Ask Dr. Cobb

September 2005 question

“How do you, or how does process thought deal with what is often called 'ensoulment' in stem cell research; i.e., at what point is an embryo a 'person'?

Dr. Cobb's Response

The implications of process thought for the view of the embryo fall between the extremes represented by those who consider the embryo, and even the fertilized cell, a person, and those who consider it simply a part of the woman’s body over which she should have complete control. For process thought the living cell is already something of value in itself, for itself, and for God, and should therefore be respected by human beings as well. Organisms composed of many living cells have much greater value.

These multicellular organisms are of two types. One type establishes order among the cells through their internalized patterns of action and their relations with one another. This type is usually fixed in location. Plants are rooted in the ground, so that there is no need of centralized control over movement.

The other type includes order of this kind but also has a centralized source of order. A unifying experience emerges out of the experiences of the cells in some part of the organism. This seems to require, at least for any stable occurrence, a central nervous system and a brain. Animals search for food and escape enemies. They need centralized direction in order to accomplish this.

There are instances in which the presence of any centralized control is disputable. Just how much brain is required for it to occur is also disputable. It is even possible that something of this sort can occur where there is no brain. However, most process thinkers judge that there are no unifying experiences in trees, whereas mice have the kinds of central nervous systems that do give rise to such experiences.

I have avoided the word “soul” thus far. In the public debate it is usually misleading. People assume that there either is or is not a soul in a particular organism.

From a process point of view there are organisms in which there is clearly no soul and others in which souls clearly exist. But there are a great many organisms that lie between these two extremes. This is true of embryos and fetuses throughout much of their development.

In the process perspective, the factual question that should be substituted for that about the soul when considering an embryo and its further development as a fetus is, strictly speaking, from the process perspective, whether there are any occasions of experience that have the unifying function noted above. It is possible that in some organisms they occur sporadically, or only as needed. That would mean that much of the time the organism functions without any such unification. Even with normal human adults it is not clear that any such occasions exist during dreamless sleep.

We should also note that occasions of this kind may be little connected. They may arise out of the nerve cells and influence them without deriving significantly from earlier unifying occasions or contributing to future ones. Even in a human baby this seems to be largely the case at first.

The term “soul” or “person” is more appropriate when there is a succession of unifying occasions each of which derives extensively from its predecessors and contributes extensively to its successors. Of course, each also derives from cellular occasions and contributes to them. The relative importance is always a matter of degree. Hence there is no one point at which the “soul” or “person” comes into being.

For process thinkers, then, there must be a first occurrence of an experience that unifies the cellular experiences in some region of the brain. It will be difficult ever to date such an occurrence. We can only say that it cannot occur until a rudimentary brain has been formed. But such an event is not the infusion of a soul. A fully developed soul as described above will not be present for some time after birth.

We need also to recognize that from a process perspective, souls are by no means unique to human beings. They are common throughout the animal kingdom. We should respect all ensouled animals, but that does not mean that they are never to be killed. Even vegetarians acknowledge that unless all carnivores are to starve, other ensouled animals must be killed. The unifying experiences of embryos and infants are less advanced than those of many animals that most people kill with little compunction.

In any case the question about ensoulment arises primarily with respect to human ensoulment. The soul does not become distinctively human until it engages in distinctively human symbolic activities. This hardly begins before language skills are developed.

This late emergence of the human soul, however, does not mean that the human fetus and embryo and newborn infant do not deserve our deep respect and protection. It means only that the respect and protection they require does not derive from their possessing human souls or being human persons. They deserve respect and protection, first, because they are of value in themselves, for themselves, and for God. But this respect and protection are certainly not absolute. In and of themselves their value is no greater than that of members of many other animal species.

There is, however, an important difference between them and other otherwise similar organisms. In the case of a human embryo and fetus, these unifying experiences will develop, under favorable circumstances, into distinctively human souls. It is chiefly their potential value rather than their realized value that distinguishes humans from other animals from a very early point, even from the fertilization of the ovum. Indeed, one could even trace this back to the unfertilized ovum.

Obviously, this whole discussion presupposes the process perspective. For those who think in terms of substances, there has to be some enduring entity that is correctly identified as the human soul. The question of when ensoulment occurs then has to have a definite answer. Either the soul of this organism exists or it does not.

This is the way the topic was discussed in the church from ancient times. There it was supposed that the soul, far from arising gradually out of the body and the cultural context, enters the soulless physical organism abruptly at some point. It was assumed that this was a creative act of God discontinuous with the natural order. Today the Catholic Church recognizes the arbitrariness of locating the origin of the soul at any specific point in the physical development of the embryo or fetus and has decided to assert that it is given together with the origin of human life, at the point of conception. This may avoid some forms of arbitrariness but it introduces others. In terms of the historic and still common use of the term “soul”, there is no evidence for its presence until much later.

From the process perspective, this doctrine may be the best one can do given the control of substance thinking. There is no escape from an arbitrary answer disconnected from empirical information. The consequence is a kind of absolutistic thinking that prevents reasonable judgments and blocks needed actions.

It is time to answer directly the questions posed to me. I would say that embryos and fetuses are always potential human persons but never actual ones. The potential is very important and should never be thwarted casually. But it is not possible for all potentials to be actualized. Moral judgments consist in weighing values, one against another. That cannot be avoided.

With regard to stem cell research, we must weigh the gains that can be expected from such research against the destruction that is entailed. As a practical matter the destruction of realized value is quite slight prior to the development of the brain and the emergence of any unifying experiences. From that point on it becomes greater. But this is more important for questions about abortion than about stem cell research. Here the question is almost entirely about the potential value of the embryo.

To produce embryos with the intention of killing them for research purposes is to me, personally, morally repugnant. That does not mean that there should be absolutist prohibitions. It does mean that, I personally, do not see sufficient justification for such a practice now. On the other hand, to use for research purposes fetuses that have been aborted for other reasons, ones that have no possibility of realizing their potential, seems to me, in and of itself, quite justified. The only negative that I see is that it may contribute to a further objectification and cheapening of life, and in this respect it is not very different from much that we are already doing. The exact age of the fetus is not especially important in this case.

I was not asked about my overall view of this matter, but I will comment anyway. My basic judgment is that we use far too much of our resources on high tech medical research and care that will benefit only a few or make it possible for wealthy people to have children. To whatever extent the results of stem cell research will continue this pattern, I have no enthusiasm for it. If it could attain results that would benefit the masses of people who will never receive the benefits of high tech medicine, I would favor it. But I doubt that this will occur.  

If you found this article helpful, please consider contributing to Process & Faith by making a donation or becoming a member.