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November 04, 2008
Joe the Embryo
By Father Thomas Berg *

By Father Thomas Berg *

Samuel J. Wurzelbacher -- alias Joe the Plumber -- has put up with a lot since he was thrust into the limelight in mid October.  Ultimately, he was submitted to cyberspace death by a thousand MSM incisions into his private life. Consequently, the entire universe has gotten to know Mr. Wurzelbacher rather well. I can only sympathize with him and wish him all the best.

 

But here is another fact -- a scientific fact to be sure -- about Joe the Plumber:  he was once Joe the embryo.

 

To paraphrase an explanation recently proffered by Dr. Robert George:

 

Joe the plumber's life began, as did the life of every other human being, when the fusion of egg and sperm produced a new, complete, living organism -- an embryonic human being. Joe was never an ovum or a sperm cell; those were both functionally and genetically parts of other human beings -- Joe's parents. But Joe was once an embryo, just as he was once an adolescent, a child, an infant, and a fetus. By an internally directed process, Joe developed from the embryonic stage into and through the fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages of development and ultimately into adulthood with his determinateness, unity, and identity fully intact. Joe is the same being -- the same human being -- who once was an embryo.

 

The amazing, tragic and unfathomable thing is how many people just don't get this. 

 

Many thoughtful people will concede, if push comes to shove, that an embryo is a human organism.  Recently, Dr. Maureen Condic, a Senior Fellow of the Westchester Institute, published a white paper in which, from her scientific vantage point as an embryologist, she pinpoints the very instance at which a human organism comes into existence. As she points out, the "moment of conception" is no longer a mystery; it can be determined down to the millisecond.

 

But even getting some to grant this -- that the human embryo is a living, human organism -- can be like pulling teeth, as it was in dealing with some of my colleagues on the ethics committee of the Empire State Stem Cell Board. At our May 13th session of last year, after much debate, we were finally able to garner some kind of consensus around the definition of embryo which -- per chance -- appeared in the very strategic plan we were also about to vote on. That definition -- taken verbatim from the National Institutes of Health -- reads:

 

Embryo:  In humans, the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation, when it is called a fetus (emphasis my own).

 

But even granting that the human embryo is an organism, and that we can know precisely when this new organism comes into existence, many will still deny -- based on I cannot understand what logic -- that the embryo is a person. 

 

With my same colleagues at the ethics committee, in discussion about the status of the human embryo, I recall opening my comments by reading the first pages of Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert George and Christopher Tollefesen. There, the authors relate the story about the recovery of 1,400 embryos during Hurricane Katrina, including the embryo that was Noah Benton Markham who was born 16 months later. The excerpt stated that if the officers had not recovered the canisters of liquid nitrogen, "the toll of Katrina would have been 1,400 human beings higher...and Noah, sadly, would have perished before having the opportunity to meet his loving parents." I then asked my colleagues if any of them would disagree with the affirmation that Noah Benton Markham was rescued from the hospital in September 2006.  Not to my surprise, one of my colleagues (whose own son happens to be named Noah), with candid intellectual honesty replied that, yes, in fact he would disagree with that statement. He held, rather, that Noah came into existence some time after that embryo was rescued.

 

When pressed, many thoughtful Americans would say the same.

 

I respectfully submit that they assume this to be the case -- that we come into the world as embryos, but "become" persons at some later state of gestation -- oblivious to the problematic upshots of such a contention:  the anthropological dualism it entails [My thinking self is some other thing than the organism I use which came into existence at conception] and the arbitrariness it lays itself open to [So, we "become" persons at what stage? At 14 days? At 21 days? 22 days? And why not 23 days or after 7 weeks of gestation?].

 

As I explained elsewhere last month, there is a logic of biological facts which underlies the mystery of our coming into existence. That logic can enable anyone to see that if today I am an individual human organism of the species homo sapiens, endowed with tremendous potentials and certain inalienable rights, this also had to be the case of the embryo I once was.

 

          We can only become what we already are.

          Rhesus monkey embryos don't become gold fish.

          Human embryos don't become salamanders.

            

And if it is the case that all human persons are living human organisms; and that all living human organisms begin to exist at conception (or as the result of IVF or cloning); then all human persons begin to exist at natural conception (or as the result of IVF or cloning).

 

The organism that person X is today is the same organism that began with the conception that has been biologically, historically and logically identified as the beginning of his or her existence. Consequently, the organism which began at the conception was, and continues to be, the person that person X is today.

 

But somehow, as a nation, far too many of our fellows citizens can't handle, or don't want to handle, that logic.  

 

***

 

I have sought some noble way of ending this column, to close perhaps with some thoughtful quote.

 

But words are failing.

 

From a human perspective, based on what we know of the man, an Obama presidency will be catastrophic for unborn human life -- and consequently for the moral fabric of our nation.

 

I can only contemplate at present the destinies of so many human beings, those yet to be born, those to be created specifically for research purposes, those to come into the world through cloning, many of whom will  be subjected to the added degradation of being cloned through recourse to non-human eggs, those stored and frozen in suspended existential absurdity in IVF labs throughout the world, those who will be aborted under the aegis of an administration that makes access to abortion on demand at any stage of pregnancy the law of the land.

 

And I think of the human beings who will bring all this about.

 

It makes me shudder, but it also makes me turn to prayer; to prayer and to hope.

 

Not to hope for human or political salvation, but to hope in His grace, in whose Hands rest the ultimate destinies of us all -- born and yet to be born. May he bless us, protect us, and have mercy.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).

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