Here is a new book, presented by Peter Augustine Lawler (Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics) as a “powerful philosophical case for protecting embryos”: Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen (Doubleday, 256 pp.). The discoveries of George and Tollefsen don’t seem as “powerful” as Lawler thinks. Here follow excerpts from the review, along with my comments enclosed in [square brackets].

In their bold new book, Embryo, philosophers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen defend the proposition that the embryo — the organism that comes into being as the result of fertilization, the union of sperm with oocyte — is in fact a human being. And that means that an embryo has “absolute rights.”

[If the authors concluded that “an embryo has the rights we recognise in infants”, that would make sense; but “absolute” rights? What are “absolute” rights not only of infants, but even of adults? Aren’t all rights varying according to epoch and society? Where is their “absoluteness” to be found?]

[If we wish to be consistent in keeping the current principles of western societies], an embryo should never be used as a means to pursue someone else’s ends, however laudable or life-saving, they say. Certainly [why “certainly”? Again, this is just in accordance with our current principles], embryos shouldn’t be killed to assist frustrated parents attempting in vitro fertilization (IVF), or even to further pathbreaking medical research. The authors stop well short of recommending all of the potential changes in law that would necessarily follow from their argument. All they ask is that scientific research that involves the killing of embryos be outlawed — or, at the very least, that it be denied public funding, and that future IVF procedures be practiced in such a way that they do not produce surplus embryos that are ultimately discarded. The authors oppose what they see as brutality motivated in part by good intentions — brutality they hope to correct with moral reasoning based in scientific knowledge.