Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I, Zygote

Note: I first posted this in May of 2005, but though it was worth re-posting in light of recent developments.

When did I start being me? And when did you start being you?

Timely questions, since the ethics of embryonic stem cell is much in the news. I, and you, were once embryos. The pivotal question, of course, is who or what we were when we were embryos, and what rights (if any) accrued to us then: all the debates about whether it's permissible to create, use, and destroy human embryos for purposes of medical research flow from this.

Let's not consider -- yet -- what benefits might come from such research. No doubt many wonderful medical advances would be gained by expanding the pool of of research subjects and organ donors to include involuntary participants like convicted felons or the mentally debilitated. But respect for the rights of those potential subjects keeps us from extracting almost-certain medical benefits from them, and from censuring the defenders of their rights as anti-technology bio-luddites.

So, back to the question. When did I start being me? Well, some of the things that make me who I am are my inherited traits, which include not only eye color and hair color, but also, apparently, higher-level traits like personality and sexual orientation. Twin studies seem to bear out the idea that personal identity is intimately intertwined with genetics.

Then when did my personal genome come into being? My high school biology tells me that it happened when a sperm cell from my father fertilized an egg from my mother, and they shared genetic material. Thus my personal genetic code had its first, distinct instantiation in a zygote.

At that point, things started happening pretty fast, if I understand this article properly (and I'm not completely sure I do). I think it says that my genes started the process of expression -- that is, putting my genetic information into action, into the building of a mature human being -- right away, even before the zygote implanted itself in my mom's uterine wall some days later.

Was I "being me" at that point? Certainly not as fully as I am "being me" now. But my personal genome -- an unmistakably human genome, and the same one that I have now -- was working furiously to become what I am now, and that continuous, unbroken process has been going on for almost 50 years.

So if I wasn't "me" then, at what point did I become "me"? I certainly became more "me" every day. Some of my genetic traits (such as those controlling my fetal growth pattern) were expressed quite early, some only much later. Important cognitive abilities developed only long after my exit from the womb; apart from my physical appearance, I think there was little in my very early years that would distinguish me from other advanced primates. I can find no distinct point on this continuum of development to which I can point and say that before it I was "not me," and after it I was "me."

Thus it seems that when I was a zygote, I was (1) distinctively human, (2) genetically myself, and (3) actively expressing my distinctive humanity. After all, a golden retriever zygote cannot implant itself and grow in a human uterine wall. I "knew" how to do that because I was being human. Acting human. I was mostly a potential "me," but also, to some (growing) extent, an actual "me." That zygote contained, and was actively in the process of expressing, billions of bits of genetic information that contribute to my identity.

OK, then, what were my rights at this point?

Hmmm. That leads to a bigger question: whence do my rights derive?

One hears commonly that an embryo is "just a lump of tissue," and therefore not deserving of rights. But we know that it's a living, genetically distinct lump that is packed with information gleaned from millions of years of human evolution. In fact, it is precisely the lump's humanity that make it useful for research into human disease. Otherwise we could get those stem cells from some other species' lumps, no?

Some have proposed that zygotes, and their more advanced brethren, embryos, have no claim to the rest of their lives because they lack nerves, brains, consciousness, etc. But we perform painful and death-dealing experiments on all sorts of creatures (e.g., rats, rabbits, primates) that are fully sentient, and perhaps self-aware. Yet we do not perform them on infant humans, whose cognitive development (or lack thereof) would put them on a par with many primate subjects. If sentience is the relevant criterion, I can't see how this makes sense.

Peter Singer, the renowned Princeton philosopher, proposes to resolve this problem by stopping experimentation on all creatures that can suffer: their right to physical integrity, he argues, derives from this capacity. But he also proposes that people should have the option to euthanize handicapped babies or incapacitated adults, because, for him, the right to life derives from the ability to plan and anticipate one's future.

Singer's argument is coherent, but his starting point for the right to life seems to me rather arbitrary. If it's OK to euthanize an infant who turns out to have a serious genetic disorder, why not one whom you just don't want? Or why not a 20-year-old incurable schizophrenic whose future life is almost certain to be extremely painful to himself and others? I've no doubt that mental hospitals could arrange gentle and painless deaths for such unlucky people. Still, I don't assent to such practices, and I doubt most people would.

The ancient Spartans had an even more utilitarian view than Singer's. A person's right to life was, in practice, pretty much determined by his or her usefulness to the state, and the Spartans took care that non-useful people either wouldn't be produced, or would be eliminated in fairly short order. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus, the (perhaps mythical) founder of the Spartan constitution, arranged the Spartans' sex lives so as to optimize their chances of producing strong offspring, and made provision that weak or unhealthy babies should be disposed of outside the city walls. Training for Spartan youths was so rigorous that it tended to kill the weak; Plutarch records that he himself witnessed several Spartan boys being whipped to death during a particularly brutal trial of strength.

Like Singer's, the Spartan view has a certain cogency, but I have a feeling it would be pretty universally denounced by most Americans.

Thus if my claim to the rest of my life doesn't derive from sentience, or from my ability to anticipate the future, or from my utility to the state, then where does it come from?

Two options seem most salient.

The first is that I simply have no such claim, and never did. I didn't have it as a zygote, or as an embryo, and I don't have it now. I may be granted certain rights by the state that I live in, but those are more or less arbitrarily assigned according to the sentiments of my time and place. And if history teaches us anything, it is that moral sentiments are in constant flux, and that moral sympathies can be extended or withdrawn quite whimsically. Thus for millennia slavery was almost universal, with hardly a scintilla of the moral revulsion it arouses today; thus Babylonian potentates killed their political enemies by impaling them anally over the course of several days, but the EU now considers torture and capital punishment to be barbaric; thus infanticide is both widely practiced and widely reviled; thus Soviet sympathizers applauded Stalin when he wiped out millions through collectivized farming; thus millions of Europeans assented to the hunting down of European Jews, then regretted it, and now are reconsidering; thus I myself felt murderous hatred toward Palestinian women dancing in the streets on September 11, though no doubt their children love them dearly.

In this view, the rights of this or that group may be asserted, but they have no real existence; they are social conventions, which are themselves nothing more than collectively-defined preferences. Concepts of "good" and "evil" would also be mere conventions. In this view, though I myself would probably adhere to the conventions of the day, I'd be hard pressed to say why. And as for embryonic stem-cell research -- why not? Maybe someone to whom my sympathies happened to extend would benefit from it. But then why not do research on anesthetized, unwanted babies (who would then of course be painlessly euthanized)? They could be a great source of organs for wanted babies. What criterion -- besides convention or fickle moral sentiment -- could I adduce to object to such a practice? I can't think of one.

But I don't really like this option.

Rather, I adhere to the view that human life has intrinsic value, quite separate from convention or moral feeling, though convention and feeling may (and should) recognize that value. Because of that intrinsic value, I bridle at the merely instrumental use of a human being -- whether as a slave, or as a research subject, or even as the fulfillment of a parent's ambitions.

The creation of a human life as an instrumentality, or the reduction of it to such a state, even if it is only embryonic, is deeply troubling to me. Painful, too -- because to some extent my moral sympathies do extend to such human beings. Not because they suffer, but just because they are.

It is also painful to be confronted with horrifying diseases and disabilities like Parkinson's and Alzheimers along with the admonition, if only you'll let us experiment on these embryos, great good will come of it. No one will suffer! No one will be missed! It sounds wonderful.

But no one would suffer if we made full use of Peter Singer's unwanted babies, either. If we can experiment on them painlessly at 6 days of embryonic development, and do the same at 6 months post partum . . . why shouldn't we?