Saturday, May 28, 2005

Conception and Embryology: Intro

In forthcoming blogs I hope to explore beginning-of-life issues as they relate primarily to cloning, in vitro fertilization and abortion. My views have been gradually changing over the past decade, and one of the reasons for laying out some thoughts here is to get them “out there”, on paper, so that I myself may evaluate them in a manner more systematic than I can accomplish in my head. I will be exploring some ideas that have occurred to me, and am quite willing…even eager…to have them challenged.

Many readers will already be familiar with the details of human conception and embryology, at least those aspects that bear directly upon the moral and theological issues I will be considering here. However, on the possibility that some will not be familiar with the processes involved, and the likelihood that many will not be familiar with terms that have very specific meanings in this domain, I would like to quickly sketch the overall process of mammalian conception and early embryology. A few of the terms, such as differentiation and determination, are very important when discussing stem cells, but do not typically appear in the popular press and are therefore probably unknown to most non-medical readers.

Please note that I am consciously trying to avoid using terms that are “at issue”, specifically such terms that beg the question by presuming the outcome, such as “human being” and “person”. “Embryo” has a specific scientific meaning that predates the abortion controversy, as does “fetus”, referring to the developing organism in the early and late stages of gestation (pregnancy) respectively, and need not be taken to imply that the developing organism lacks human rights or does not deserve protection.

I feel very cautious about the term, “human being”. This term means, at least, some discreet entity that exists (being) and is of the human species. Some also take it to mean, as if by definition, a being created in the image of God and hence possessing all the rights of any such being vis-à-vis other similar beings, and all the duties owed to God by such a being. This is to identify the English words “human being” with the Hebrew word “adam” in Genesis, an identification that is not necessary and which drives many arguments about abortion and embryonic issues, which arguments often boil down to simply using the same words differently.

We will start with biology, simply so that we understand the terms and the processes about which we are speaking. Once we have surveyed the territory, we will begin to dig in more philosophically and theologically.

(The next installment of this series is here.)

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