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Confronting IVF: Human Embryos Are Persons With a Right to Life

We humans are persons even when we are non-sentient and dependent on others
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On Sunday I posted on the Alabama Supreme Court’s ruling that frozen embryos are considered children (i.e., minor persons) under Alabama law. The decision is well-reasoned and legally correct, and it highlights the profound ethical issues that accompany in vitro fertilization (IVF) of human beings. In that post, I also commented on Yale neurologist Steven Novella’s uninformed opinion on the legal decision.

3d rendering of Human cell or Embryonic stem cell microscope background.

In that same post, “Frozen embryos are not people,” Novella offers an opinion on the ethics of IVF that is more thoughtful. I disagree with his conclusion that human embryos are not persons from an ethical standpoint. I’ll examine his view step by step, and then provide my own.

Novella:

I [lay] out the core question here – when does a clump of cells become a person? Standard rhetoric in the anti-abortion community is to frame the question differently, claiming that from the point of fertilization we have human life. But from a legal, moral, and ethical perspective, that is not the relevant question. My colon is human life, but it’s not a person. Similarly, a frozen clump of cells is not a child.

Neurologica Blog, February 27

What is a “potential human?”

Unlike many people who deny the personhood of very young human beings, Novella recognizes the obvious scientific fact that human life begins at fertilization and that zygotes/embryos/fetuses/newborns are human beings. They are not “potential” humans.

A sperm and an egg separately constitute a potential human. But when they unite, the result is a human being from the moment of fertilization. Human beings are not defined by the number of cells in the body — be it one cell or 30 trillion cells. A big complex human being is not more human than a small simple human being.

There is no actual debate about this — the basic biology of human reproduction was understood in the early 19th century, and any doctor or scientist who denies the humanity of a human being in the womb is either ignorant or deliberately misrepresenting science to advance an ideological agenda. I have explained the scientific fact that human life begins at fertilization here.

And the colon? Novella’s invocation of his colon in this debate is nonsense. A colon is an organ — it’s a part of a person, not a whole person. A colon is not a human life. An embryo is a human life, even though he or she is much simpler than Dr. Novella’s colon or any other part of an adult’s body.

This is just basic biology, which Dr. Novella should know.

What is a “person”?

There are two issues in the IVF debate — the question of humanity of the embryo and the question of the personhood of the embryo. They are different questions. The fact that an embryo is a human being is not debatable. But the question ‘Is an embryo a person’ is another matter, and it is debatable.

What is a “person”? Novella believes that an embryo is a “potential” person:

…those cells have the potential to become a person. But the potential to become a thing is not the same as being a thing. If allowed to develop those cells have the potential to become a person – but they are not a person.

Steven Novella, “When is a fetus a person?”, Neuralogica Blog, June 28, 2022
Human Fetus Week Nine

So, according to Novella, what confers personhood on a human being? He states:

The real debate comes down to ethical philosophy and legal theory. How do we balance these various facts:

A human embryo is a human, but not sentient.

Sentience and personhood develops gradually throughout the pregnancy.

Fetuses are dependent on the life of their mother until they develop sufficiently to be viable outside the womb.

Pregnancy is a serious biological process with significant implications for the life of the mother.

Novella, “A person?”

Sentience and independence

Novella equates personhood with sentience and independence. Sentience and independence are certainly characteristic of most persons we know (including ourselves), but they are not satisfactory criteria for personhood.

A newborn baby, a person with severe mental handicaps, and a person in a deep coma all lack appreciable sentience and independence but they are undoubtedly persons. Using sentience and independence as fundamental criteria for personhood even implies that temporary unconsciousness — such as non-sentience during deep sleep or dependence on others such as being critically ill — renders us transient non-persons. In fact, we are persons even when we are non-sentient and dependent on others.

Even more disturbing is the fact that gradations of sentience have long been used to deny basic human rights to categories of people based on real or perceived cognitive differences. An illiterate man is, in a very real sense, less sentient than a literate genius, but is he less of a person?

So what, exactly, is a person? Many different definitions have been offered, but it seems to me that there is one continuous thread that runs through what it means to be a person: a person is a human being who has rights and who is entitled to respect. Certainly, to deny a human being any respect and to deny him all rights is to deny his personhood in a fundamental way.

Most rights of persons are linked to particular acquired skills or milestones in the person’s life — the right to drive a car, the right to vote, the right to keep and bear arms, etc. Yet there is one right that is not linked to skills or milestones, and it is in fact the right on which all other rights depend — the right to life. If I am a person with the right to drive and vote and so on, but not the right to life, my life can therefore be taken from me arbitrarily at the whim of another. Then I really don’t have any rights at all, and I am not treated as a person. All other rights are meaningless without the right to life.

The right to life is the indispensable cornerstone of all rights, and the right to life is the cornerstone of personhood. Thus a person is a human being with a right to life.

Are all human beings persons? Or are there two classes of humans?

This is the crux of the debate about IVF, abortion, and other life issues: are all human beings persons with an unalienable right to life? Those of us in the pro-life movement answer that question emphatically in the affirmative. Those who support the destruction of human beings in the womb or in the petri dish, etc., believe there are two classes of human beings: those with the right to life, and those without the right to life. This is the issue at hand.

It is certainly the case that in pregnancy and in the production of frozen embryos there are other rights involved — the rights of the mother, the rights of the parents (although, of course, to refer to mother and parents implicitly affirms that the unborn are children, not “lumps of cells”). In sorting out these various rights — the right to bodily autonomy, the right to dispose of property, etc. — the right to life always takes precedence.

The right to life is the cornerstone of all rights, and even when the rights of the mother or parents are significant and generally worthy of protection, they do not trump the right to life of the young human being — the young person — in the womb or in the petri dish or in the nursery.

The implications of IVF

A deeply troubling social and moral issue arises with IVF as well. IVF is the industrial manufacture of human beings. The brave new world that is dawning on us has risks and horrors that should chill us. IVF provides the opportunity to screen embryonic human beings for genetic traits (which is already being done), and this technology can and will be used in the future to breed human beings with certain desired traits — obsequious servants, aggressive warriors, attractive sex slaves, and compliant organ donors.

We are learning to mass produce human beings, and although the technology thus far has been used mainly for the sympathetic goal of providing childless couples with children, only a naif would believe that it will end here. The industrial manufacture of human beings opens the door to evil on a scale that is the stuff of nightmares.

IVF is an ethically problematic technology with horrifying implications. If we are to survive this brave new world of mass-produced children, conceived not via conjugal love of a husband and wife in a family but via a pipette in a human assembly line, we must affirm that human life begins at fertilization, and that all human beings are persons with the right to life and deserving of respect. This is the essence of the pro-life movement and the philosophy of human exceptionalism. It is stated most cogently in the Christian view that we are created in God’s image. It is that Image that confers personhood and the unalienable right to life on each of us, from fertilization to natural death.

You may also wish to read: Are IVF human embryos “children”? A recent court decision Neurologist Steven Novella claims that the Alabama Supreme Court ruling that they are “children” under the law “essentially referenced god” The ruling not only did not reference God, it was meticulously based on precedent. So those who seek to remove protection from IVF embryos must lobby for that.


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Confronting IVF: Human Embryos Are Persons With a Right to Life