The Bioethicist and the Embryo

(This is one instalment of a four-part series on the human embryo by Dr. Eshan Dias. We are posting the third part of the series here below, which sums up his main argument. The other three section are more technical, with scientific language, and may appeal to those so inclined. There is much that is of profit therein, and we will post those as embedded files after this one. Joyous and fruitful reading! +

Section III – Concepti

Modern masters of science are much impressed with the need of beginning all inquiry with a fact. The ancient masters of religion were quite equally impressed with that necessity. They began with the fact of sin — a fact as practical as potatoes. Whether or no man could be washed in miraculous waters, there was no doubt at any rate that he wanted washing. But certain religious leaders in London, not mere materialists, have begun in our day not to deny the highly disputable water, but to deny the indisputable dirt.” (Gilbert Keith Chesterton in Orthodoxy)

Ideas and Realities

The concepts utilised to formulate objections will be addressed entirely conceptually at the outset and their knots disentangled, so that the pseudo-scientific and apparently valid scientific objections relevant to human beings particularly during our period of embryogeny, become more easily grasped for what they converge to be and do not slip through due to a multitude of words with varied meanings which may all have a shared purpose.  The theories of many philosophers, theologians, bioethicists, legislators and scientists even though articulated variously and regurgitated frequently, often share in principle if not always in degree a common ideology – which has been flogged throughout the decades that followed their formulation and continues to be with acquisition of enthusiastic contemporary followers, even though the horse is dead.


A word is often interpreted differently whether between people or across time, and this difference could be in breadth or in specificity of meaning.  Likewise, several words may be used to describe any one of these interpretations or combination of interpretations.  “Soul” is thought to be of proto-Germanic origin and may have a connection to the sea with its mysterious and misty eternity which in ancient northern Europe may have been believed to be the source and destiny of the essence of men.  “Soul” often encompasses that which is spiritual or immaterial, and also that which actuates or animates a living organism, usually a human being.  It is often interchangeable with intellect, mind, and psyche – Jungian or otherwise, which originates in the Greek psykhe.  It may be attributed powers of sensing, feeling, thinking, reasoning and willing and be thought of as the source of emotions, and may show progress or decline and be classified into stages as with the ruh in Sufism.

In Hinduism, the souls or Purushas each indistinguishable from the other, but distinct from a perhaps Freudian ego – ahamkara, and from the mind – citta, are believed by some schools to be of the body of Vishnu the preserver god and upholder of creation, or of the Supreme-Self or -Consciousness Paramathma who may be the Brahmana or the ultimate creative unchanging cosmic principle.  Purushas sometimes synonymous with atmas are engaged or ensnared by nature or Prakriti to join with bodies to become Jivas or embodied souls which then are released or escape back to the free and untainted state of pure consciousness consequent to which the cycle repeats through these twin processes called degenerative involution and regenerative evolution, thus ensuring the continuity of creation.   The Buddhist proposition of anatta suggests that an eternal soul is incongruent with the doctrine of impermanence – anicca, but there is belief in re-incarnation with its associated sorrow – dukkha, from which one must strive to escape into the nothingness of nirvana.

The word “spirit” derived from the Latin spiritus suggests the wind, blowing, breathing and thereby living and life.  It is sometimes synonymous with soul and has been applied in translating the Greek pnuema and the Hebew ruah.  Where animation is concerned, we could infer that animals, plants, all living organisms and forms of life have a soul, sometimes called a vegetative soul or, where applicable, a sensitive soul.   The existence of a rational soul is proposed to explain reasoning, abstract thinking, speech or even developmental autonomy, and we possess it and thus a rational nature even at times or situations where we do not have the capability to exercise reason.  It is vital to distinguish between all understandings of soul with the spiritual human God-gifted eternal soul that only human beings have, and because of which we are human beings.

The Catechism promulgated by Pope John Paul II holds that the “soul signifies the spiritual principle in man” “by which he is most especially in God’s image”, and makes clear with reference to the Council of Vienne that “the unity of the soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body” and that it this soul that defines the human being; and further, that “spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature”.  Evangelium Vitae referring also to Familiaris Consortio, taught that the human person is a “unified totality”, that is, “a soul which expresses itself in a body and a body informed by an immortal spirit”.  It is this immortal, God-gifted, human-specific soul which creates us as an image of God, that makes a man a man, that is of essence in discussions regarding ensoulment of embryos.  This is the immortal spirit or spiritual soul, that part of us which is from God and willed by God, which makes us human beings, and that which is created for no merit of our own to adore God for eternity in our resurrected body, in an eternal rapture of communion by the grace of His Love.

The concept of ensoulment or delayed ensoulment is considered to take place at a point, loosely and variously defined, when the body is deemed sufficiently qualified for it.  This proposition is untenable since what matters is to know if there is a human being, and if there is, then he cannot not have his soul.  When the human being begins his existence, then also does his soul begin to exist, since the two are one.  One may logically extend the ensoulment reasoning to propose de-soulment towards the end of life, in disease or other states where the criteria of reasoning, psychological competence, physical abilities, sentience or consciousness become diminished or absent and declare such persons’ end-of-worth – and justify manipulation or destruction of these vulnerable human beings.

What a Waste?         

It is contended that since there is a high proportion of embryos who die without undergoing successful implantation, embryos of that age are not human because God would not allow so many human beings to die without a fulfilled life being lived, and that therefore these embryos cannot be human at that age.  Of course, this does not count later embryonic loss or stillbirths or other prenatal deaths.  Neither does is count neonatal deaths or young men lost in wars or motor vehicle accidents, nor any others who do not live up to their potential.  The last century saw millions destroyed due to the ideological campaigns of Hitler, Pol Pot, Mao and Stalin and the slaughter of a greater order of magnitude continues into today in the form of elective abortions, abortifacient drugs and devices and human embryonic engineering and medical research, driven by the ideologies of radical feminism, post-modernism and politically-correct Marxism.

Today we are blessed with advances in healthcare and medical knowledge, and infant mortality is far less than a century ago.  Historical studies suggests that until very recent times one-quarter of infants died in their first year of life and half of all children died before they reached the end of puberty.  The humanity of these deceased children was never questioned even though some may have contended that their lives had been wasted.  However, the logic of Karl Rahner SJ and Egbert Schroten would extend to asking the question as to whether the 5-year-old child of history was hominised or ensouled, to propose infant engineering, or their destruction for therapeutic or academic purposes – and likewise for anyone else they believe did not live a life meaningful by their standards, including wasted soldiers, wasted birthing mothers – noting that in the nineteenth century 500 to 1000 mothers died for every 100,000 births, and wasted martyrs and the enormous numbers of those lost to the plague, tuberculosis and smallpox throughout history. For infantrymen moral theologians following their own logic should propose ensoulment once the war is over, since “God acts mediately”.

St Therese Martin (of Lisieux) said she had no merit of her own to deserve heaven, and St Theresa de Cepeda y Ahumada (of Avila) believed herself to be a great sinner, and both would have wished to have loved their Lord even more during the lives they had on Earth.  Then, who is to say what a life is worth, and what is waste, and if it mattered?  The “wasted” embryo deserves salvation no more than the greatest saint.  The comatose, the psychotic and the aborted deserve it no less than the crusader or confessor because they have all been redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb.  The deceased infant did not earn it more than the angels.  That some of us have the privilege of a greater training in love, and the opportunity to make a more determined choice to be saved or to carry a cross more devotedly is a grace granted, to be humbly grateful for.  Why one man is rich and the other poor, why one man dies earlier and the other later, why one is pink and the other brown, why one is created female and the other male, or why in general each of us have been differently blessed may be a point to ponder as long as one knows that we are equally loved by God, and equally in need of salvation.  The problem of why some are “wasted” in the embryonic stage of life and why some live a century need to be seen from this perspective – but belonging to a category that gets wasted does not imply that the survivors within that category are not persons and thus fit for abuse.


The proponents of the wastage doctrine also contend that the wasted embryos are allowed by God to perish, if we accept that the embryos were human beings and they died.  Following the logic of the moral theologians of half a century ago and their adherents today, the concerns regarding the salvation of so-called wasted embryos should be extended to surgically aborted children who are allowed to die in the hands of physicians by the will of parents.  Likewise, it should be argued that all who lived prior to the institution of Baptism were not ensouled and that the pagans of today are unhominised since it can’t be figured out why God permits their deaths, because deaths in these segments of humanity leads to massive perdition.  Since a large proportion of humanity today are pagan, we may then infer by Rahnian logic that the baptised are not ensouled either.  We would be wiser to meditate on the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 20.


Animation was historically linked with quickening or when the mother first felt the prenatal movements of her child.  Dissenting theologian Joseph Donceel SJ posited that animation required the possession of a spiritual soul, which he also qualified abstractly as a “human” and “intellectual” soul, as distinct from “vegetative” and “animal” souls.  This enabled the conceptualisation of delayed animation to suggest infusion of such a spiritual soul at some point after conception, the delay being the time between the beginning of the life of the embryo up to the point he was permitted to be declared alive.  However, since animation is connected to the status of being alive and even the science of his day could well demonstrate that we were alive from the time that we started to live, Fr Donceel proposed the use of the term “hominisation” and the necessary “delayed hominisation” to mean the possession or acquisition of the requisite human soul, and today bioethicist proponents of human embryonic manipulation use both animation and hominisation interchangeably.


Hominisation is a term borrowed from zoological anthropological sciences which means becoming human, and abused to mean the attainment of personhood or ensoulment.  By reasoning similar to what might be used to show that the term animation fails in dehumanising the embryo since it is alive, the term hominisation fails also since the embryo is a man or human being, and a human being after designated delays does not and cannot become a human being when and because he already is one.


Taking an idea spawned by fish biologist Clifford Grobstein of a graded development in human beings corresponding to gradual attainment of personhood, moral theologian Richard McCormick SJ proposed the notion of a “developmental individual” that an embryo would need to be in order to be considered a person and thereby protected from threats to his life.  Bioethicists and even scientists purport that we become “individuated” when we can no longer generate another from ourselves and therefore happen to be the source of only ourselves, allegedly thereby gaining dignity in not having had a twin by the time we reach a designated age or degree of development.  The attainment of the inability for another to be generated from ourselves, that constitutes the mind-boggling “individuation” concept is the untenable proposition that ipso facto we come to a point in our ontogenical continuum after which it is believed that we cannot twin, we become human beings worthy of getting on with our lives unhindered – with perhaps personhood and ensoulment gained into the bargain, this being a value we did not possess a moment before.

The concept of “individuation” might be attractive today among those immersed in cultures that propagate narcissism and teach a self-centred self-esteem to their children.  Even if such an abstract “individuated” individuality, which is dissonant with the understanding of an individual as merely being distinct and a description of a present state than a past achievement, could be justified as conceptually important to its proponents even if not to the embryos, there is no justification for dehumanising individuals who have not achieved such a status of “individuation”.

In an era where children are considered a burden and a cost calculated in terms of day-care and education, and where international organisations unite in Roman clubs to remind us that we are a cancer on the planet based on theories comparable in defensibility as that of individuation, the perspective of earlier generations – that considered olive shoots around the table a blessing and would have thought that generating of another from themselves was a matter of great joy while tragedy would be the inability to do so, seem to have passed.  Today the shoots are suppressed by weedicides ingested liberally in pursuance of equity.

Conversely, those who have been separated or duplicated – who failed to reach a designated individuation time or developmental point without dividing, could perhaps be called “developmental generics” as opposed to “developmental individuals”, and may by extension of this concept have lower moral status for not having remained individual throughout, or for having been generated at all.


Distinctiveness, singleness and uniqueness are among words used in close association with individuatedness, all these concepts suggesting that we would be less than human, or even less human if such abstraction can be grasped, if we were diminished in any of these attributes, as in the case of arguably individuation-failed generics, such as twins.


The potentiality concept used in a finalistic or teleological sense can be useful in providing grounds to believe that the embryo who from a unicellular beginning proceeds to become an adult is indeed the same human being and therefore if this same adult is a person, then he was one earlier on as well.  The concept is abused when someone who is deemed to possess active potential is deprived of personhood on account of not yet having achieved this potential.  The idea of potential is also abused when attributed interchangeably between subjects possessing intrinsically different natures.  While a sperm has the potential to fertilise an oocyte, and the oocyte has the potential to be fertilised, it is specious to state that the gametes have potential to produce an embryo in order to suggest that the ontologically and teleologically distinct embryo did not originate in the process by which the gametes cease to be but is a mere progression in the ontogeny of the oocyte.

Distinction needs also to be made that the embryo has the potential functionally, structurally or developmentally to become a foetus based on the definition of these prenatal terms, the toddler has the potential to become a youth and the zygote has the potential to become a blastula, but at no stage after we are generated do we have the potential to become a human being because we are a human being and have been from our beginning and throughout these developments.  There is difference between these ontogenical potentials and the progressive gaining of mental, psychological, intellectual and sentient capabilities, and the fundamentally different phenomenon of the origination of a new human being who begins to live his new life.  It is impossible for me to have the potential to become a human being, even though I have potential to undergo biological developmental processes and to gain in various aptitudes.

Functionally or in terms of associated processes or competencies, an embryo may have the potential to become implanted, the foetus that to be born, and the infant to breathe, and even the young woman to become a mother. The gastrula has the potential to become a neurula, the neural plate has the potential to become a brain, and the student has the potential to learn mathematics and he may develop the potential to do Fourier transformations in his head, conceptualise superstrings, see romance in a painting hung up in a gallery or give up his life to defend what he believes is true, but achievement of these do not confer personhood or hominity on him – nor does failure deprive him of his soul.


The word originated in circa 1200 from Latin via old French and meant an individual or a human being, having derived from the sense of a character in a drama who assumes a persona by wearing a mask, and may have deeper roots in the Etruscan phersu meaning mask.  Personhood matters because in many legal systems, only persons have rights.  In the US constitution, the right to life is granted to persons, the authors never imagining that their descendants would institutionalise violent physician-assisted deprivations of motherhood, glorify Wirthsian experimentation in test tubes, and classify their pre-born children as non-persons – even though one could devalue and tyrannise any segment of society using other terms such as “untouchable” or “foreigner” or base this segmentation on race, skin colour, religion, degree of ability in certain competencies and not only on one’s age or size or degree of physical and intellectual development.

Declining membership into the community of those legally defined as persons, enable abuse and exploitation of the de facto non-persons.  That personhood has been used in order to isolate a category of human beings who were to be deprived of rights is evident throughout history.   So-called “blacks” or African-origin Americans were enslaved, murdered and raped, and Julia Greeley had no rights when her mother was whipped by their owner and her own eye was damaged.  The Red Indians of northern America were robbed, forced onto reserves, and killed.  The Jews and gypsies of the Third Reich were excluded from “legal personhood” and millions were tortured and killed. Women could not receive education, inherit or own property, vote for political representatives or in some cases have custody of their children.  In Canada they did not have the right to be elected to the senate since they were not persons until 1924.

Prisoners were used for medical experiments, and the Dalits of India, the lepers of Palestine and the natives of South Africa suffered similarly at the hands of the senators and intellectuals of their day even though “personhood” was not always the trending word.  Today multi-millions of developing human beings in the womb or in petri dishes are poisoned, dismembered, mutilated, frozen and discarded by nations that – while sometimes conceding their humanity, deny them “legal personhood.”  It matters when the powerful within the community make the rules to the perceived communal advantage, disregarding fundamental and objective facts, and take from the powerless what is their due – which they are too weak to claim.

Philosophers have often required in various combinations and each to various degrees – conceding that each attribute is not mutually exclusive of another, consciousness, self-awareness, reflective self-evaluation, feeling and sentience, and even at least neurulation if not possession of a mature brain capable of rationality that may encompass recollection, intellect, thinking, reasoning, understanding, volition, deliberation, free will, reasoning, reflective self-evaluation and desire, emotion, language and being alive, for the subject under discussion to qualify as a person.

Legislatures today attribute personhood to corporations, states and institutions in consideration of their rights and duties under law, to animals such as apes, elephants and dolphins because of their intelligence, even computational devices based on their electronic consciousness – such as the humanoid robot Sophia who received Saudi Arabian citizenship, and rivers because they are believed to live and possess a soul.  Philosophers have proposed that apes have more rights than the senile or sick human being who should be chosen in preference for experimentation. It is interesting also that the horse foetus is protected more than human ones in certain countries and more than those who need to be fed via a tube in others, and now lab mice are beginning to acquire their rights.

Where rationality is concerned, Alex the African grey parrot had more than a year-old infant and one may concede the variation in degree of rationality.  There also exists related degrees of personhood as in the case of minors versus adults, or in the accumulation of rights by women over the decades.  Personhood may also depend on context where a minor may have rights for some things but be protected from liability in others.  Likewise, slavery under a given government or empire may be illegal in the home nation but legal in the colonies creating a location-based personhood for the traveler.  Post-humous personhood is discussed in association with inter alia attempts to build interactive online avatars of social media presence of diseased subscribers, while disease or disability in men who are alive may lose it.  Personhood is also granted for a foetus prematurely born but not for his corresponding counterpart who will enjoy amniotic bliss for longer.

The concept of personhood and the attributes a person by some definition possesses may enable an entity to become a person, but that is determined by the definition itself and the opinions of the definers, whereas the human being at whatever age, stage of life or development, or in possession of whatever capabilities or lack of them, can never become what he already is, irrespective of whether he becomes a person according the definition of personhood under consideration.  Considering that personhood is awarded to trees and computers and may exist in varying degrees, it is questionable whether it is relevant in determining the right to life of a human being if the word was not already encoded in existing laws. This concept is a tool in the hands of philosophers, legislators, bioethicists and moral theologians with which to rationalise, legislate and bring respectability to tyranny, but it cannot make a human being any less a human being, nor can it make the Whanganui river or the Ganges a man.


The term “pre-embryo” was created by zoologist Clifford Grobstein in 1979 demonstrating great sleight-of-thought in suggesting that the pre-implantation embryo was in a “cellular” or “pre-embryonic” phase and that the embryo phase therefore begins after implantation.  He asserted that the pre-embryo would thereby be a “pre-person”.  Even though this creative terminology based on contrived scientific phantasm did not gather momentum at the time, it ascended to fame beginning in the UK where there was a threat of legislation protective of unborn children further to the birth of Louise Brown and it was necessary to transform the semantic landscape to enable legal in vitro creation and manipulation of human embryos.  Spurred by Ann McLaren’s 1986 letter to Nature proposing this farcical word among others, which was published on April 1st, its popularity ensued.  A major proponent of this disingenuous semantic, among others, was US priest Richard McCormick who published the lead article in the initial issue of the journal of the Kennedy Institute for Bioethics propagating the lie of the pre-embryo, the requirement of individuation, and the ensoulment and personhood that comes with it.  He had become a professor at this novel institute, having been a key member of a group of Catholic moral theologians who substantially contributed towards what culminated in Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton, and he later dissented against Humane Vitae.

Scientists who specialise in the study of embryos are embryologists and they – whether atheists or believers, whether they value the life of a human being or whether they believe human beings are guinea pigs for their experiments, whether motivated towards reproduction, therapeutics or by mere creator narcissism, or whether desiring to serve humanity or themselves – are nearly unanimous in rejecting the term “pre-embryo” which was designed for use specifically and exclusively in human embryology in order to assuage moral concerns originally regarding embryo abuse in IVF procedures and in early abortions and thereby drive inhuman legislation.  It is used to dehumanise the human being in the earliest stages of development, so that it may become justifiable to manipulate them in a way that would be considered unworthy of a human being.

The prefix “pre” indicates before and so the term pre-embryo indicates something that exists before the embryo, and if before, then it is not yet embryo and if it is not yet embryo then it is not embryo or is un-embryo.  One may induce then that the pre-embryo is a pre-person or non-person eligible for exploitation.  One is expected to reason out that the embryo may have some rights – even though elective abortion laws have destroyed that, but if the embryo is at an earlier stage of pre-embryo, then such rights would not apply.  An analogy can be drawn by considering whether we would call a boy in primary school a pre-boy and say he will develop into a boy proper when he enters secondary school, having perhaps developed a growth on his lip that makes him look more like a man.

Even if we did not call out this Fallopian semantic and accepted that we will be referred to as the pre-embryo we would still die if we were killed during this period, as we would after we were firmly attached to our mother’s endometrium or after we emerged from the sanctuary of her womb and started breathing air, or for that matter if death occurred later in life.


If human beings ipso facto do have souls, then as far as theologians may be concerned personhood of the human being in human law systems needs to be reconciled with the human being, rather than the human being becoming subject to the legal definition.  As long as a human being is a person, he is a person when young or old, healthy or sick, a ball of cells or a bundle of joy.  If prevailing legal definitions of person are employed, he may or may not be included in the definition, but legal definitions are irrelevant as far as his worth is concerned. If human beings are body-soul unities, the question of whether or when or if “ensoulment” occurs is irrelevant, and Fr Donceel’s assertion that what grows in the mother’s womb is a virtual or potential body would imply that IVF practitioners place something virtual into the hostess’ wombs after having produced something virtual in the test tube.

If a human being ipso facto has dignity and a destiny and the right to live and not to be killed, then that human being is a man and is living, is perhaps a person, with perhaps a soul.  If any of these factors are made pre-requisites and then be shown to be lacking, then in compliance with ethics thus derived, accepted and enshrined, the human being loses his dignity and right to life and may be abused and destroyed legally in good conscience at any point in his life.

To address the ethical considerations, it is of essence and yet sufficient to understand whether there is a human being present, come into being naturally in marital love or lack of it, micro-engineered robotically under a microscope and cloned via nuclear transfer or fabricated via cellular aggregation.  If a human being ipso facto deserves respect, then age, size or degree of development, capabilities or aptitudes, possession of philosophical attributes, circumstances of origination or even his virtue or sinfulness is irrelevant.  Likewise, if some entity does not deserve respect, then being born, big, fulfilled, self-conscious and able to choose to fight for his rights to wifi, would not make him any more or less human or dignified.

The advancement in scientific knowledge and the growth of technological capability does not outpace morality – rather the articulation of morals needs to become sufficiently refined to address novelties.  Donum vitae referred to fertilisation as the beginning of the life of a human being in the context of the evils of IVF, abortifacient birth control products and outright abortion, but its authors had the hindsight to generalise its principles as concerning the “fruit of human generation”.

Bioethicist and the Embryo Part I

Bioethicist and the Embryo Part 2

Bioethicist and the Embryo Part 4