Divisibility and the moral status of embryos

Bioethics. 2001 Oct;15(5-6):382-97. doi: 10.1111/1467-8519.00249.


The phenomenon of twinning in early fetal development has become a popular source for doubt regarding the ascription of moral status to early embryos. In this paper, the possible moral basis for such a line of reasoning is critically analysed with sceptical results. Three different versions of the argument from twinning are considered, all of which are found to rest on confusions between the actual division of embryos involved in twinning and the property of early embryos to be divisible, to be based on highly questionable ethical assumptions, or to imply inconsistent claims regarding the moral importance of potentiality and/or the moral status of embryos. This is taken to expose a number of related inconsistencies in the moral basis of pro-life positions. In particular, ascribing moral significance to the property of being (in)divisible is found to be incompatible with the claim that human individuals possess unique values which could underpin an absolute moral ban on murder.

MeSH terms

  • Beginning of Human Life*
  • Embryo, Mammalian*
  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Fetus*
  • Humans
  • Personhood
  • Philosophy
  • Theology
  • Twinning, Monozygotic*
  • Value of Life*