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.
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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times