Feb 27 2024

Frozen Embryos Are Not People

Amid much controversy, the Alabama State Supreme Court ruled that frozen embryos are children. They did not support their decision with compelling logic, with cited precedence (their decision is literally unprecedented), with practical considerations, or with sound ethical judgement. They essentially referenced god. It was a pretty naked religious justification.

The relevant politics have been hashed out by many others. What I want to weigh in on is the relevant logic. Two years ago I wrote about the question of when a fetus becomes a person. I laid out the core question here – when does a clump of cells become a person? Standard rhetoric in the anti-abortion community is to frame the question differently, claiming that from the point of fertilization we have human life. But from a legal, moral, and ethical perspective, that is not the relevant question. My colon is human life, but it’s not a person. Similarly, a frozen clump of cells is not a child.

This point inevitably leads to the rejoinder that those cells have the potential to become a person. But the potential to become a thing is not the same same as being a thing. If allowed to develop those cells have the potential to become a person – but they are not a person. This would be analogous to pointing to a stand of trees and claiming it is a house. Well, the wood in those trees has the potential to become a house. It has to go through a process, and at some point you have a house.

That analogy, however, breaks down when you consider that the trees will not become a house on their own. An implanted embryo will become a child (if all goes well) unless you do something to stop it. True but irrelevant to the point. The embryo is still not a person. The fact that the process to become a person is an internal rather than external one does not matter. Also, the Alabama Supreme Court is extending the usual argument beyond this point – those frozen embryos will not become children on their own either. They would need to go through a deliberate, external, artificial process in order to have the full potential to develop into a person. In fact, they would not exist without such a process.

But again Рnone of this really matters. The potential to become something through some kind of process, whether internal or external, spontaneous or artificial, does not make one thing morally  equivalent to something else. A frozen clump of cells is not a child.

The history of how evangelicals and conservatives came to this rigid position – that personhood begins at fertilization – is complex, but illuminating. The quick version is that nowhere in the bible does it say life or personhood begins at conception, and many pre-1980 Christians believed that the bible says personhood begins at birth. However, the idea that the soul enters the body at conception goes back to the ancient Greeks. This view was largely accepted by Catholics and rejected by Protestants – until Jerry Falwell and then others started linking the Catholic view with American political conservatives, making it into a cultural issue that was good for outraging and motivating donors and voters.

Now it is a matter of unalterable faith, that human personhood begins at conception. This is what leads to the bizarre conclusion that a frozen embryo is a child. But this is not a biblical belief, not a historically universal belief, and is certainly not a scientific belief.

On some level, however, the religious right in America knows they cannot just legislate their faith. They really want to, and they have a couple of strategies for doing so. One is to argue against the separation of church and state. They will rewrite history, cherry pick references, and mostly just assert what they want to be true. When in power, such as in Alabama, they will just ignore the separation (unless and until slapped down by the Supreme Court).  But failing that they will sometimes argue that their religious view is actually the scientific view. This, of course, is when I become most interested.

One arena where they have done that extensively is in the teaching of evolution. They have legally failed on the separation of church and state arguments. They therefore pivoted to the scientific ones, with creationism and later Intelligent Design. But these are all warmed over religious views, and any attempt at sounding scientific is laughable and has completely failed. They do provide many object lessons in pseudoscience and poor logic, however.

I believe they are doing the same thing with the abortion issue. They are saying that the scientific view is that human life begins at conception. But again, this is a deceptive framing. That is not the question – the question is when personhood begins. Once again, frozen cells are not a person.

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