Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 6th edition, 1998), 158; R. O'Rahilly and F. Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology (New York: Willey-Liss, 2nd edition, 1996.

2 For recent research with new implications for how the totipotency of embryonic cells might be delimited see Karolina Piotrowska et al., "Blastomeres Arising from the First Cleavage Division Have Distinguishable Fates in Normal Mouse Development," Development 128 (2001): 3739_3748.


Peter J. Cataldo, PhD
National Catholic Bioethics Center
Boston, Massachusetts