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#214 26/11/00

Does the fertilized human egg represent human life?

During this week end (25 and 26 November) the " Mere Old Man" read a book [Remaking Eden] written by a molecular biologist at Princeton University, named Dr. Lee Silver, published in 1997 by Avon Books, New York. As usual, he bought this book from Amazon. com.

In pages 48 and 49, the author asks a extremely interesting question, " Does the fertilized human egg represent human life?" And he introduces three different answers, including his own view. He says as follows:

" While many philosophers and scientists have written about the status of the embryo, their opinions have not strayed far from one of the following three points of view; At one extreme are those who say the embryo is equivalent to a human being. This belief implies that embryo should be given the rights, protections, and respect that we give to all other human beings. This is the current position of the Catholic Church and many others who place themselves at the pro-life end of political spectrum.

" At the other extreme are those who say that the embryo is no different from any other clump of human cells and should not be treated in any special way. Most contemporary biologists would probably place themselves in this camp.

" The third point of view hovers between these two extremes and has been stated succinctly by the noted reproductive ethicist and lawyer John Robertson: 'The embryo deserves respect greater than that accorded to other human tissue, because of its potential to become a person and the symbolic meaning it carries for many people. Yet it should not be treated as a person, because it has not yet develop the features of personhood --- and many never realize its biologic potential.' As Robertson notes, this is probably the most widely held view among secular biologists.

" Before joining the debate, we need to establish some basic facts through a series of questions and answers:

1. Is the embryo alive? Clearly, yes.

2. Is the embryo human? Yes again, but so are the cells that fall off your skin every day.

3. Is the embryo human life? No. The embryo does not have any neurological attributes that we ascribe to human life in the general sense.

" Given that early embryos are not alive by the definition developed here for human life, however, could anyone equate them with a human being? The answer I hear most often goes something like this:

" First, the genetic constitution of the embryo is new and unique. Second, the embryo has the potential to develop into a full-blown human being. Taken together, the implication is that the embryo has the potential to become not just any human being, but a unique human being that is defined already by its unique composition of genetic material, and this potential does not exist within the unfertilized egg or sperm.

As mentioned a couple of times before in this web site, the " Mere Old Man" is one who respects Mr. Jeremy Rifkin, who wrote a book under the title of " Biotech Century." He would very much like to know Mr. Rifkin's viwes and opinions with regard to this issue. Can anyone help the " Mere Old Man" know the e-mail address of Mr. Rifkin?

The " Mere Old Man" is medically speaking a layperson, so he consulted his Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary to check the difference between Embryo and Fetus: It says as follows:

A) Embryo: An animal at an early stage of development before birth. In man the term refers to the products of conception within the uterus up to the 8th week.

B) Fetus: A mammalian embryo during the later stages of development. In human it refers to an unborn child from its 8th week of development.


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