Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Ethics Dilemma

Here is my response to another question on an interesting ethical dilemma regarding human embryos. Originally posted here: http://blog.soundrezn.com/2010/01/26/bioethics-2/

Question: In a room there is a 4 month old human baby girl. Also in the room is a container of 30 human frozen embryos. You are there in the room also. The room, and its contents, will briefly be totally destroyed. You can escape taking either the baby girl, or take with you the 30 embryos and leave the baby girl to be destroyed with the room. Which do you leave with, and why? Is crushing an acorn the same as cutting down a full grown tree with a chain saw?
Define the term \"person\".
Is an embryo a person?
Thanks and Good Luck,
Bill

Response: The questioner begins with a dilemma posed in the form of an unlikely scenario. Before we attempt an answer, there are several other important questions that must be addressed. First, how should we define a person? For clarity's sake, I will prefer to pose the question in this form: “what is a human person?” There are two general answers among bioethicists to that question. Some define a human person in functionalist terms. Until and unless a human organism functions in a certain way, that is, until the organism has certain person-making capacities, we are in no way justified in granting moral standing to the organism in question. What those capacities are differ depending on who one asks. For most functionalists, persons are human beings who have the capacity for consciousness (or some key mental capacity), a necessary condition of which is an intact cerebral cortex. This view depends on a body-self (or body-person) dualism that supposes that the person comes to be (and may cease to be) at one time and the human organism associated with that person at another. Depending on which form of functionalism one embraces, functionalists generally disqualify human embryos, fetuses, newborns (in some cases), as well as adult humans in certain diminished neurological states (PVS, brain death, and some cases of dementia and amnesia) as persons. But designating these humans as non-persons has numerous counter-intuitive problems. (Two excellent critiques are: Lee, Patrick, and Robert P. George. Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Francis Beckwith. Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortive Choice. Cambridge, 2007.)
The traditional substance view defines a human person in terms of its substantial identity (or nature). A thing is what it is according to its nature. According to the substance view, a human person throughout its development and decline does not undergo any substantial changes that alter its identity until it dies. Indeed, it remains numerically identical to itself as long as it exists even when it is unable to exhibit all the functions normally associated with healthy adult human persons. Hence, mere membership in the species homo sapiens is sufficient reason to attribute intrinsic value and rights to any human individual in recognition that it is “one of us.” There are several important factors to note about human embryos that render them human persons. First, an embryo is from the start distinct from any cell of the father and mother. This is due to its internal, directed, and distinct growth toward maturation. Second, the embryo is human with a genetic make-up characteristic of humans. Third, the embryo, though immature, is a complete or whole organism that will, barring disease, violence, or variation in environment, direct itself toward full expression of its nature or essence. All of these features are present in the embryo and none of the changes it undergoes during its development generates a new direction of growth. In short, the thing that you and I are now is identical to the organism that came to be at conception. Therefore, we as persons are human organisms of a substantial kind and what would make it wrong to kill you and me now would have been present at every stage of our development. In short, a human person is an organism belonging to the species homo sapiens.
The questioner asks whether crushing an acorn is the same as cutting down a full-grown tree with a chain saw. It appears that the questioner is attempting to make the analogy that an acorn is not a tree in the same way that an embryo is not a person, and as such, killing an embryo is not the same thing as killing a person. The analogy, however, is a false one. An acorn is certainly not a tree. A tree is a fully developed plant and an acorn is an underdeveloped plant. However, both the acorn and the tree are by nature plants of a particular kind. If the acorn came from an oak tree, then it shares the same nature as the oak tree from which it came. Therefore, the difference is not an essential one, but merely accidental—a difference in development. In the same way, although an embryo is not a toddler, adolescent, or adult, it is by nature a human person. Additionally, I would add that an acorn has not yet germinated. This further shows the weakness of the analogy. There is no human equivalent to pollination and germination. I don't rake oak trees out of my yard when I collect acorns, but I would argue that I certainly pull up oak trees when I pull up the sprouts.
Now to the dilemma. Here we are confronted with having to make a choice between saving a four-month-old baby girl, and saving multiple embryos. If we accept the reasoning above, the 30 embryos are human persons. So, how do we resolve this dilemma? I think the best way to approach this scenario is to treat it as we do in circumstances that call for Triage. Triage is a process of sorting or selecting who can benefit most in a crisis situation . It is often used in emergency rooms, on battlefields, or at disaster sites when there is a real need to allocate resources and time. The process does not adjudicate based on status, age or gender but rather on the likelihood of benefit from immediate attention. The 30 embryos are most likely discarded or left over embryos from the reproductive process known as in vitro-fertilization (IVF). [IVF poses multiple ethical problems, at least as it is currently practiced.] They will probably never be implanted and allowed to develop further. In short, they are doomed whether or not they are saved from the impending disaster presented in the scenario. However, the four-month-old baby girl will clearly benefit from my saving her. Therefore, I would choose to save the baby girl.

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By the way, excellent answer on this. Your final response as to what you would do was exactly what I would have said. I guess you are rubbing off on me as my professor.

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