What is the Embryo?


The news is filled with hype about the life-saving and curative potential of stem cell research using human embryos.  Should we celebrate this, or be alarmed? Is the embryo one of us?  Or, has the embryo become the lab rat of the 21st century? Our answer is critical.

Lab scientists who want to use embryos tell us Christians: “You only care because you think an embryo has a soul.  Religious arguments have no place in science.”

Whether or not a 4-day-old embryo has a soul is a fundamental theological question. But science itself tells us that we should take the embryo seriously.

Let’s take a look at systems biology.  Systems biology evaluates an organism, or system, in terms of its structure and dynamic. Does it grow and does it develop over time? Humans have structure and dynamism.  We get bigger.  We grow older.

An organism is also organized around at least one axis.  We humans have three: We have a top and bottom, we have right and left, and front and back.

An organism is a unified, self-directing entity that endures and grows over time.
Is an embryo an organism?

Well, once the human egg is fertilized, the new zygote takes over her own development with fascinating efficiency.  Unlike the egg or sperm, which die within hours, this new organism can grow and develop for decades.  Even though the embryo is immature, she is a complete organism, distinct from either her mother or father. Her genetic makeup is what we’d expect for a human being. And her genetic identity does not change.  A human embryo is not a Transformer, and she won’t change into a flower or a frog, or even a different child.

She is a very tiny member of the species homo sapiens, and looks like a human being should look like at this stage of growth and development.  Given time, nutrition and a friendly environment—like a womb—she will grow into a fetus, then an infant, toddler and so forth.

When we say that embryos aren’t fully human because they’re so tiny—no bigger than a dot—: that’s discrimination based on size.  Or that they’re “just a ball of cells in a petri dish”: that’s discrimination based on appearance.  If we say that embryos are leftover and will be discarded anyhow, so why shouldn’t some good come out of it? That’s discrimination based on unwantedness.

We have discriminated against other human beings in the past for similar reasons.  It’s time to stop.  As a human family, we’re better than that.

So, whether or not you believe embryos have a soul, your science points to the embryo being part of the human family. The burden of proof is on those who want to use embryos as research material.

Just as we would not expose a 9-year-old to experiments that would harm or kill him, we ought not treat human embryos with less care.

So, no Bible verses or religious arguments.  No invocation of the name of God.  Science can make the case for the human embryo, in less than three minutes.



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