Here’s a tough little moral puzzler.
It’s reported that embryos are now being screened for some non-fatal conditions, such as dwarfism and deafness, on behalf of parents who suffer from the same conditions. Embryos are then selected for implantation on the basis that they will suffer from the same condition as their parents. The conditions given as examples are those that can be identified with distinct sub-cultures, and the preservation and continuation of cultural identity seem to be at the root.
My instinctive reaction is that this is wrong and should not be allowed, but I’m having a lot of trouble fitting this into a logical framework that I can subscribe to. Of course, I think it’s probably a mistake to expect to fit my moral intuitions into a logical framework, but I can’t help but try.
To start with, two definitions in order to make a distinction: a human is any member of the species homo sapiens, of any age or size, no matter what their age or state of physical or mental health is. A person is anything that is capable of reflecting upon itself, has a sense of identity, and is capable of having experiences of the world around it. Most humans are persons, and all of the persons I know are humans*. I am sure that persons have rights which should be legally protected. I am not sure what rights humans which are not persons are entitled to, although they are entitled to be treated at least as well as other mammals. This does not necessarily preclude being killed, although it does preclude deliberate mistreatment.
If we allow embryo screening, then we’ve already subscribed to the view that human embryos are not persons, which I have no trouble with. Most would agree, I think, that selecting embryos to carry to term on the basis that they would have terminal diseases or have severe developmental diseases would be wrong, because if the embryo has no future other than suffering, it would be cruel to bring it to term. Instead we pick a healthy embryo that we believe can live a life of something other than suffering.
My moral intuition is that people should not be doing this. The best explanation I can come up with for this is that the parents and medical staff in question are actually going out of their way to create a child that is not as healthy as possible, and I think there’s a moral requirement to create the healthiest child possible for a particular couple. Intentionally creating persons to be less healthy than they could be seems wrong, ignoring the fact that the human in some part determines the person (we are products of our genes as well as our environment).
On a related note, I see that Gervase Markham is trying to systematise the legal rules around abortion in Britain in order to try to isolate a legal notion of personhood. I suspect that he knows full well that no such thing exists, and his systematising efforts are an attempt to show, by reductio ad absurdum, that we cannot derive a necessary and sufficient definition of a legal person entitled to protection from death. I think he pretty much nails it in the comments, though, when he says:
The “personhood develops over time” argument runs into trouble here, because you get all sorts of arbitrary justifications about where the save/no save line should be.
This is exactly my argument – any such line must be arbitrary. This still doesn’t make me think that a human zygote is a person. Opinions?
*Whether is is possible for animals or machines to be persons is an interesting question but not relevant here.