From Elizabeth Anscombe and others

ABSTRACT: A number of arguments for the legalisation of destructive research upon human embryos are refuted. A brief analysis of the question of the "start of life" is undertaken. It is concluded that fertilisation marks a change in ethical status which is particularly relevant for the political debate on embryo research. The zygote is the first entity which could be accorded the individual rights of a new human being.


Argument 1. Destructive research on human embryos is justified because of the enormous benefits such research might bring.

This is an essentially utilitarian argument. This is not the place to rehearse he fundamental objections to utilitarianism, or to point out that the possible benefits of research have been grossly exaggerated, but we would point out that this form of argument is wholly contrary to generally accepted principles of medical ethics.

Almost any field of medical research could put the claim that great advances might result from destructive experimentation upon human subjects. However, this is unequivocally rejected in decent societies. We can see no justification for applying a different set of principles in the case of embryo research.

We would also point out an inconsistency in the utilitarian argument. It is difficult to see how, according to this argument, it would be possible to justify preventing research after 14 days, as all the possibilities of benefits from research before 14 days apply at least equally strongly beyond this point.

If the fourteen day limit is not, as its proponents assurse us it is not, merely an arbitrary line which could be shifted forwards in the future, they are presumably accepting the (non-utilitarian) argument that beyond this point no possible benefits would justify continued research.

But once it is agreed that there is such a point, it is hard to see what relevance a discussion of the putative benefits has, other than to cloud the issue with excessive emotionalism. Whether this point is 0 days or 14 days, or some other time, must be considered independently of the possible benefits of experimentation.

Argument 2. Eggs and sperm are both human and alive. Human life is a continuum, there is no such thing as the "start of life".

This argument relies on a confusion of terms. Firstly, eggs and sperm are human and alive but this does not make them human beings, any more than are blood cells.

Secondly, the "start of life" in this context clearly refers to the start of life of a particular human being, not to the primordial "start of life". It is certainly true that new living human beings derive from pre-existing living human beings (their parents) via living gametes. In this sense life is a continuum. But this in no way implies that individual human beings do not have a beginning or an end.

Bertrand Russel forms part of the continuum of life in that he had ancestors in the time of Socrates, and has descendants alive today. But Russel himself was not alive in the time of Socrates, and is not alive today. Russel, like all human beings, had a finite life span with a beginning and an end, and it makes sense to state that his beginning was his conception. (See section (2) below).

Argument 3. Life begins at fourteen days.

This argument comes perilously close to self-contradiction. Fourteen days from what? If the answer is "fourteen days from fertilisation", this burkes the question "why measure development from fetilisation if fertilisation is not the start?" If whatever is supposed to happen at fourteen days marked the start of life, surely this would be called day zero, and development would be measured from this point.

However every embryology book dates development from fertilisation. Whatever can be said about the various stages of development, there is no serious doubt that the start of the process is fertilisation, and even the language used by those supporting destructive experimentation concedes this.

Argument 4. The case against embryo experimentation involves forcing religious views upon others, for it is based upon the idea that the soul enters the body at conception.

This argument puts the cart before the horse. In fact, those who believe in a soul do not usually argue that conception is the start of the organism because that is when the soul appears. Rather they argue that hominisation takes place at conception precisely because this marks the biological start of the organism. Thus theological opinion has placed hominisation at differing times, and only tended to adopt conception after the biological nature of fertilisation was demonstrated in the late 1700's.

But in any case, opposition to killing human embryos is not based upon the existence of a spiritual soul any more than is opposition to the killing of adults. There is no more reason to accuse those opposing the destruction of human embryos of "forcing religious views on others", than there is to similarly accuse those opposing nuclear weapons, or apartheid.

In fact, arguments explicitly referring to a spiritual soul have been used by the pro-experimentation lobby, e.g. the curious argument advanced by the Archbishop of York that, if embryos have souls, "The vast majority of souls destined for eternal life will be those whose earthly life has never been anything other than embryonic".

We note firstly that, since infant mortality has been high throughout human history, a similar argument would indicate that newborn babies do not have souls. Secondly, given the much vaunted commitment to "moral pluralism" of those supporting destructive embryo research, and their rejection of the imposition of Christian ethics upon society, it is surprising to find some advancing arguments concerning the demography of heaven.


(a) The Biological View

Biology is not our field of expertise, but we would point out that in a biological context, as opposed to a political context, it is generally assumed without controversy that the life of a human being begins at fertilisation. E.g. the first question set in the text book "The Developing Human - Clinically Oriented Embryology" (K. L. Moore, W. B. Sounders Company 1988) is "1. When does a new human being begin to develop?" to which the answer given in the back of the book is "The development of a human being begins with fertilisation, a process by which a sperm from a male unites with an ovum from a female". Such statements are to be found in virtually any embryology book. When those scientists promoting research say that life begins at some other point, or speak of "grey areas", they are evidently using different criteria from those they use in a professional context.

(b) The Philosophical View

Philosophical considerations end support to the traditional scientific view of the start of life. There are indeed very strong reasons for believing that fertilisation marks a leap in ethical status. Firstly, any egg (or sperm) could in principle go to make up any one of a very large number of different human beings, depending upon which spem (or egg) it unites with. Each would be a different person, e.g. fifty percent of sperms fertilising an egg would result in a male and the other fifty percent in a female. Thus at fertilisation we have for the first time an entity which we can identify with the later foetus, newborn, teenager, etc.

Secondly, the fertilised egg is the first entity whch could possess the "right to life" pertaining to the new individual. As we have seen neither the egg nor the sperm alone can be identified with the future organism. Moreover an egg-sperm pair, prior to fertilisation, could not possess a "right to life", as there are many such pairs involving each egg (and also in principle, each sperm). If the person that would be formed by fertilisation of an egg by one particular sperm has a "right to life", then what about all the people that would have been formed by different sperms fertilising the same egg? A contradiction would be involved if they all had a right to life. Once fertilisation has occurred, no such contradiction is involved in holding that the zygote must not be attacked.

These arguments carry substantial weight from a philosophical point of view, and we have been surprised not to have heard them given their due in the public debate.

Professor Elizabeth Anscombe University of Cambridge
Dr David Braine University of Aberdeen
Dr Alexander Broadie University of Glasgow
Dr William Charlton University of Edinburgh
Professor Stephen Clarke University of Liverpool
Revd. Fr. Brian Davies O. P. University of Oxford
Dr Nicholas Dent University of Birmingham
Professor Michael Dummett University of Oxford
D. J. Edwards University of Oxford
Dr Wainwright Evans University of Cambridge
Professor Peter Geach University of Leeds
Professor John Finnis University of Oxford
Dr Kieran Flanagan University of Bristol
Professor Phillips Griffiths University of Warwick
Dr Rosalind Hursthouse The Open University
Dr Theresa Iglesias Linace Centre
Robert Sherlaw Johnson University of Oxford
Dr L J Macfarlane University of Aberdeen
Dr Christopher Martin University of Glasgow
Dr Howard Robinson University of Liverpool
Professor Roger Scruton University of London
Dr Janice Soskice University of Cambridge
Dr Guy Stock University of Glasgow
Professor Christopher Williams University of Bristol

March 1990