Dealing with Intrinsic Human Value

Prelude | Essence and Potentiality | Definitions | What is human? | Intrinsic Value of humanityOf fetuses, infants, disabled, and others (Part a) |  Of fetuses, infants, disabled, and others (Part b) | Functionalism and Utilitarian ethics revisited | Conclusion


With the previous post, we established a premise for what it is to be human, or better, what criteria we cannot use when determining who is and is not human. We cannot rely upon how a person looks, how big a person is, or the quality of life. These are arbitrary standards and as such we cannot use them; any standard offered must be non-arbitrary.

The standard I have provided can be found in Part 4 of this series. Simply put, a human being is a rational animal; biologically, his DNA and biological make up link him to other homo sapiens. Likewise, he holds the capacity to be rational, that is, creative, inventive, etc. There’s no specification on the degree to which he can accomplish this, just that he has the capacity. After all, how do we determine who is more rational or who is more creative or who is more inventive? We can only go so far as to say that the capacity exists; we cannot use the actualization of the capacity as a standard, because such a standard would be arbitrary.

With the above in mind, we must determine whether certain types of people are actually people; everything from fetuses to the elderly have been thrown into the debate of “person or not”?

With apologies to those with short attention spans, this may be one of the longer posts in the series. I have divided it into sections and sub-sections for those who cannot read it all in one sitting.


The most debated element concerning intrinsic human value is the debate surrounding what to do with embryos and fetuses. Are they human beings and thus entitled to the right to life, or are such claims about “fetal rights” spurious claims?  As seen from Part 5, if they are human beings then they have, at a minimum, the right to life. If this is the case, then the government sanctioned abortions of China, the government funded abortions by the US government overseas, or the “blessings” of the US government on domestic abortions is one of the worst tragedies in human history. Add into the debate the thousands of frozen embryos in the US and that we want to do tests on these embryos (tests that will kill them), the magnitude of the debate and decision is enormous.

If embryos and fetuses are simply the names for human stages of development (such as “infant,” “adolescent,” “adult” etc), if these little ones are human beings, then we must recognize the error of our ways. If they are not human beings, then we can breath a sigh of relief and continue about our business.

Sadly, the evidence points overwhelmingly in favor of embryos and fetuses being human beings. There are several scientific reasons to believe that a twenty-second-old embryo is just as human as a twenty-year-old human. First, we need to look to the law of biogenesis, second to the DNA of an embryo, third that an embryo holds capacities for things even though these capacities have yet to be actualized (just as adult humans do), and fourth the embryo is an individual and is not part of the mother.

What is it?

The law of biogenesis is quite interesting when applied to the issue of embryonic and fetal development. The law states that life cannot come from nonlife. If something is alive, it is because it has always been a live and came from something (or the combination of things) that were likewise alive. At no point was something not alive that is currently alive.

Thus, since all currently living adult human beings are alive and all currently living adult human beings were once embryos, an embryo is alive. Any arguments that say that an embryo is not “life” or that a fetus is not “life” are, to be quite frank, scientifically ignorant. If an embryo is not “life” then adult human beings are not “life” either.

The issue becomes a bit more complex when we figure in what we know from biology and genetics; animals produce after their own kind. A cat does not birth an alligator or a dog; a cat gives birth to a cat. A cow does not give birth to a gerbil or a triceratops; it gives birth to a cow. Genetically and biologically, when an animal reproduces, it reproduces after its own kind.

This, of course, begs the question; if an embryo isn’t a homo sapien, then what is it? An embryo is life and is the genetic and biological offspring of two homo sapiens (or in the case of cloning, one homo sapien), so if it is not homo sapein, then:

1)   Does this mean animals don’t produce after their own kind, even though there is no evidence of this occurring?


2)   What is it?

Keep in mind what we learned about the nature of a thing in Part 3 that the nature is unchanging and if something does change, then it dies. So we are left with two choices.

Choice A is we can advocate that the embryo is not a homo sapien and that before an embryo or fetus transition into being a homo sapien, the embryo and /or fetus must die. The obvious problems with this are (1) we have to explain how humans produced something that wasn’t human, when all scientific evidence would lead us to believe this is impossible and (2) how an adult human life eventually formed from a non-life (something that was dead).

Choice B is much simpler; the embryo is not only life, it is human life. It remains human life as it moves into the fetal stage, the infant stage, the adolescent stage, the adult stage, etc. The “embryo,” is better understood as a stage, not an actual entity. Thus, under “Choice B” when we say “embryo or fetus,” we mean “a human person in the embryonic/fetal stage of development,” just as when we say “child” or “adult” we are referencing their stages of development, not to actual entities.

So from the very first question, it should be obvious that at both the embryonic  and fetal stages of development, the life inside the womb is a human life; the life is a homo sapien. If that life is not a homo sapien, then we run into the problems presented by Choice A.

The DNA of an Embryo

Though we can say that we are the same unified being from conception forward, we must provide some sort of evidence to support such claim. One of the strongest pieces of evidence from a physical point of view is that of DNA. From the moment of fertilization (when the sperm enters the ovum, which begins the chemical reaction of creating a human being), our DNA takes shape. The 23 chromosomes from the male and the 23 chromosomes from the female come together to form 46 chromosomes, which instantly creates a unique being. Most of us (with the exception of some twins) can trace ourselves back to the moment of conception.

Even prior to the embryo being a “clump of cells” as those in the pro-choice say, the DNA has already duplicated itself, beginning to spread the needed information for development. The DNA that comes into existence at conception is the same DNA that can be found 20 years later in the same person, now an adult.

This would show that there is a very good standard we can use to determine if an embryo and fetus are really human beings – nothing changed genetically throughout their stages of development, so we cannot say that they changed their essence or species; nothing changed throughout development, leading us to believe that if they are a human person at 20 years of age, then they are likewise a human person at 20 seconds of age.

A Unified Being

A unified being is a being that is complete in its capacity to accomplish actions that are consistent with its essence. An example would be that a lion has within its capacity to chase down and eat a gazelle. It may not currently be doing that, but so long as it is within the lion’s nature to do such an action, the lion is unified – it holds the proper capacities that come from its essence. Even if the lion is a cub (thus the capacity cannot be actualized due to stage of development) or has a broken leg that may never heal, the circumstances do not remove the capacity, they merely halter it for the duration of that circumstance.

An person in the embryonic and fetal stages of development, then, must be a unified being if he is truly to be called a person. Since we know that embryos grow into fetuses, fetuses grow into infants, infants grow into children, children grow into adolescents, adolescents grow into adults, and adults are considered human beings, we can safely say that an embryo is a unified being with the capacity to be an adult. Let me explain.

Unless there is death along the path of an embryo, an embryo will eventually develop into an adult. This is the only biological option an embryo has; it can either die (whether as a miscarriage, as a fetus, as an infant, or as an adolescent) or it can grow on to be an adult. It will not become a tiger. It will not become a bear. It will not become a tree. It will either become an adult or die. This indicates that due to the nature of the embryo, it holds the capacity to be an adult, even if it is not acting on that capacity at the moment (this differentiation between capacity and actualization will be explains more thoroughly later in the post).

Everything a human can imaginably accomplish is something is within the capacity (the nature) of the embryo; it must be stunted, that is, it must have limitations put on it. But all limitations are circumstantial, even if they last the duration of the person’s life (this too will be explained). Suffice it to say, the embryo is a unified being.

One objection that could be brought up at this point is the issue of twinning. In the earliest stages of embryonic development, each embryo has totipotent cells that later are part of the development of an early human being. However, such cells, if removed from the embryo, have the potential to become a different embryo. This is how some twins are produced; one of the twins detached from the embryo and became their own embryo. Thus, the argument is that during the stage where an embryo is totipotent it is not a unified being.

The argument seems somewhat plausible, until we consider two of the following counter-examples, which show the above standard to be an arbitrary one:

1)   A flat worm – a flat worm is no doubt a unified being. It holds the full capacities of a flat worm and operates as a unified being. However, if we cut a flat worm in half, the severed half has the ability to develop into another flat worm while the original one heals. This is an example of totipotency in the animal kingdom. The question we must ask ourselves is if the flat worm is a unified being prior to cutting it. Yet, it functions as a unified being, so we must conclude that before cutting a flat worm, the flat worm is still a unified being, even though it is technically “totipotent.”

2)   A skin cell – due to modern advancements in science, we could theoretically at some point take a skin cell of a person and develop another, individual person from that one skin cell. Let us assume that we take the skin cell from Jake and make another person when Jake is thirty-years-old. Because we took Jake’s skin cell and made another human being (making Jake totipotent) does this mean that for thirty years Jake wasn’t really a human being? What about the fact that if such technology were to exists, all of us would then have within our capacity to be totipotent? Would this mean that no human being would truly be a unified being?

So it seems that the totipotency argument when discussing embryology doesn’t really take similar cases into consideration. The scientific fact is that a human in the embryonic stage of development and fetal stage of development is a unified being; they have the capacity to fulfill the nature of adult human beings, even though they cannot actualize that capacity at that time.

An Actual Individual

One of the common arguments, or source for the variation of multiple arguments, is that a fetus is a part of a woman’s body and therefore not a human and not entitled to any rights. This argument, however, doesn’t work.

As shown under the DNA argument, the new entity is genetically separate from the mother. A heart holds the same DNA that a foot holds (with different parts “activated” in the DNA. A liver holds the same DNA as a skin cell. A uterus holds the same DNA as the brain. The only difference in these cases is that different parts of the DNA are “activated” while other parts are “dormant.” An embryo and fetus, however, have differentiating DNA, indicating that the embryo is not a part of the mother’s body.

Even in the case of cloning, where the embryo has the same DNA as the mother, we still have a distinct human being. The embryo is still not a part of the mother. The reason is that all embryos, cloned or otherwise, grow for their own sake and not the sake of the mother’s body. That is to say, a person in the embryonic stage and later the fetal stage of development relies on the mother, but does not function within the mother as a part of her body would.

Philosophically, if we were to say that the fetus is a part of the mother, we would have to ask the following questions:

1)   Does this mean the mother has a penis (in the case of a male fetus)?

2)   Does this mean that the mother has 92 chromosomes?

3)   Does this mean that the mother has four feet and four hands?

And the list goes on. This simply shows the absurdity of saying that the fetus or embryo are a “part” of the mother; they don’t function as a part (though reliant), but instead function as an independent entity.

Likewise, all embryos will eventually go through the fetal stage and eventually be birthed. Any fetus that is not birthed is either dead or is dying. The fetus has no choice but to be birthed. This indicates that for 7-9 months the female womb is the natural habitat for a fetus, but once the fetus has reached a certain stage of development, the habitat is no longer natural and the fetus must leave. No other part of the body functions in this way. This would seemingly show that the fetus is not just another part of the woman.


Though infanticide has been a common practice in various cultures throughout human history, it has usually be justified through faulty religious views or a perceived (or actual) disability in the child. Sometimes it has occurred in order to save the lives of others; for instance, when a person hiding from the Nazis would accidentally or purposefully smother a crying infant so that they would not be discovered. In all of the above cases, there was some reason behind the infanticide, sometimes accidental, sometimes justifiable, but most of the time intentional and without justification.

The modern view of infanticide, or the one that is developing, is far darker than all the previous views. This new view teaches that an infant is not a person and therefore has no rights – if the parent wants to kill the infant, then so be it. A parent should be allowed to kill his infant child and, just like a return policy at a store, have no questions asked. Though this argument is hardly widespread (even Singer and other infanticide proponents advocate infanticide should only occur when an infant is disabled), it is one that is forming among those in a younger generation and it is my belief that within twenty years this will be a hotly debated topic (unless things begin to change).

Is such a view warranted? I would advocate that such a view is not warranted at all.

The main reason such a view is not warranted is that the child holds the capacity to develop into an adult. An infant will, barring any major deformities, become an adult. Enter the arbitrary standard that says, “An infant doesn’t look like an adult” or “An infant is too small to be an adult.” Okay, then what qualifies one to look and be the size of an adult? I have a friend who is twenty-two, but he looks sixteen; does this mean he is still an adolescent?

A second argument that could be made is that an infant is not capable of reasoning, but I would argue two things to this point: (1) there is no possible way to know this and (2) what level of reasoning qualifies us as human?

Dealing with the first point, there is no way to know what kind of reasoning an infant has. Certainly an infant who is a few days old is still inquisitive about her surroundings. She may not be able to vocalize her inquisitive nature, but she is taking things in that will allow her to develop a knowledge base she can draw upon. The infant does rationalize, even if in her stage of development it is a primitive rationality, the fact remains that she is reasoning. She will eventually, barring developmental problems (which again are circumstantial), use her rationality to build a knowledge base she can draw from. This is within her capacity as a human being.

The second point again looks to the arbitrary standard put forth by proponents of infanticide. What level of rationality determines who is and who is not human? Let us say that Harvey a distinguished professor of physics, thus his ability to reason is hardly called into question. Yet, he has a cold and is currently on drugs that have made him a bit loopy. Thus, he am restricted to performing tasks that even a monkey could do – his level of rationality is significantly limited. Does this mean we can kill Harvey in such a state? Is Harvey no longer human? Did he become a different species for a bit? If he did, did he die in the process and is now coming back to life?

No matter what we try to argue on this point, if we embrace the point our standard is ultimately arbitrary. The only justification we have for infanticide is an arbitrary one, which isn’t a justifiable standard.


A few years ago there was quite a debate over the woman Terri Schiavo and whether her husband had the right to kill her or not. She was in a vegetative state with a low probability of recovery. Though she was not brain dead, she was not able to function as a normal adult human being would function. The court eventually ruled that the husband had the right to kill his wife and allowed him to do so.

In other cases, some clinics are allowing pre-screening for parents to see if their child will have a mental deformity. If so, the parents are given the option to kill the fetus, to the end life of a human being. Others argue that if a child is born with a deformity or develops one later in life and that deformity ruins the “quality of life” of the child, the parents should be allowed to kill the child.

Thus, we have two groups of human persons who are in trouble of being thrown into the killing fields along with human persons who are embryos or fetuses; the mentally and physically handicapped and those in comas or vegetative states.

Mentally and Physically Handicapped

The argument often used to end the life of someone who is significantly handicapped mentally is that the person lacks the capacity for reason. However, as seen from the arguments applied to infants, this is an arbitrary standard. We don’t know the internal workings of a person’s rationality, nor can we provide a non-arbitrary standard on what level of reasoning a person must reach in order to quality as a human person.

The second argument that is used for both the mentally and physically handicapped is that such circumstances can lower the quality of life. However, in Part 6a of this series, we learned that the quality of life is likewise an arbitrary standard. We can’t really say what it is to have a qualitative life without venturing into subjective guesswork, which is hardly grounds for a universal application.

Vegetative States and Comas[1]

As with the arguments above, many people argue that individuals who are in vegetative states and comas should be killed out of “compassion,” mostly because the quality of life is gone and these people no longer have the ability to reason. Yet, as shown throughout this series, such standards are not valid.[2]

Another argument that is used is that people in such a state are dying anyway, thus it is best to let nature take its course. In some cases this is true, but it is not true in all cases. For instance, if I receive an internal infection, without modern medicine, I will die. Does this mean that I should be refused modern medicine and let nature take its course? Likewise, if we hold the ability to possibly pull someone out of his vegetative state or coma, should we do this?

The issue is actually simpler than people make it out to be – if the person is brain dead, that is, there is no chance of recover, then the person’s life is over. A person put on life support because she is dying from cancer is not going to recover. As sad as it is, this life cannot be saved. Death is simply a part of being human, so when we come to our natural end we must face it. If, however, the person has a chance to survive, then we fight to aid in that person’s survival.

The length of a person in a vegetative state or a coma is quite irrelevant. What is the difference between someone in a fifteen-minute coma and someone in a fifteen-year coma? How does any of this negate the person’s humanity? If it is wrong to kill the person who is in a coma for one day, then it is also wrong to kill the person who is in a coma for ten years (provided there is a chance of recovery – if there is no chance of recovery, then the person must be pulled from life support).

What happened to Terri Schiavo was state-sanctioned murder. She was not brain dead, she was simply in a vegetative state with a chance at recovery. She, and all others in her state, was an innocent human being who had her life taken against her wishes; that is the definition of murder.


It should be evident that unless a person is dead, that person has a right to live. Even in the case of the terminally ill and elderly, we have no right to decide that the person should die. So long as the person draws breath, that person has a right to live. The debate can ensue on whether the person can voluntarily give up that right, but one absolute is that we do not have the right to decide the person’s fate.

The point I hope this post has made is that no matter a person’s circumstances, he is a human person. We do not “evolve” in the womb from one species to another. We do not “evolve” outside of the womb from one species to another. That is not how evolution works. It is not instantaneous. Though we “evolve” in a small sense of the word, species change takes millions of years, not 9 months, or even 90 years. We are conceived as a human person, we are born as a human person, we grow as a human person, and we die as a human person, no matter what our circumstances are in between.

No matter the situation, if a being holds the essence of “human person,” then the being has the right to live.

[1] When I use the word “coma” in this part of the series, I mean implicitly someone in a coma that is reliant upon life support, so that without life support the person would perish.

[2] There is an exception of a person providing a “living will.” That is, if the person indicates that if he falls into a coma or a vegetative state that doctors say he will not recover from he wants to be removed from life support, then we may be required to follow his wishes.