A review of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. By Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen.

Doubleday, 2008.

In this important volume two philosophers with interests in bioethics and law make the case for the moral worth of the human embryo from non-religious grounds. The case instead is made with a combination of science (biology, embryology, genetics) and moral philosophy.

Thus this book covers a wide range of topics, and deals with the various technologies that threaten the human embryo, from abortion to cloning and embryonic stem cell research. Much of the discussion focuses on the scientific questions: what is an embryo, how is it formed and developed, and so on.

The authors show that at fertilisation a new and distinct human organism comes into existence. The newly formed zygote is genetically unique, and its sex is established. This newly formed zygote is genetically distinct from either of its two parents.

Image of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life
Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert P. George (Author) Amazon logo

When sperm and oocyte unite, there is a new human individual which comes into existence. It is a “single, unified, and self-integrated biological system”, argue the authors, which is on a “developmental trajectory” toward a mature stage of human being.

The authors remind us that the zygote is no longer some functional part of either parent, but a “unique organism, distinct and whole, albeit at the very beginning of a long process of development to adulthood”. All the mother does from now on is provide nutrition and a safe environment for the embryo to grow.

And this growth is internally directed. It contains within itself all the “genetic programming and epigenetic characteristics necessary to direct its own biological growth”. It is a complete or whole organism, in the very early stages of development. And the changes from embryo to fetus to child to adult, etc., are simply changes in degree, not changes in kind.

Thus the scientific question is easily answered. This is a wholly new and distinct genetic individual. And it of course is fully human. But questions arise as to whether this new human embryo is in fact a person. Here the authors move from science to philosophy.

For science cannot answer these sorts of questions. Thus the need for moral philosophy. And here the authors take on all the leading critics of the personhood of the human embryo. Peter Singer, Lee Silver, Judith Jarvis Thompson, Michael Tooley and others are all interacted with.

Drawing on a rich history of philosophical discussion, going back at least to Plato, the authors seek to establish the substance or essence of an entity, in distinction to its various characteristics or properties. Distinction, in other words, must be made between the kind of thing an entity is, and its accidental or contingent properties. For example, being left-handed or red-haired is not an essential feature of personhood, but is simply an accidental property.

Utilitarian and consequentialist definitions of personhood fail to make this important distinction. Thus personhood is tied up with functionality and activity, instead of one’s innate nature or essence. So persons are described as those with sentience, or self-consciousness, or various other functions. But the authors argue that the utilisation of these accidental properties is not the same as our fundamental nature or substance.

The various abilities to reason, communicate, make free choices, and perform other functions of course are not fully formed in the embryo, or even in a young child. They take time to mature and properly develop. But the capacity to perform such functions is with us from the very beginning. Each new human being “comes into existence possessing the internal resources to develop such capacities”.

Thus human beings live personal lives, argue the authors. These lives are “characterised by a certain range of potentialities, which need not be fully instantiated or realized all at once or to the same degree in all cases”.

The bulk of this book then takes on the various arguments made against the personhood of the embryo, and these functionalist definitions of personhood. Various philosophical and moral challenges and objections are carefully dealt with. Specific issues such as brain death, twinning, natural embryo loss, lifeboat ethics, surplus embryos, and other problems are discussed in detail. Challenges from cloning and other new reproductive technologies are also addressed. Finally, political, technological and cultural recommendations are made, based on this understanding of the complete humanity and personhood of the human embryo.

This is a very fine book that covers most of the bases in what is often a highly emotive and controversial debate. The scientific, moral and philosophical case for the worth of the embryo is here clearly and dispassionately made. The authors have produced a welcome addition to the growing body of pro-life literature.

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16 Replies to “A review of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. By Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen.”

  1. What about the imago Dei (Gen.1:26-7; 5:1, 3; 9:6)? However we define it, whatever content we breathe into that concept, does that not define what personhood is? And does that not begin at conception? (It would be entirely arbitrary to contend that at some point ‘t’ in the gestation process the child before ‘t’ is not in the image of God, but afterwards he is) Surely that is all we need to outlaw abortion, and all the other horrors which modern godless technology has unleashed?
    Of course, this is not available to the humanist, but he is in a dilemma in his evolutionary world as to what to make of personhood, and how to establish morals and altruism. Just look at the intellectual gymnastics of Richard Dawkins!
    Murray Adamthwaite

  2. Thanks Murray

    Yes the authors would agree with you, but they chose to make a non-religious argument for the personhood of the embryo, and even managed to get a secular publisher to run with it. Both secular and religious cases can be made here.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Thanks Bill. This book is important.

    Murray, Christians should be convinced easily enough by the imago Dei argument, but our society is in general mostly comprised of those who are either notionally Christian or openly non-Christian. One needs to be realistic and accept that unless we have a revival, to get abortion banned and labelled for what it is, a type of murder, we need to convince the politicians of the validity of the secular reasons to do so. One could argue that Wilberforce in opposing slavery, although motivated by Christian reasons used secular arguments and tactics to help him.

    Sure we’d love to see the people of our nation saved, but this not happening now is no excuse to not do everything we can to oppose one of the most brutal, inhumane forms of murder.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  4. New Scientist admitted (189(2543):8–9, 18 March 2006):

    The task force finds that the new recombinant DNA technologies indisputably prove that the unborn child is a whole human being from the moment of fertilization, that all abortions terminate the life of a human being, and that the unborn child is a separate human patient under the care of modern medicine.

    However, New Scientist has a long history of christophobia, atheopathy and lefty liberal politics, so it obfuscates with:

    The point at which life acquires personhood is not something biology can settle…

    It is ironic that it is usually the pro-aborts who avoid the science and spruik forth with such airy-fairy quasi-religious concepts as when a ‘person’ begins. Yet the pro-aborts blast opposition to abortion as ‘religious’ (although it is in the sense that science can’t tell us it’s wrong to murder) when they are the ones appealing to religious concepts, while the pro-lifers point out scientific facts.

    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

  5. Natural law philosophers like George seem to be making the salient point that it is the metaphysical definition of a human being that grounds the case for pro-life.

    I agree completely. I believe it is the Descarte/Lockean metaphysics that unfortunately supplies the ammunition for pro-abortionists. It is the seperation of the definition of the fundamental, essential person to be something distinct from the human biological/species-being. If the latter definition, which stems from Aristotle and Aquinas, is taken, then it is impossible to declare the fetus to be anything but a person from the moment of conception. This is because there is something essentially biological (though not only so) about a human being.

    So it seems imperative to me that Christians not fall for the modernist/mechanist definition of nature and “ghost in the machine” definition of spirit.

    Damien Spillane

  6. I might be missing something here, but I have to agree with Murray Adamthwaite and disagree with Matthew Mulvaney. It may be possible to make a ‘non-religious’ argument for the personhood of the embryo, but I fail to see how one can make a ‘non-religious’ argument that a person should not be arbitrarily killed. Some of the more truthful pro-abortionists even concede that this is what abortion is. The problem is that if one believes in evolution, then one believes there is no absolute moral code and that humans are no more valuable than the animals – therefore in this view there is nothing morally wrong with abortion.

    What Matthew and others are really doing when they say that Christians should limit themselves to only using ‘secular’ arguments when debating with ‘secular’ people, is conceding ground to the secularists. It is to say “we abandon Christianity as a credible worldview and concede that your ‘secular’ worldview is true so we will confine ourselves to arguing on your terms.” The culture-wars, of which abortion is part, is really just a battle of competing worldviews, so I don’t see how giving up our Christian worldview is going to help us win in long run.

    Another point to reinforce this is to remember that the so-called ‘non-religious’ secularists are anything but non-religious. There is no such thing as a non-religious worldview. Secularism is just another false religion. So wherever possible we ought to be challenging the truth claims of this false religion and presenting Christianity as the more credible (and true) alternative. Do we ever see the secularists when trying to win an argument with Christians, confining themselves only to biblical arguments? Yet this is exactly what Christians are doing when they erroneously think that they shouldn’t use theological or biblical arguments against the secularists.

    I am not saying only to use biblical arguments, but rather that we should not be afraid to use both ‘secular’ and biblical arguments against abortion regardless of whether our opponents happen to believe the Bible or not. To do otherwise is akin to being ashamed of the Gospel.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  7. Ewan, what I was trying to say was that sometimes to do things you need to use secular arguments. You may present the Christian arguments, but to get a majority of the houses of parliament to outlaw abortion unless things change dramatically you need to be accept that Christian reasons will not be enough. If they were enough to convince our politicians, abortion would have been banned years ago. Convince some with Christian arguments and for whom that fails you can then convince with secular reasons. You don’t change your Christian motivation, you just increase the likelihood that people will come to see abortion for what it is.
    Matthew Mulvaney

  8. There’s one more thing I should added in my comment in response to Ewan. If you can convince people that abortion is wrong, then they are agreeing with one more thing with us than before. Hopefully that will make them more likely to become a Christian in the long run. My original comment was brief and shouldn’t have appeared to be opposing the presentation of Christian arguments if I had spent more time on it. I fully support presenting Christian arguments, but I feel that your average non-Christian will not be convinced by the imago Dei (“image or likeness of God”) argument. They will probably think that if Christians have a problem with abortion they don’t have to have them, why should we interfere with other people who don’t have the same problem? That’s where the secular arguments can come in and do some good.

    I believe the world will never fully live up to God’s standards until Jesus enforces them, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do what we can now to try and help our nation live up to as much of God’s standards as possible. Revival would be great, but if we just sit around waiting and hoping for one, we may as well just give up the fight now against abortion as impossible.

    If the secular book helps save just one innocent child it’s worthwhile.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  9. Ewan,

    I understand your argument and I agree that we should never be ashamed to make a defense using the Bible, but even the apostle Paul understood that people of different beliefs required different approaches in his ministry. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 comes to my mind in this case. I realize that this scripture is focused mostly on preaching the Gospel but it can apply here as well.

    It’s good to be well versed in both Biblical and secular arguments so that we may effective when conversing with those who may not be religious. I’ve found that those who aren’t religious close their minds when you use religious arguments.

    Victoria Demona

  10. I was just thinking and a good example came to mind, the story of Esther. Although God is not mentioned in Esther it is clear that he was at work powerfully in the story. Esther and the rest of the Jews fasted for three days. Then she went to the king dressed in her royal clothes and the King was pleased and spared her. She then asked the King and Haman to dine with her at a banquet. The King was pleased with her, his curiosity aroused asked her again what she wanted. Having got the king on side, she asked him to save the lives of her and her people. And the King allowed the Jews to take up arms and defend themselves and Haman was hanged.

    Not once do we read of Esther providing a non-secular argument to persuade the King and yet she had a hugely dramatic effect.

    Or think of a more modern example. Barnes Wallis, a Christian was an aircraft designer and he wanted to work out a way to shorten WWII as this would save many lives. He ended up coming up with the now famous Dam Buster bomb and two kinds of ‘earthquake bomb’, the Tallboy and the Grand Slam. I highly doubt he would have gone around trying to convince people to produce the bombs by saying that he felt God wanted him to make the bomb to shorten the war. But when he was rewarded for his work, he spent it on the education of children of RAF people who died in the war giving a Christian example to support his views (David not accepting water from well obtained by men who risked their lives).

    There is definitely a place for using secular arguments, although we should never lose sight of our Christian motivation. It’s easy enough to explain personal choices through Christian reasons, but when you want non-Christians to share your opposition to things such as abortion, secular arguments come in useful.

    Matthew Mulvaney

  11. Ewan said

    “What Matthew and others are really doing when they say that Christians should limit themselves to only using ’secular’ arguments when debating with ’secular’ people, is conceding ground to the secularists. It is to say “we abandon Christianity as a credible worldview and concede that your ’secular’ worldview is true so we will confine ourselves to arguing on your terms.” The culture-wars, of which abortion is part, is really just a battle of competing worldviews, so I don’t see how giving up our Christian worldview is going to help us win in long run.”

    So the argument goes like this

    1. Matthew advocates using secular arguments against abortion.

    2. Therefore Matthew concedes ground to the secularists and admits that this worldview is true.

    I’m sorry but this doesn’t follow. One can use philosophical arguments against abortion (isn’t this what George and others like Francis Beckwith have done?) with out conceding ground to the secularist. One can use philosophical reasoning within the purview of the Biblical worldview without actually quoting it. I would suggest this is a far more reasonable way of engagement in the public square than quoting Bible verses.

    The Bible needs to be argued FOR in the public square and not argued FROM. This is because society is so dismissive of the credibility of the Bible today.

    Damien Spillane

  12. Speaking of secular reasoning. I put up a little post on the incest case in Australia that came up a few days ago. I quote Robert George and his argument from natural law against toying with the traditional definition of marriage and family – http://www.themidnightsun.org/?p=2277


    Damien Spillane

  13. To Matthew & Victoria,

    As is clear from the concluding remarks of my previous comment, I most certainly do support the use of so-called ‘secular’ arguments against abortion. My point is that it is a mistake for Christians to think that just because their opponents don’t believe the Bible then that makes all so-called religious arguments invalid or useless.

    Matthew says that if Christian arguments “were enough to convince our politicians, abortion would have been banned years ago.” The reality is that abortion was banned years ago. It is because the church abandoned its role as salt and light that enabled abortion to be ‘un-banned’ in the first place. Christian influence has been lost from our parliaments not because the Christian worldview failed, but because it has been abandoned. And tragically it was abandoned first by the church.

    The thinking that Christians shouldn’t use biblical arguments against their ‘secular’ counterparts has its roots in the fallacious concept of Christian dualism that says, among other unhelpful things, that religion and politics shouldn’t mix. Christians need to reject this unbiblical idea and start defending their worldview once more.

    Ewan McDonald, Victoria.

  14. Can Damien and others please read what I’ve actually said instead of putting words in my mouth.

    To repeat again:

    I’ve not said secular arguments against abortion should not be used. Where the ground is conceded is when Christians think biblical arguments have no place in a so-called ‘secular’ setting.

    I’ve nowhere said that we should be “quoting Bible verses”. Not that there is anything wrong with this but my own preference is to do exactly as Damien suggests. That is to use philosophical reasoning to defend the Christian worldview rather than to quote Bible versus.

    Ewan McDonald.

  15. Since I was the one who introduced the imago Dei argument in the first place, and since I have looked at the ebb and flow of argument on this thread, I think I should make a response to the various points raised:

    First: Ewan is entirely correct to point out that abortion was banned, and had been so for centuries (it being mentioned specifically in the Hippocratic oath) until the agitations of Bertram Wainer in the late 1960s, and the so-called “Menhennit ruling” of 1968, opened the floodgates to what we see now. Not that Menhennit had any real clue of the consequences of his ruling, since very few if any of the 90,000+ abortions in Australia each year are performed for the reasons he allowed. But give godless people an inch, and they’ll take a mile.

    Second: I introduced the imago Dei argument precisely because many erstwhile Christians both in the early 1970s and at present are confused on the issue. The humanist arguments have penetrated their minds and as a result they will parrot the humanist line.The church was ‘caught on the hop’ in the 1960s (I remember it well), and even those churches who would claim to be Biblically faithful remain confused, and have been fighting a rearguard action to the present hour. I have even read evangelical books (e.g. Norman Geisler) which allowed for abortion on fairly liberal grounds.

    Third: I support the use of rational, ‘natural’ arguments as support (N.B.) for Biblical ones, but that is all they are – support. By contrast, I fear that there is too much reticence to use and cite Scripture. Why so? Perhaps fear of atheist belligerence, or ridicule for using the “outmoded” ancient book. Whatever, do we believe in the sufficiency of Scripture, or don’t we? Dare we assert that the “sword of the Spirit” is inadequate in our secular world? That we must only fight them on their own grounds? I detect in several of the posts above a lack of confidence in God’s Word, which we are told is “sharper than any two-edged sword”. No, I am told, we must lower our standards to those of the world. I say with Spurgeon, who declared that he would never “defend the Bible”, for, he said, “God’s Word is like a caged lion. Just open the cage door and let him out. He’ll do his own defending”!

    Murray Adamthwaite

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