I ask you to keep an open mind and foster a liberal attitude with respect to a woman's option of having an abortion and with respect to embryonic stem cell research, which you have limited. The notion that an embryo or fertilized egg should be considered human is certainly open for debate. As reported in Science magazine, "zygotic personhood" (the idea that a fertilized egg is a person) is a recent concept. For example, before 1869, the Catholic church believed that the embryo was not a person until it was 40 days old. (Aristotle agreed with this 40-day threshold.) Thus, the Church did not believe a human had a soul until day 40. If the early embyro was souless, perhaps early abortion was not murder. Pope Innocent III in 1211 determined that the time of ensoulment was anywhere from three to four months. If we truly believed that a zygote is a person, we would incarcerate women who use the pill because the pill may sometimes prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg. We do not jail such women or their physicians; hence, we do not actually believe a zygote is a person.
Because of various birth-control methods, millions of unwanted children were not produced, and countless suffering has been abolished (including decreases in crime, child abuse, and ecological nightmares). If you can overcome the fallacy of zygotic personhood, you can then ease restrictions on human embryonic stem cell research, which has the potential to help people with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and diabetes. Although nonembryonic stem cells (such as multipotent adult progenitor cells) may eventually be suitable substitutes for embryonic cells, we should not restrict stem cell research now. Similarly, those who hope to ban cloning because it may entail the discarding of zygotes should rethink their position.
With women gaining more control over their reproductive fate, society has changed. Reliable birth control became as easy as taking a pill, which, along with education, is one of the greatest factors in helping women achieve equality with men and preventing overpopulation in less-developed parts of the world. Although religious people may debate whether a fertilized egg (zygote) should be accorded the same rights as a child (and therefore destruction of the zygote should lead to imprisonment), no one debates that the pill and other methods of birth control have decreased the suffering of fully formed, multicellular humans. Very few people today believe in gametic personhood (the idea that sperm and eggs are people) or homuncular personhood (the 18th-century idea that the entire human organism -- the homunculus -- is contained in the spermatozoa); similarly, the notion of zygotic personhood may someday fade from the world scene. And this leads me to the more mind-boggling issues we will face in the next century: the notion of cybernetic personhood.
In the coming years, we will be able to create sentient creatures in software running on computers. We will be able to simulate ourselves in software. This, of course, will affect laws, politics, and religion. The termination of sentient software may be much more egregious than termination of a zygote. Returning our attention to present technology, I would like to conclude by asking you to consider the appointment of individuals -- both to the judiciary and to positions of policy making -- who have not taken extreme positions in opposition to abortion or embryonic stem cell research.
Clifford A. Pickover,
The Paradox of God and The Science of Omniscience,
the Neoreality science-fiction series, and
30 other books on the borderlands of science, religion, and art.
This story first reported at Cliff Pickover's Reality Carnival.