What is the moral status of the embryo?

Anthony Ozimic argues that we aren't attaching the correct moral status to human embryos

We could start by asking certain questions: Are embryonic stem cells stable enough for safe transplantation? Isn’t it wiser for investors to prefer adult stem cell research? Etc. There is, however, a more fundamental question to be answered first – what is the moral status of the human embryo?

Some would argue that human embryos aren’t persons and are therefore of a lower moral status, one which doesn’t confer the right to life. Surely this is just playing with words: those to be protected are given a certain designation (‘person’), which is then denied to some members of the group on the grounds that they don’t seem to be worth protecting or can’t defend themselves. We have to look beyond words to what makes us special. The main thing which distinguishes human beings is our rationality. That rationality is inherent in everyone, even though, like any faculty, it is not exercised by all people, all the time. Human embryos share our human nature, and have the capacity for rationality, even if they are, for a time, unable to exercise that capacity. Embryos are just as human whether their physical origin is through ordinary fertilisation, spontaneous twinning, or, as experience has shown, artificial processes.

Attempts to relegate certain human beings (often on racial or ethnic lines) to a status of non-personhood have led to some of the most heinous abuses and extensive massacres in modern history. All human beings are equal in nature, and therefore it is not for one group of human beings to decide that another group of human beings are of lower moral status i.e. are not persons. One might argue that there is even less excuse in this case, since each of us is directly connected with the class of human beings concerned - we were all embryos once.

The person we are now is the same being as the embryo we once were. This cannot be said of the sperm or the egg, because alone they couldn't have developed into a human being. A sperm and an egg remain a ‘potential person’ (loosely speaking), a purely conjectural non-existence, until fertilisation, but then become a person with great potential. Personhood is in the embryo’s nature - if the embryo wasn’t already a person, it couldn’t become a person. Otherwise personhood would be a faculty, like consciousness, that can come and go. Anyone under general anaesthesia isn’t a person, and then becomes a person again when they come to!

These arguments don’t require religious beliefs. Immanuel Kant, for example, believed the existence of rational beings (i.e. humans) has an absolute worth. Humans are therefore ends in themselves and should therefore never be used as a means to an end. Still, almost all religions hold that ‘man is made in the image and likeness of God’ and/or that ‘human life is sacred’. These religious or metaphysical beliefs remain widely held today and are probably the majority opinion of human society throughout history. The international community has recognised ‘the sanctity of human life’ in secular form: the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights not only states that “everyone has the right to life” (article 3) but that “everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law” (article 6).

Have decades of embryo experimentation discovered much more than new ways of destroying embryos? Isn’t the government’s draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill another step along the road to a eugenic society, in which those with serious medical conditions are deemed unworthy of life? The fundamental question remains unanswered (indeed, unaddressed) – what is the moral status of the embryo?

Anthony Ozimic, is the political secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
Show Hide image

An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State