December 1, 2022

Why don’t we care about embryos which perish naturally every year?

Oxford academic calls pro-life position absurd
A common criticism of the sanctity-of-life of human embryos is that so many of them perish spontaneously, especially before implantation, that it is absurd to treat them as precious. Michael Kinsley, formerly editor of The New Republic and Slate, now a columnist for Time magazine, often deployed this argument. "An embryo feels nothing, thinks nothing, cannot suffer, is not aware of its own existence. Embryos are destroyed routinely by the millions in the natural process of human reproduction. Yet opponents of stem-cell research would allow real people, who can suffer, to do so in service of the abstract principle that embryos are people too. If faith takes you there, fine. Reason can’t," he wrote in one of his Slate articles.

This argument is highlighted in a recent issue of the American Journal of Bioethics, where an Oxford academic claims that the notion that embryos have the same moral status as adults leads to absurdly unpalatable conclusions. Toby Ord contends that 200 innocent million people must be dying each year through spontaneous abortion — if this is taken seriously -– far more than from cancer or any other disease. It is, he says, "one of the world’s greatest problems, if not the greatest problem."

And what are pro-lifers doing about this tragedy? Almost nothing. This inconsistency, he maintains, shows that no one really believes in equal moral status of embryos. Otherwise a movement equal in fervour to animal liberation would exist to save embryos. "With 200 million lives per year at stake, it would surely be a matter for heated discussion in the journals or in the Church."

AJOB did its best to highlight this ingeniously simple argument by recruiting several academics to comment on it. In summary, most of them highlighted utilitarian themes in Ord’s approach: that everyone counts as one, that the greatest good of the greatest number is the measure of ethics, and so on. He also deploys a staple theme of euthanasia debates: collapsing the distinction between doing evil and failing to do good. But none of the responses shook Ord from his conviction that a consistently pro-life view means that "the badness of embryo death [must] be at least roughly comparable to the badness of adult death." ~ AJOB, July 2008

2 thoughts on “Why don’t we care about embryos which perish naturally every year?

  1. It is not faith that convinces us that we must protect all individuals, but self-interest. We cannot justify ourselves as worth saving, despite all our manifest faults and even crimes such as murder, if we do not protect all other individuals too, however small, or young or old. There cannot be any exceptions. To say that someone dies naturally is not to say his life was not worth saving but to condone his killing is to accept the right of an innocent person to be destroyed .In a democracy we cannot grant anyone the right to that without destroying our own rights.Only in fascist/nazi/communist states can those in power abrogate the right to decide who is worthy to live or who is not within the state’s criteria of usefulness and therefore to be disposed of whenever the state or its functionaries choose.
    Women cannot take this right any more than men can or should.Slavery was outlawed internationally for this reason.

  2. Whose side are you on at ‘Bio-Edge’? I thought you understood the ethical issue involved in abortion and other forms of embryo destruction – that it is wrong to deliberately destroy a small, developing human being who would otherwise continue to grow and develop, as each one of us has, including those who put forward these fatuous arguments. This is in no way a serious contribution to the moral questions involved.
    Christians, and others, have always accepted that death is a natural part of life which cannot be avoided. We naturally do all we can that is ethically permissible to avert or delay it, but we accept a natural death in God’s good time. Acceptance of a natural death, however, is so far removed from the deliberate causing of death which would not otherwise occur that it is ludicrous to place this side-by-side with natural death as though there were no moral distinction.
    Are we expected to hold protests at funeral parlours, as we would do at abortion clinics? Of course not. Are anti-war protesters hypocritical or inconsistent for failing to condemn earthquakes, tsunamis and floods? Of course not.
    Any woman who has experienced a miscarriage understands that she has lost the new human life which she was carrying, and pro-life people in particular understand the woman’s grief, but where exactly are we expected to go to protest, and why? The woman has done nothing wrong, and no law could have saved her baby. Not so in the case of deliberate embryo destruction, for whatever reason it takes place.
    Please save your space for genuine contributions to the serious questions raised by bio-ethical issues.

    Peter Davidson

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