Dogma and Debate

The discussion of the theology of nascent human life has been vigorous among Catholic scholars and some Protestants. Recent scientific discoveries in genetics and embryology have been considered in the debate, particularly relating to whether the human embryo prior to about fourteen days can be said to be an individual. There is general agreement, according to a 1984 article by Carol A. Tauer, that "the stage of individual has been seen as a morally relevant marker because it appears that only individuals can be wrongfully killed or otherwise injured" (p. 5).

While genetics and embryology support the idea that the newly conceived embryo is a genetically unique human life, three other biological considerations have been raised to argue against the idea that the early embryo is an individual: The embryo might divide into two (twinning); an embryo might join with another genetically unique embryo to form a chimera, which then continues to develop as one human individual; and as many as 75 percent of all human conceptions fail to survive. In a 1990 article, Thomas A. Shannon and Allan B. Wolter argued that "something human and individual is not a human person until he or she is a human individual, that is, not until after the process of individual is completed. Neither the zygote nor the blastocyst is an ontological individual, even though it is genetically unique and distinct from the parents" (p. 613).

A related question is whether the embryo, which lacks most human qualities, nonetheless typically anticipates their development and thus must be said to possess them potentially, or to have potentiality. If so, does that potentiality confer a status to the embryo as one who must be regarded morally as already possessing what is only its potential? Furthermore, if the embryo is out of the body (and thus unable to actualize its potential), does it possess a lower status? Or if the embryo is somehow biologically incapable of developing, either because of a natural or technologically induced impairment, does it likewise lack whatever value potentiality confers? These questions remain open.

Given that Catholic theologians hold various views on the individuation or personhood of the embryo, how can Catholic moral certainty be possible? Much depends, of course, on the conclusion one draws from the variety of views. One might conclude that when various views are held, one should err on the side of caution, give the embryo the benefit of any doubt, and treat it as if it were a human person. Others conclude that in light of the evidence, it cannot be a human person and that therefore, aside from the authority of the church, there is no obligation to treat it as such.

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