Personhood, babies and embryos

written by Hubby

With the thaw date for our children having suddenly arrived, I (Hubby) am making these remarks on somewhat short notice, but I hope they are clear regarding our reasons for approaching that landmark in the way that we do.

We affirm the following truth claims. We’ve got arguments that have convinced us of the truth of each of these truth claims, though some of those arguments will have to wait for a future date. I’m presenting here only very brief summaries of the arguments. None of these are our “opinions” – all of them are claims we make about the way the world is. We might be wrong, lots of other folks disagree. But based on the arguments both for and against these truth claims, this is way we believe reality to be. We’d seriously enjoy talking about any and all of the truth claims and arguments for them, so don’t hesitate to ask.

First, that all human life has a particular kind of value. The value we’re talking about here is sometimes called “human dignity” or similar. This kind of value is inherent to all human life, regardless of whether or not the human is sleeping or awake, conscious or unconscious, regardless of racial or ethnic background, the ability to feed or otherwise care for oneself, etc. When this value is present, but the person with this value is treated as if they didn’t have it, a grave injustice is committed. Examples include the treatment of Jews during the holocaust or those subjected to chattel slavery such as was practiced in the US until the civil war. The Jews under Hitler and the slaves were not treated according to the dignity present in all human life, and this poor treatment is why these horrors are horrific. The difference between the slaughterhouse where cows are turned into sides of beef and Auschwitz lies in the fact that the victims of Auschwitz possessed human dignity, and were treated as if they did not. Many people from vastly different worldviews believe in something of this sort – theist or atheist, scientific or not, Eastern, Western, secular, religious, etc. As an aside, our account of where this value comes from happens to be a Christian one – we claim that this value comes from humanity being made in the image of God, their creator.

Second, that human life (and hence this value) begins at conception. Because in the fertility industry conception has acquired a variety of different meanings (think of how literally is now commonly used to literally mean non-literally), we think it’s worth being specific. By conception, we mean fertilization (when the sperm penetrates the egg)– not syngamy (when all the chromosomes are first united in the nucleus), not implantation (when the embryo begins to receive it’s sustenance from the mother instead of from the reserves in the egg), and not from quickening (when mom first feels the baby moving). At fertilization, the resulting thingy (to use a totally non-technical, non-biased term) begins working as a unified organism. Prior to this, there are clearly two separate things (sperm and egg) each carrying out their own separate processes – neither of which is inclined to grow, divide, mature, be born, etc. on its own. At fertilization, there is a single entity working towards unified ends. At first, it works towards the end of achieving syngamy – the pro-nuclei don’t just bounce randomly into each other, rather syngamy is the result of a process which is ordered to achieve syngamy. The cell begins dividing, a process aiming towards eventual cell differentiation into separate tissues, organs and systems… all of which are ordered to living a complete human life.

At implantation, the embryo obtains a steady supply of vital nutrition, oxygen, etc. But if we were to accept that access to nutrition, oxygen, etc. is what makes a person have value, then victims of famine suddenly cease to be human beings. We reject the consequence that victims of famine cease being human – lack of a steady source of nutrition does not make something non-human, so we also reject the premise that human life begins at implantation. We reject the idea that life begins at quickening because movement – making oneself felt by another human being, is likewise not a condition for personhood. Victims of paralysis or some in vegetative states may not make others physically feel their presence, but this does not make them inhuman. Many other conditions for human personhood have been suggested, I will simply sum up by stating that any condition for human personhood that makes infanticide permissible, we immediately reject on the grounds that it makes infanticide permissible.

As a result of these two truth claims, we are lead to a third. If any of those thawed do not survive, a human person has died. And we bear a special relationship to these particular human persons – they are our children. If necessary, we will mourn their deaths in many of the same ways we would mourn the death of our 4-year old son Samuel. We will not have the specific sorts of thoughts, memories, attachments, etc. to these children that we currently have to Samuel – but our love for Samuel is not based on the fact that we’ve held him in our arms, or the fact that Rachael carried him for nine months, or any of our memories of him. Our love for him, and for the five embryos we have adopted is based simply on the fact that he is our son. Those memories can come or go – they are conditional, but our love for him is not conditional. Likewise, these other five are our children, our sons and daughters and if they die, we will mourn for them in many of the same ways (though certainly varied in strength, intensity, duration, etc.) that we would mourn if Samuel died. As we go through this process, whatever the Lord has for us, please keep us in your prayers. Statistically, we are told to expect to lose many of these children this weekend. So we approach the thaw date with fear and trembling, anticipating the probability of deep loss and grief in the coming days, alongside our hope that these children will live full lives. Whatever the Lord has for us, both joy and sorrow, we will accept from his hand. Our charge is to be faithful to the commitment we have made as adoptive parents, to care for these children placed into our family with everything we have, and to give them the best chance at a flourishing life that we are capable of.

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