Prudence Should Lead to an Attitude of Protection towards the Human Embryo

10 Oct 2016

El Salvador hosted a round table on the legal status of the human embryo, considering biological, philosophical, ethical and legal perspectives. This small country is among the few whose constitution recognizes a human embryo’s legal personhood.

STI Experts

Professor Pablo Requena, the Holy See's delegate to the World Medical Association, attended the event, which he decribes in the following interview... 

Why was this event held?

For several years, the Bioethics Association of El Salvador (ABIOES) has been studying the most relevant questions in bioethics and disseminating its findings to the public at large, with a particular emphasis on the scientific bases for these reflections. Within this framework, ABIOES wanted to organize a round table focusing on the legal status of the human embryo without forgetting its connection with other fronts in the discourse.

What specifically was addressed?

There were three presentations in the round table. In the first, Dr. Fernando Conde addressed the main biological issues by laying out the most recent scientific literature. I spoke on the philosophical and ethical perspectives.  Finally, the specifically legal aspects were discussed by Lic. Alvaro Most, who is ABIOES’ legal adviser.

Why treat the embryo statute from different perspectives?

Because it is a complex issue with a multitude of practical implications, both on an ethical and a legal plane. The study of the different problems must be rigorous, and avoid attempting to draw ethical conclusions directly from biological data.  In debates on issues related to the human embryo, think for example about the issues of abortion or of in-vitro fertilization, which often involve confusion in the way of understanding and interpreting the biological data and its connection with the issues’ other dimensions. So it was a good idea here to treat those four dimensions (biological, philosophical, ethical and legal) concordantly.

What stands out at the biological level?

The discussion of the interaction between genetic and epigenetic elements in the embryo’s early development, which was completely ignored a few years ago, was particularly interesting. Another highlight was the speech on the maternal-fetal dialogue that begins at the moment of conception and manifests itself differently throughout the pregnancy.  In recent years some work has been published that shows how some of the fetus’ stem cells pass into the maternal bloodstream, and can act - even years later - to repair tissues damaged by some kind of pathology. One good example considered was how tissue from the child helps in revascularizing zones in the mother’s heart affected by an infarction.

Is it still relevant to ask whether an embryo is or is not a person?

It is certainly always one of the ideas present in any discussion about these issues. In this case the answer depends on the philosophical conception from which it derives. The concept of person belongs to philosophy, and within this discipline there are several different ways of understanding and defining the person. Based on a classic definition such as Boezio’s, which emphasizes individual substance and rational nature, it may be concluded that the embryo is a person from its constitution. Taking on the other hand a modern conception of person, like Locke’s, which emphazises self-awareness over time, then a human embryo can hardly be considered to be a person... nor for that matter can a newborn or an elderly person with advanced Alzheimer’s. In any case, the discussion about the embryo’s ontological status should not close the ethical question, denying the embryo the respect it deserves.

It is a basic principle of prudence to refrain from actions that could (even uncertainly) seriously damage the health and the lives of others. Therefore, the lack of agreement about the embryo’s personhood should lead to an attitude of respect and protection, rather than the opposite, which is unfortunately the case in many countries.

What points were debated with respect to the embryo’s legal status?

The speaker outlined the laws that regulate abortion and artificial fertilization at the global level, in which there is a gradual approach with regard to the respect due to the embryo and the fetus according to the country. The situation in El Salvador is, in this sense, very unique thanks to a 1999 constitutional amendment, and a previous one to the Criminal Code: the embryo enjoys legal protection from conception, which therefore does not permit any kind of induced abortion. In other countries this protection, more or less recognized, enters in conflict with the possibility of performing abortions in certain circumstances, or during the first few months of pregnancy, according to national legislation. In some cases the early human embryo is considered mere laboratory material.

What can you add by way of conclusion?

This type of activity arouses great interest, as was evident in this meeting.  Many questions could not be answered for lack of time.  Unfortunately, in many sectors of society there is widespread ignorance about these matters. Therefore, forums are highly necessary that allow people to form their own ideas on hotly debated delicate matters, based on good biological, ethical and legal foundations.