William Hurlbut on Why Embryos Matter Morally

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture

By Wesley J. Smith, J.D., Special Consultant to the CBC

Stanford University’s William Hurlbut and I are great friends. Bill is best known for his service on the President’s Council on Bioethics, and his proposal to circumvent the ethics/science discord over human cloning and ESCR with “altered nuclear transfer,” which I don’t wish to discuss in this thread.

Bill strongly supports human exceptionalism — although he doesn’t tend to use that term. Bill has long advocated for the intrinsic value of human life at all stages, including the human embryo. He puts it so eloquently — far better than I — that it seemed appropriate to share some of his thoughts here. From one of his speeches:

For an embryonic organism, this implies an inherent potency, an engaged and effective potential with a drive in the direction of the mature form. By its very nature, an embryo is a developing being. Its wholeness is defined by both its manifest expression and its latent potential; it is the phase of human life in which the ‘whole’ (as the unified oranismal principle of growth) precedes and produces its organic partsTo be a human organism is to be a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens, with a human present and a human future evident in the intrinsic potential for the manifestation of the species-typical form.

That is different and distinct from the cells I kill each morning when I brush my teeth. They are chips off the old block, to use my late father’s favorite expression. But they are not the block.

Rejecting more subjective approaches to valuing life such as basing it upon individual capacities (such as “personhood”), Hurlbut asserted that the embryo’s worth arises merely from being an undeniably a human “organism.”

The very word organism implies organization, an overarching principle that binds the parts and processes of life into a harmonious whole. As a living being, an organism is an integrated, self developing and self-maintaining unity under the governence of an immanent plant.

For an embryonic organism, this implies an inherent potency, an engaged and effective potential with a drive in the direction of the mature form. By its very nature, an embryo is a developing being. Its wholeness is defined by both its manifest expression and its latent potential; it is the phase of human life in which the ‘whole’ (as the unified oranismal principle of grown) precedes and produces its organic parts…To be a human organism is to be a whole living member of the species Homo sapiens, with a human present and a human future evident in the intrinsic potential for the manifestation of the species typical to form.

Valuing human life at all stages does not require religion, a belief in souls, or the rejection of science. It is a coherent philosophy. I can’t think of a better way to protect the weak and vulnerable among us — or maintain a social system that accepts and enforces universal human rights — than embracing the intrinsic value of all human life.

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