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.