Is it better to be “sorry than safe” or “safe than sorry?”

Yesterday I gave an oral exam to a student (who is bound for medical school) in my bioethics course.  On a list of unpleasant encounters, oral exams probably rank somewhere close to the top next to “giving a class presentation” and “asking a girl out for the first time.”  However, this exam was an enjoyable experience for both of us, I believe.  We engaged in friendly dialog about several bioethical issues, but the focus was on the status of preimplanted embryos.  He admitted early on that he wasn’t convinced that preimplanted embryos are individual persons deserving moral protection.  After all, there is the issue of twinning that may occur during the first 12-14 days (not to mention the amount of fetal loss).  How can it be that the fertilized zygote is an individual human being when it could possibly twin before it implants?

Admittedly, the twinning argument appears forceful.  Many ethicists (including some professing Christians) agree and contend that human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is not morally wrong because it does not entail the destruction of individual human persons.  Furthermore, it’s better to be “sorry than safe” about the matter i.e., it’s better if we proceed with hESC research and reap the benefits, even if it turns out that we are wrong about the status of early embryos.  On the other hand, if we play it safe and forego hESC research, then we’ll be sorry that we missed out on a technology that may revolutionize human health care.

In my initial response, I noted that twinning is a rare phenomenon that we don’t fully understand.  Of course, this student wasn’t going to fall for the “it’s all a mystery” reply.  But before I tell you how eventually responded, I would like to hear your thoughts.  How would you convince this student that the zygote is an individual human being deserving moral protection?  Or, perhaps you disagree with this point of view.

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Harry Mueller
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Harry Mueller

Gary
At this stage we have a single individual in view. The fact that there is a small possibility of a contingent future event leading to the formation of two separate individuals from this single zygote should not alter the status we place on the one in front of us a this time.

Gary Elkins
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Gary Elkins

Harry (and Carey), I agree with your comments. But suppose the “other side” counters by saying that that “small possibility” of twinning is nonetheless fairly significant in leading one to conclude that the zygote is not an individual after all. Indeed, it is also possible for the zygote to split and later reunite. Most likely, the other side will argue that it isn’t a question of whether the original zygote is a human zygote, or whether it is a single human zygote. Rather, it is about how one zygote, if it is an individual human, can become two individual humans.

Harry Mueller
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Harry Mueller

Gary I fail to understand how the possibility of twinning alters the ontic status of the individual that is present at this moment in time. When we look at a human zygote we have a single human entity and the possibility of this individual splitting into two new entities at a point in the future does not change the current status of that zygote being a single entity. It is not false to argue that, at this point in time, we a dealing with a single human being that should be afforded the same moral status that we would assign… Read more »

Carey
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To me the issue has nothing to do with whether it is a “single” individual…

Whether single or multiple, it(they) is(are) still human – that is the real issue.

Carey
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The mystery/confusion of how the zygote can be or become singular or multiple seems a different issue to me. In fact, if we are indeed talking about multiple “individuals” being brought about by twinning, the moral dilemma becomes compounded in my mind. If there is the possible destruction of human life at stake, it would then be an issue of destroying “multiple” human lives rather than just an “individual” human life. The issue still remains, “Is it human life?” Perhaps thinking of it this way helps… it’s clearly not “donkey-life” or “gorilla-life” or “plant-life.” Genetically the zygote material did not… Read more »

Leah Willson
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Leah Willson

I see no theological or philosophical reason that we cannot believe that some zygotes could contain more than one soul. Consider conjoined twins–two separate souls who share much of the same physical body. Twinning is certainly a mysterious process and we could even speculate that the presence of two souls in a human zygote is what causes the twinning in the first place.

Dan Price
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Dan Price

“When we look at a human zygote we have a single human entity and the possibility of this individual splitting into two new entities at a point in the future does not change the current status of that zygote being a single entity.”

And if the single human zygote does indeed split into two zygotes, then we are dealing with two human entities. Now what happens or what do we call it if the zygote reunites and then have one human entity again? What do we call the zygote that is “lost” in the reuniting?