Monday, December 12, 2011

A Question for Frank Beckwith and Other Pro-Lifers

This is another way of posing the question I asked about embryonic stem cell research a few posts back. 

Frank: The abortion issue, of course, spills over into the debate about embryonic stem cell research, and raises a very interesting issue.

The pro-life, or conceptionist position, is that human life, and the right to life, begins at conception. This, of course implies that, once conceived, from its initial state as as zygote to when it dies, the human being possesses certain basic rights, including the right to life. Hence abortion is ruled out except in cases where homicide is justified, and homicide is not justified in the vast majority of abortion cases (danger to the life of the mother being the primary type of case where the requirements of justifiable homicide are met). But this protects not only fetuses, but also frozen embryos, which are created but not implanted. These are persons also, and therefore pro-life arguments extend to them, and it is homicide (and therefore murder if there is no moral justification for homicide) to use those embryos for embryonic stem cell research, since such use destroys the life of the embryos.

The question then arises as to what other rights these embryos have in addition to the right to life. I take it that ordinary fetuses have other rights besides the right to life. If embryos are frozen into the indefinite future, does this do a moral disservice to them? They get to live, but they never get a life, as it were. If life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are basic rights, then do we  not have an obligation to these embryos to give them the opportunity to grow up, be free, and pursue happiness, as opposed to leaving them in a frozen prison.

Or do embryos and fetuses have only the right to life? That strikes me as highly counterintuitive.

Has anyone developed a pro-life analysis of this issue?



Anonymous said...

In this country, if you are a chlid with relatives other than me and my family, you have a general right not to be killed by me. I don't have an similar strength of obligation to feed you.

But your parents do.

I think this is not one for the courts, but it is a real issue for the parents.

Damien S said...

A corollary of the right to life is the right to be able to live in an environment where they are given the utmost chance to thrive according to their being. An environment that brings out their full potentialities as much as possible.

A prerequisite of this would be an environment of two loving parents; preferably the biological mother and father with a reasonable means to support a family.

Keeping an embryo in a frozen state would severely violate this minimum requirement.

I don't see what is so difficult about this.

B. Prokop said...

Perhaps the only rational pro-life response to this dilemma would be to not produce such frozen embryos in the first place?

Unknown said...

If embryos are frozen into the indefinite future, does this do a moral disservice to them?

Yes. We shouldn't be freezing embryos. Like B. Prokop, I think this is the rational pro-life position, and if pro-lifers haven't made a big deal out of it (NB I don't know whether they have or not) then that can only be because they're focussing on other issues.

B. Prokop said...

I would like to amend my last posting to read "the only consistent pro-life response" since that wording more clearly focuses on the matter at hand, without raising potentially distracting side issues.

Dan Lower said...

Of course, concerns about unity and procreation aside, isn't the excess of lives created one of the reasons (for at least many Catholic pro-lifers) to bite the bullet, admit that this creates a bad situation, and just say "no" to procedures like IVF that result in excess embryo creation to begin with?

finney said...

I want to learn more about frozen embryos. Can anyone link me to information about that?

Crude said...

Regarding IVF, I'm pretty sure the prevailing Catholic opinion on this matter is 'IVF is morally wrong'. We do have a problem that remains even if it is (the embryos are still there), but this isn't a case of the Church (or, I suspect, pro-lifers generally) being in favor of IVF, yet turning a blind eye to the side-effects.

Mike Darus said...

Pro-lifers come in many varieties. The Roman Catholic variety is on the very conservative side of the spectrum. Those who slide away from prohibitions for IVF and contraception are thoughtful but their arguments are more complex. This does not mean they are inconsistent, hypocritical, or ignorant of the issues. The Roman Catholic view enjoys the clarity of simplicity.

Bilbo said...

Vic, has Frank responded to your question?

Victor Reppert said...

I haven't heard from Frank on this. While I think this does undergird a moral case against IVF, I don't think that is a sufficient answer. There are existing frozen embryos, and if we decide that they are persons with a right to life, then it seems also clear that they have other rights, and we have to now determine what our obligation are to them.

Francis Beckwith said...


According to the view I defend--the substance view of persons--killing is not only the harm that one can inflict on a fetus. The reason for this is that the substance view is also a perfectionist view, that the embryo, like every human being, is ordered toward the actualization of certain intrinsic properties that are for the good of the whole. So, to keep an embryo frozen indefinitely does prevent it from being killed, and thus its right to life is protected. However, by not allowing it to develop itself in the way in which its nature is ordered harms it as well. This would occur, for example, if we artificially prevented the development of the fetus's neural tube so that we bring into being anencephalic children for the purpose of harvesting their organs. See, for example, my recent piece, “The Human Being, a Person of Substance: A Response to Dean Stretton.” In Persons, Moral Worth, and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments, edited Stephen Napier. (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011), 67-83. You can find it online here:

Victor Reppert said...

Frank: Thanks for these helpful comments. It does seem clear that some application of natural law theory would be forthcoming, which would raise issues with IVF itself.

Bilbo said...

Vic: "It does seem clear that some application of natural law theory would be forthcoming, which would raise issues with IVF itself."

Yes, it seems that one who opposes the destruction of frozen embryos should also oppose IVF, period.

Shackleman said...

Not sure this is all that hard to figure out. Human life begins at conception and any argument against that is utter nonsense. A human embryo is exactly a human being. A human being in the very early stages, yes, but exactly a human being. Therefore IVF is immoral because it creates a human being that will either be destroyed before ever being allowed to realize its full intended nature, kept in suspended annimation indefinitely, or unceremoniously harvested for spare pieces and parts (stem cells) before being destroyed. All of which are clear and obvious moral outrages.

Now, what to do with the already existing embryos? Also, not difficult. They should be freed to allow nature to take its course, thereby returning their souls, (if any) to their creator.

B. Prokop said...


You write, "thereby returning their souls, (if any) to their creator."

But you also write, "Human life begins at conception and any argument against that is utter nonsense."

I can't manage to square those two statements. How can something be "human" without a soul?

Serous question - I'm not trolling here. Am I misunderstanding you?

Shackleman said...

Mr. Prokop,

I didn't phrase that very clearly. There seems not to be consensus in either Philosophy or Christianity on exactly when the "soul" enters the body. There are those who say the soul enters as late as early childhood. Others say the soul/body are inseparable and one cannot be sustained without the other and are therefore together from the moment of conception.

I lean toward the latter but sympathize with the former. I don't think it matters though with respect to the IVF embryo problem, hence the "if any".

If the soul is there from conception (which I tend to think it is), then keeping an IVF embryo frozen forever in time is an obviously egregious sin against the soul contained therein.

If on the other hand the soul enters sometime later, then I can see no dilemma in allowing nature to take its course and letting the embryo die.

And, in either case, it's an obvious Frankensteinian horror to harvest them for their pieces and parts in an attempt to uncover a fountain of youth.

Hope that clears it up....

B. Prokop said...