Is an embryo human life and therefore something precious to be protected?

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by Neil Godfrey

More notes from Peter Singer’s The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W. Bush (pp. 45-53)

Is an embryo human life and therefore something precious to be protected?

Yes, an embryo formed from the sperm and egg of human beings is certainly human life. It is of the species Homo Sapiens and not of any other species.

But, does it necessarily follow that “therefore” an embryo is “something precious to be protected”?


Every year millions of embryos die as a natural process. Scientists estimate that for every child born from four to one fertilized eggs fail to implant in the mother’s womb and are released with her menstrual bleeding. Most times the woman never even knows she had conceived.

Should we feel that the loss of embryos is a terrible ongoing holocaust?

“The truth is . . . virtually no one except couples who want to have a child really cares about the loss of embryos. And even couples seeking to conceive only care about whether they will be able to have a child. They don’t really care about the particular embryo that was lost. More often than not, they aren’t even aware it ever happened.”

Is every embryo unique, like a snowflake?

Yes, but the fact that something is unique is not in itself a reason for trying to preserve it. We don’t try to preserve snowflakes.

Should a life be regarded as precious just because it is a member of Homo sapiens?

“If we rely on the bare claim that we are human and so should protect our own kind, we have no comeback against the racists who maintain that they ought to protect their own kind — by which they mean members of their own race, but not members of other races.”

A better argument is that humans are more precious because they have mental capacities that make it possible for them to live in ways that other species apparently cannot. Only humans have the ability to plan their lives years ahead, and the ability to think through moral choices and be held accountable for their actions.

Admitting here that it is human bias to judge these attributes as particularly valuable and more worthy than the ability to fly or run particularly well. But our mental capacities nonetheless are so distinctive that they do not seem to be a merely arbitrary reason for thinking human life is more precious than that of other species. We share with other species the ability to feel pain and to feel emotions like love and fear, but appear to be unique in our understanding that we have a past and future. Death therefore is a greater tragedy and loss for humans than for other animals.

Where does this leave embryo life?

If human life is more precious on account of its mental capacities, then it does not follow that embryonic human life is precious. Embryos are utterly lacking in higher mental abilities.

What then of the value of the lives of babies?

Newborn infants also lack these capacities, but newborn infants are also loved and wanted by their parents — and other adults — in ways that makes them precious and worth protecting.

What of the potential of the embryo?

  1. There is no general argument that says because X is a potential Y, therefore X has the rights of a Y. Winners of presidential elections do not have the rights of a president until they are sworn in.
  2. Infertile couples wanting to have children value the embryos that might become their child. But once they have the child or children they want most of them no longer care for the remaining embryos at all. Some are willing to give their leftover embryos to other childless couples and others prefer to have them destroyed. Once the desires of the parents are satisfied there is no longer any value placed on the potentials of the remaining embryos.


It does not follow that embryonic human life is something that is precious and to be protected solely because it is human life.

(The Bible would seem to support this. A man causing the loss or miscarriage of a fetus is to be merely fined, whereas if he kills the mother he is to be executed — Exodus 21:22.)

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Neil Godfrey

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