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Laboratory researchers have been able to extend the time they can keep a human embryo alive in the lab from nine days to 13 days. Now many are asking, “Why not go beyond the 14-day-post-fertilization limit that has governed this research to date?”

Why, indeed? If the embryonic human being—in these experiments, “excess” embryos created in vitro by couples facing fertility issues—is a suitable object for scientific investigation and experimentation, what magical event happens at 14 days, or even 40, to change that embryo’s status to “protected”? In point of fact, there is something of a magical fact, the appearance under microscopic examination of the first stage of the embryonic spinal column, called the “primitive streak.” But there was and is nothing primitive about this early structure; it was only that it was readily detectable to the scientist’s eye, a visible marker of the developmental stage, with maybe a hint of the human creature’s organs for transmission of sense and pain.

The same article speculated that breaking the 14-day barrier might aid scientists in deriving stem cells that could be used to create what they call “embryo-like structures.” “Once that feat is achieved,” the article reported, “scientists could use these structures to conduct larger and more-complicated experiments to explore topics such as the development of birth defects or the effects of toxic compounds.”

Needless to say, the testing of “toxic compounds” on a gestating or born human being would be verboten. The creation of an “embryo-like structure” might conveniently get the researcher around that stricture. For now, it is enough to know that emboldened scientists want to try, and that they have arrived at this fresh ethical dilemma by crashing through earlier barriers. For in truth the 14-day limit is arbitrary, especially as compared to the astonishing event of fertilization, which nearly always creates a unique and unrepeatable human being.

The diminution of the significance of fertilization is of singular importance, because it is this minimalization step that permits turning a human being into a thing. In her essay, “The Iliad: The Poem of Force,” Simone Weil meditated on the Greek epic’s “true hero”—not the gods and children of gods that battle across the stage, but force itself. Under the power of force, all human concerns and comforts give way. Still stronger than the force that kills a man, turning him into a corpse, is another force. Weil writes:

How much more varied in its processes, how much more surprising in its
effects is the other force, the force that does not kill, i.e., that does not kill
just yet. It will surely kill, it will possibly kill, or perhaps it merely hangs, poised
and ready, over the head of the creature it can kill, at any moment, which is
to say at every moment. In whatever aspect, its effect is the same: it turns a
man into a stone. From its first property (the ability to turn a human being into
a thing by the simple act of killing him) flows another, quite prodigious too in
its own way, the ability to turn a human being into a thing while he is still alive.

The breakthrough announced today is just such a force. It takes human beings already handled as things for use and study, and it expands the scope of their “thing-ness” while they are still alive. It is the quality of being alive—developing—that secures their usefulness. It is the quality of their being individually human that makes their usefulness uniquely valuable.

A recent (2007) book about the frontiers of laboratory reproduction of human beings catches this theme nicely in its title: Everything Conceivable. The author chronicles the “embryo glut,” the existence of hundreds of thousands of human embryos, no one quite knows for sure how many, and the dilemmas our nation faces as ideas of parenthood and property rights merge and split in social and interpersonal conflicts. One member of Congress is quoted who amended his pro-life views when, instead of the child in the womb, he was contemplating the embryo in the laboratory dish which might never be implanted.

Today’s news will expand the category of conceivable things; indeed, the scientists are looking for social approval, or perhaps social passivity, to make this “advance” possible. In these troubled times, they may be right that few people, if any, are contemplating the implications of this wider window of access to experiments on developing human beings. But Congress and the states should, in the midst of all of today’s pressing problems, take the time to sort out the issues, and to consider what should happen this time, and what will happen next time, when it is not the “primitive streak” but the embryonic heartbeat, brain waves, pain pathways, birth, post-birth or whatever the best minds propose as the limit that does not limit.

Chuck Donovan is the president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the education & research arm of Susan B. Anthony List.

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