Reflections from the Front: Personhood and the Cryopreserved Embryo

Reflections from the Front: Personhood and the Cryopreserved Embryo

Bob Cranston, MD

The annual conference of The Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity in Deerfield, Illinois focused last week on women’s health issues and bioethics. A topic for future consideration will be gender-specific abortions, but this week we will look at Cropreserved embryos.

Epidemiologist Reginald Finger and reproductive endocrinologist Robert Visscher, shared information on embryo donation, and referenced as an important reference site for information regarding embryo donation.

At present, the federal government estimates that there are 612,000 cryopreserved embryos in the United States. Eggs themselves remain technologically difficult to handle, and the cryopreservation process destroys most of these.  Of the 612,000 embryos about half are still “wanted” by their parents. The other half will likely be donated for procreation, donated for research, or destroyed (with or without an appropriately respective ceremony).

The primary question which dictates moral the worth of an embryo revolves around when “Personhood” or “Full moral agency” is perceived to be established. Scripture would seem to point to fertilization, or perhaps syngamy, the fusing of the two independent pronuclei, as the time this arises. At syngamy the embryo contains 46 chromosomes, is self-directing, and communicates chemically with the mother, informing her of its presence. A few scholars want to place personhood, from scripture, as late as birth itself. They rely on Genesis 2:7, where it says, “God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being,” but this is a distinctly minority opinion.

While science concedes that life begins at fertilization or syngamy, it attempts to inappropriately argue from a scientific basis to a metaphysical conclusion. It variably locates personhood at: 1) Fertilization     2) Syngamy                  3) Implantation 4) Individuation (primitive streak appears) 5) appearance of heartbeat 6) quickening 7) Measurable brain EEG activity 8) Birth or 9) Sentience. Peter Singer, the most prominent proponent of the sentience position would allow infanticide well past birth. Those espousing position #8 would be comfortable with partial birth abortions.

Scripture and science should both be used to guide us, but science cannot speak authoritatively outside its purview. By our decision to place personhood at fertilization or syngamy we have a moral imperative to protect the life and health of these 300,000 embryos. The most obvious way to do this, though not simple or straightforward, is embryo donation and adoption. In a future blog we will look at  Dr. Finger’s analysis of other underlying moral issues related to these frozen embryos.




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Jon Holmlund, M.D.
Jon Holmlund, M.D.

Dr. Cranston, would you say a bit more about your concern that science would be “inappropriately argu[ing] from a scientific basis to a metaphysical conclusion?” It seems to me that it is eminently reasonable to argue from the scientific data that the clearest point at which to declare the formation of a unique human individual is fertilization or syngamy. Also, philosophically, Christopher Kaczor, in his recent book on the ethics of abortion, quite compellingly addressed the flaws of grounding human moral status later in the sequence you review.

Steve Phillips

I think a good way to look at how science ought to be involved in the development of an ethical position is to realize that a moral argument needs at least one moral premise to reach a moral conclusion. Science can give use empirical facts about an issue, but it cannot provide the moral premise. That has to come from outside science. We who are Christians understand that all moral premises have their origin in God who is by nature good. Science can help us understand that a unique human biological organism is formed at conception and that there is… Read more »