In today’s twisted ethical environment, the status of the human person increasingly depends on the opinion of the individual closest to the microphone, the person teaching the college ethics class, the individual making a personal “reproductive health” decision, or someone in charge of the surgical suite. It is objectively true that nothing any longer shocks most of us because nothing is objectively right or wrong.
Our culture is, for the most part, suffering from moral amnesia.
The qualities of the human person that might define him as such are subject to all kinds of caveats. Taking the life of someone may or may not be deemed a crime; using human beings for research may or may not be acceptable. Everything depends on the slide rule of human opinion.
Recently Rebecca Taylor addressed this subject in her article, “Human Caviar, Eating Human Embryos as a New Delicacy?” She was referring to an article by Jewish ethicist Leon Kass entitled “The Meaning of Life—In the Laboratory.” Kass does not argue that the human blastocyst is a human individual, per se. Rather he flounders, suggesting that this entity at his earliest stages of development “is not nothing.” Kass embraces the idea that this early human possesses “potential,” but he does not define him as a human being. He writes that the human embryo
deserves our respect not because it has rights or claims or sentience (which it does not have at this stage), but because of what it is, now and prospectively.
Let us test this provisional conclusion by considering intuitively our response to two possible fates of such zygotes, blastocysts, and early embryos. First, should such an embryo die, will we be inclined to mourn its passing? When a woman we know miscarries, we are sad—largely for her loss and disappointment, but perhaps also at the premature death of a life that might have been. But we do not mourn the departed fetus, nor do we seek ritually to dispose of the remains. In this respect, we do not treat even the fetus as fully one of us.
On the other hand, we would, I suppose, recoil even from the thought, let alone the practice—I apologize for forcing it upon the reader—of eating such embryos, should someone discover that they would provide a great delicacy, a “human caviar.” The human blastocyst would be protected by our taboo against cannibalism, which insists on the humanness of human flesh and does not permit us to treat even the flesh of the dead as if it were mere meat. The human embryo is not mere meat; it is not just stuff; it is not a “thing.” Because of its origin and because of its capacity, it commands a higher respect.
Scientifically speaking, the blastocyst IS someone at any stage during his first seven days of life, and he is indeed very much a human being. His DNA was present at the first moment of his creation, and though Kass downgrades this individual, the fact is when that first cell is created, we are dealing with someone as human as you or I.
Kass, perhaps inadvertently, confirms my hypothesis that indeed there is so much confusion surrounding the humanity of our youngest brothers and sisters that even the most intellectual among us cannot think clearly. If this were not the case, Kass would not tell us that, on the one hand, the human being is not really a fully endowed individual, but on the other hand is not someone we would wish to devour as part of an array of canapés served before dinner.
And by the way, yes, we should mourn the death of a baby no matter how young he is when his life ends—and that includes the miscarried baby! Our hearts are broken when we learn that anyone we love has experienced a miscarriage, and we rarely say, “Oh, I’m so sorry you lost your clump of cells.”
Frankly, what our culture needs is basic education on the fundamental question of who a human being really is, why every one of us has dignity even when we are a single cell, and why it is that without that fundamental understanding of fact, there probably isn’t much wrong with serving up baby parts as caviar.
Think about it.