March 11, 2008


The Meaning of Life: a review of Embryo by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen (CHRISTOPHER WILLCOX, March 10, 2008, NY Sun)

[T]he gulf between the scientists and the rest of us appears wider than ever, and, judging from the impassioned arguments put forward by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen in "Embryo" (Doubleday, 256 pages, $23.95), what is at stake is the very definition of life itself.

This book is likely to make a lot of people crazy: It is a radical, even audacious, assault on the emerging technologies that would harvest living human embryos for medical research purposes. It is absolutist in its claim that human life begins at fertilization, when the male and female gamete, each bearing 23 complementary chromosomes, combine to create the single-cell zygote that will implant itself in the uterus and, in due course, become a man or woman. The argument's implications, not only for embryonic research but for abortion and some forms of contraception, are obvious: If it's human, you shouldn't kill it. That the argument relies on no sectarian religious tenet will only further aggravate those who disagree — it is much easier, these days, to dismiss religious scruple than scientific fact and logic.

Facts are notoriously stubborn things, and the facts about fetal development have been on a collision course with "settled" law for quite some time. It was no great effort to dismiss the notion of humanity in the womb when there were no sonograms to show expectant parents the fingers and the toes, and it wasn't all that long ago when people thought "the quickening" movement in the womb was the beginning of life. Now we can see for ourselves the continuum that is human gestation. Even Hollywood has figured this one out, dribbling out a series of recent hits that imply abortion is far more morally dangerous than its treatment in earlier movies would imply.

What sets this book apart is its detailed analysis, and its compelling refutation of the arguments for treating embryos as nothing more than a mass of cells suitable for research purposes. Mr. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton, and Mr. Tollefsen, the director of the graduate department of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, begin with a careful examination of the science of embryology, which clearly shows that once fertilization occurs the new life created has "a single, unified and self-integrated biological system and a developmental trajectory." In short, like a fetus, an infant, a child, and an adolescent, the embryo only needs a supportive environment to become an adult human being.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 11, 2008 11:28 AM
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