Two claims about potential human beings

Bioethics. 2003 Oct;17(5-6):503-16. doi: 10.1111/1467-8519.00364.


It seems that at conception something is formed which, due to its genetic make-up, has the potentiality to develop into a full-blown human being. Many believe that in virtue of this potentiality, this organism, the human zygote or early embryo, has in instrinsic value which makes it wrong to use or produce it merely as a means to some end, e.g., some scientific end such as to produce embryonic stem cells. Against this it is here argued, first, that it does not follow from the fact that something has a potential to become a (fully developed) human being that it already is a human being (in a rudimentary sense). In fact, a human being begins to exist no earlier than a couple of weeks after conception, at the stage known as gastrulation. Thus, even granted the questionable assumption that something has instrinsic value in virtue of being a human being, the zygote will not have intrinsic value. Secondly, the value an embryo has in virtue of its potentiality to become a full-blown human being can only be instrumental, a value as a means. But of course it cannot be wrong to treat that which has merely instrumental value as a mere means or instrument to some end.

MeSH terms

  • Beginning of Human Life / ethics*
  • Embryo, Mammalian*
  • Embryonic and Fetal Development / ethics
  • Humans
  • Personhood
  • Philosophy*
  • Research Embryo Creation / ethics
  • Stem Cells
  • Value of Life*