Case Series on Scientific Integrity, Truth, and Consequences: Erroneous Science in Bioethics; The "Delayed Personhood" Debates


Copyright January 1994

In the June, July and August newsletters I addressed my concerns about the disintegrating integrity of the scientific research data and literature on the issue of "delayed personhood". In those articles I presented just a small sample of the blatantly incorrect science which unfortunately has gone unchallenged and been accepted for many years now, and which has been used to ground the arguments for the "delayed" personhood of the early human embryo and human fetus.

Aside from the obvious issue of the total disregard for truth in such scientific claims -- an issue which should be of considerable concern especially to Catholic scientists and engineers -- I have also attempted to briefly indicate to the scientific community the necessarily related consequences of such defective "science" on other academic fields. This includes as well the erroneous philosophical arguments used in bioethics for "delayed fetal personhood" which are grounded on that incorrect science. Such disregard for the objective scientific truth results in absurd and perverse public policies that are already in place. [1, 2]

For example, if during human embryogenesis there is no human being - or maybe a human being but no human person - present until some (arbitrarily) designated biological marker event (e.g., 5-6 days, 14 days, etc.), then these early human embryos and fetuses may be used in myriad kinds of destructive experimental research. This can include being frozen for future use, thrown away, vivisected, cloned and chimeraed with other species, etc. In my articles, however, I demonstrated how virtually every such philosophical bioethics argument for "delayed personhood" was based on incorrect science. Additionally, I provided just a small sampling of the correct scientific data - in accord with the international nomenclature - which thoroughly refutes any pretense of scientific truth or integrity in those "delayed personhood" arguments.

The arguments I have previously addressed concerned the incorrect science used to "prove" any such "delay" in personhood up to the 14-day marker event. In the next three months, I will finish my review of these arguments by addressing the incorrect science which is used from 14-days until after birth. In general these arguments can be categorized as arguments for "brain birth". They claim that there may be a human being present, but there is no human person present at least until:

Each of these two claims can be broken down into two kinds of "philosophical" requirements of personhood: physical "sentience" (or the ability to feel pain and pleasure), and "rational attributes" (or the ability to think, reason, relate with the world around oneself, self-consciousness, choosing, autonomy, etc.).

Is Anybody Home?

Many claim that personhood does not begin until the dawning, or the maturation, of the physical substrate required to sustain either human "rational attributes" or human "sentience" (e.g. the nervous system and/or the brain). There is already a movement by some in legal jurisprudence to formalize the legal concept of "brain birth" as a parallel to the already legal criteria of brain "death" (John Robertson). MacKay argues that there is "NO ONE THERE", or, "NO BODY HOME" before the maturation of the nervous system. Theologians Karl Rahner, Ruff, and Brian Haring claim that the evolution of "persons" parallels the evolution of the cosmos. That is, there is a major leap in embryogenesis with the "evolution" of the cerebral cortex at about 20-45 days. Sass argues for cortical brain-birth at 54 days. Singer and Wells argue for 6 weeks, because consciousness, autonomy and rationality are morally relevant characteristics, consciousness being the most minimal. They claim that at 6 weeks a being is capable of feeling pleasure or pain (sentience), or having experiences and preferring some kinds of experience to others. At that point the being has special moral status. Tauer argues that a "person" emerges with brain activity at about 7 weeks.

Some writers argue for personhood appearing at the 8-week marker event. Lockwood and Goldenring see this stage as the starting point for human personhood because this is the point at which there is integration of the brain as a whole - and thus consciousness. Kushner also argues that consciousness depends on the functioning of the brain at 8 weeks. Shea considers this the time when the newly developing body organs and systems begin to function as a whole under the direction of a functioning brain. Grobstein (in a different article) also argues that at 8 weeks there is a person. He states that the beginning of "life" is not significant, but rather the manifestation of "self". Until 8 weeks he argues, the human embryo lacks the two essential aspects of personhood: affective recognizability by other people, and internal conscious awareness. Gertler argues that 5 months is the proper marker, when "brain birth" begins. Human cognition, he claims, is distinctive of "persons", and is indicated by the beginning of the formation of EEG waves in the neocortex around 5 months.

Invalid Parallel

There is, however, no scientific evidence which demonstrates the parallel between "rational attributes" and the organizing of the nervous system -- as pointed out, for example, by the Board for Social Responsibility in London. Moreover, many writers, such as Jones, have argued that the parallelism between brain death and brain life is invalid. Brain death, he points out, is the gradual or rapid cessation of the function of the brain. Brain birth is the very gradual acquisition of a function of a developing neural system. Jones argues that this developing neural system is not a brain. He also questions the entire assumption, and asks what neurological reasons there might be for concluding that an incapacity for consciousness becomes a capacity for consciousness once this point is passed.

The nervous system of the 8-week old fetus is quite different from that of the seven or eight month old fetus, let alone that of the two-year old child. The nervous system of the eight week old fetus is not a miniature person of the young child's brain. It is very incomplete, and its functioning is at a different level from that of the late fetus or young child. What follows from this, Jones adds, is that at present it is impossible to recognize a distinct point of transition from a "non-brain" to a "brain", or from a non-functioning nervous system to a functioning one. He also argues that it is impossible to recognize a distinct point of transition from a "non-person" or a "person". Indeed, as Jones points out, such considerations are in fact drawn from "potential" arguments which these very writers are supposed to be arguing against! Although one might claim that it is the cerebral cortex which is central to higher thought processes in the postnatal human, the first appearance of cortical progenitors during embryogenesis can only be considered as potential personhood. He comments that it is "surprising" that the proponents of such arguments do not bring this fact out.

Jones examines the parallel that is made between these early neural structures and sentience. The earliest that immature EEG activity can be obtained in very limited areas of the cerebral hemispheres is fourteen weeks. Even this responsiveness to pain is poorly localized at this stage. This is problematic in that the initial time of electrical activity appearing in the fetal brain is of an amorphous nature and thus difficult to determine with precision. With regard to pain, there is no way of knowing whether a behavioral response sensed as pain is experienced in the same way by an early fetus with a rudimentary nervous system. In view of these data, it is difficult to have any empirical assurance that specific developmental stages can be associated with concepts such as "differentiation" or "integration". Neither can one assert empirically that "there is conscious awareness from the eight-week stage onward".

[Part IV of this dialectic shall be presented in the February CASE Bulletin.]



Copyright February 1994

Many writers argue that "personhood" is not present unless there is the actual exercising of higher "rational attributes" or "sentience". Yet it is critical to note immediately that empirically we do know that complete physiological brain integration, and thus the complete exercising of "rational attributes", is not complete until many years after birth. Thus any arguments for personhood which rely on the actual presence of the physical brain as a substrate needed in order to sustain either "rational attributes" or "sentience", or any arguments which rely on the actual exercising of "sentience" or "rational attributes", must argue for personhood occurring sometime well after birth. This means that before that time there is no "person" present with moral or legal rights or protections.

Thus some writers have quite logically argued for years for the moral permissibility of the infanticide of even normal healthy infants and young children (e.g., Tris Engelhardt, Michael Tooley, Peter Singer, Wells, Helga Kuhse). At least they are logically consistent. As Singer, the animal rights activist, so starkly put it years ago:

"Now, it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the new born baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel pain (sentience), and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee." (emphases added)

Note carefully Singer's words above -- he is not just identifying disabled newborn human children; he is explicitly talking about normal healthy newborn human children - even one-year olds.

Such is, indeed, the correct logical conclusion which must be drawn if one defines "personhood" only in terms of either "rational attributes" or "sentience". One must also conclude, logically, that the following list of human beings are not persons: patients with Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease, the mentally ill, drunks, alcoholics, the depressed, the comatose, patients in PVS, anencephalic children, paraplegics, stroke victims, etc. Then, it is argued, if they are not "persons", then they also do not have the same moral or legal rights and protections as persons. Considering the new health care reforms and the allocation of scarce medical resources, it is reasonable (and logical) to assume that such "merely" human beings will be the first to be triaged.

Nine Criticisms:

There are several general criticisms which I want to point out about the above arguments, criticisms for which they never seem to give any responses:

(1) Many of the writers define a human "person" in terms of "rational attributes" only. Yet philosophically this is a very rationalistic definition, drawn from a philosophical theory with a typical mind/body split. But if there is a real split between the mind and the body, then there can be no interaction between the physiological substrate for which they argue and the "rational attributes" which those physiological substrates are supposed to be supporting. Others will define a human "person" in terms of "sentience" only. Yet this is a very materialistic definition, drawn from an empiricist philosophical school of thought which also has very serious theoretical problems of its own. Nowhere do these writers either acknowledge their own philosophical presuppositions or argue successfully for their respective definitions of a human being or a human person.

(2) A related issue is the massive confusion that has been perpetrated with the use of the terms "potential person" and "possible person". For example, when they claim that the early human embryo or later human fetus is only a "potential person", they are arguing that the embryo or fetus is not yet a human being, or a human person -- but might be one somewhere down the line of embryological development. At the embryo or early fetal stages, however, there is only a potential person (and therefore these earlier stages do not possess the same moral or legal rights yet). They might argue that the early human embryo or fetus is only a "possible person", i.e., if they are not aborted, or if they are implanted, or if the parents "want" them, etc., then later they will be "persons" -- if such circumstances allow.

These confusing and incorrect terms are a result of the mangling of the classical philosophical term of "potency" - a term used by both Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas to designate an already actually existing human nature with specifically human capacities or powers. For both of them, there is no such thing as a "rational" soul alone - the vegetative and sensitive powers of the soul are always included virtually in the rational soul. Nor can the soul exist in this life without the body. No splits allowed! As St. Thomas notes, the name of "person" does not belong to the rational soul alone, nor to the whole soul alone - but to the entire existing soul-body complex. That entire complex is formed at fertilization - when the matter is appropriately formed! "Rational attributes" and "sentience" are, after all, only powers of a human nature - they do not constitute human nature itself. That is, from fertilization on, there is present an already existing human being who is simultaneously a human person. Repeat: human nature and human personhood are both immediately present at fertilization. There is no human being/person split possible.

Thus, the human zygote, embryo, fetus, etc., have a specifically human potency. All one has to do to determine if there is a "human being" present is to count the number of chromosomes in the single zygote cell - "46", voila, "human being" (it isn't a cabbage or a giraffe!). Immediately after fertilization, specifically human proteins and enzymes, specifically human tissues and organ systems are produced - activities which could not be explained in terms of a purely "vegetative" or "sensitive" human "soul". Thus the rational soul must be there from the beginning - if it is a human being. The only thing "potential" about it is its power or capacity to develop, i.e., grow bigger and more complex, during embryogenesis. It is an already existing human being with already existing specifically human potencies, including the potential to GROW. It does not possess the potential to change its very nature. Once that human nature is there at fertilization, then external circumstances surrounding its fate do not change its very internal nature. Thus it is not a "possible person". It is an already existing human being-person, regardless of what circumstances fate has in store for it.

(3) It is critical to understand that the precondition for the above mentioned physiological substrates for either "rational attributes" or for "sentience" (e.g., nerve net or brain) is the single cell human zygote itself. Remember, the single sperm or single oocyte, which each contain only "23" chromosomes (although the oocyte does so only after it is fertilized), is not a human being, and cannot grow into a human being alone. So much for the arguments for "preconditions".

(4) In none of their markers is there any real "personal" functioning at all. These stages are all immature stages, and as Jones indicated, full consciousness or full physiological integration or sentience is not complete until years after birth. All of these arguments, then, are arguments from "potential" as incorrectly understood.

(5) The scientific evidence for these claims is very sketchy, vague and controversial. Many scientific critics indicate a reading into the scientific evidence more than is either physiologically or conceptually possible.

(6) Conceptual parallels are often made on which to base distinctions, e.g., evolution theory or the criteria of "brain death". None of these parallels are argued for but are simply posited. Only the similarities are noted; the differences, which could actually contradict the existence of any "parallels", are ignored.

(7) McCormick and Grobstein (CASE - Part II) base their argument for delayed personhood on very definite - but blatantly incorrect - human embryological data. Before 14 days (or 5-6 days, or 8 weeks, depending on which article you read), there is only what they call a "pre-embryo" (which can be experimented on), not a human "person". But Grobstein is not a human embryologist; his research area has been with amphibians. One has to wonder what an amphibian researcher is doing on the Ethics Committee of the American Fertility Society, as well as being an expert on the newly established National Advisory Board on Ethics in (human) Reproduction (NABER). But, then McCormick is on the same Ethics Committees as well.

(8) Even though the term "pre-embryo" is itself an oxymoron, and in spite of the fact that its derivation is based on incorrect science, this term has for the first time appeared in two very influential reference works. It has now been added as a legitimate stage of human embryological development in Keith Moore's latest fifth edition of his popular human embryology text book, The Developing Human. It has also been incorporated in the international edition of Nomina Embryologica, which thus officially and internationally sanctions the new category of "pre-embryo" as a scientifically legitimate classification of a stage during human embryogenesis. Thus human embryology text books around the world will now be required, for all intents and purposes, to incorporate this term in all the new revisions of human embryology text books.

(9) But in Moore's new sixth edition, he lists the following in his "Clinically Oriented Questions", which appear at the end of each chapter.

Question 5: "A young woman who feared that she might be pregnant asked about the so-called 'morning after pills' (poscoital birth control pills). What would you tell her? Would termination of such an early pregnancy be considered an abortion?" (p. 38) Answer: " ... Ovarian hormones (estrogen) taken in large doses within 72 hours after sexual intercourse will usually prevent implantation of the blastocyst, probably by causing abnormal development of the endometrium. Understand that they prevent implantation, not fertilization. Consequently, they cannot be called contraceptive pills. Pregnancy occurs but the blastocyst does not implant. The term abortion would not be applied to such an early termination of pregnancy." (p. 458)

Hello - Is Anybody Out There? Is Anybody Home?

The science I have been trying to address in the bioethics "personhood" arguments is incorrect. It has led to incorrect definitions of a human "person"; which has led to the incorrect removal of any moral or legal protections as persons - including the right to life (God knows what else will be added to that list); which has led to chaos, confusion and incorrect conclusions in several other important academic fields; which has led to incorrect intellectual "precedents" set in the issue of fetal research and abortion to be transferred to many other bioethics issues which are conceptually related (e.g., organ transplantation, IVF, withdrawal of treatment, euthanasia, etc.,); which has led to the incorporation of many of these other incorrect bioethics conclusions into public policy; and has finally led to the concrete institutionalization of the incorrect bizarre and manipulative term "pre-embryo" (i.e., non-person) in extremely influential human embryology text books and international nomenclature references. Now even embryology text books are incorporating abortion counseling in their chapter sections!

Where is Everybody?

Only scientists can undo all of this incorrect science. Certainly philosophers, theologians, bioethicists, journalists and public policy makers cannot tell the difference. They must rely on the professional expertise of scientists in the field. They must assume that this science is correct.

Now it's your move!

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