God and the Embryo: Religious Voices on Stem Cells and Cloning

By Brent Waters; Ronald Cole-Turner | Go to book overview

FOUR
Does the Human Embryo Have a
Moral Status?

BRENT WATERS

The title of this essay is admittedly awkward. The more customary phrasing would be What is the moral status of the human embryo? But, as I will try to demonstrate, the customary phrasing is problematic because, in light of the contemporary nature of public moral deliberation, any eventual answer must exclude normative claims or convictions. In other words, the moral status of the human embryo is assigned in response to procedural considerations rather than reflecting an ontological standing or intrinsic value.

Pondering the moral significance of the human embryo is not a new activity. Theologians and philosophers, for instance, have pondered the perennially vexing issue of when something like a “soul” animates or is present in the human body. Augustine remained uncertain whether a soul was present in a fetus that dies in its mother's womb,1 whereas Thomas Aquinas asserted that a soul is present at an unspecified point following conception.2 Neither is there any agreement among modern writers, whose views range from a soul being integral with a living human body at any stage of its development3 to an emergent soul dependent on certain minimal levels of cerebral function4 to its irrelevance for religious belief and practice.5 Nor is any greater theological or philosophical consensus achieved when the term “person” is exchanged for “soul,” because there is bitter contention over what characteristics constitute personhood.6

Although contemplating the moral significance of the human embryo is not a new issue, we are now attempting to discern this significance within a

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