The Embryo is not One of Us

by Giulio Ercolessi 

A house is burning and on the brink of collapse. There is only time to rescue, alternatively, either a couple of children desperately begging for help or, on the opposite side of the building, a freezer containing hundreds of embryos in phials. A choice is necessary: to whom the priority? If you are convinced that embryos are human beings, the answer is inevitable: you will save the frozen embryos and accept to let the two children burn alive, as saving hundreds of “persons” is better than saving just two. Would you really be prepared to do that?

Whether arguing on abortion, in vitro fertilisation or freedom of research on stem cells, political and cultural positions of secularists and progressives always end up clashing with the same argument: abortion, in vitro fertilisation and research on stem cells would be incompatible with the character of “human person” inherent to the embryo since the very first moment.

We usually prefer not to confront this argument directly, consider this less convenient, and avoid the fundamental issue, mostly by using pragmatic arguments, as the “lesser evil” one, or, in the case of abortion, balancing the interest to the preservation of the embryo with that of the woman’s health. The point is that, in this way, on the matters of principle we let resound uncontested the only voice of religious fundamentalists that, step by step, is being accepted more and more widely as the only ethically well grounded one, and risks to be accepted as the obvious moral common sense.

In this way, moreover, we hamper our possibility of highlighting a striking inconsistency in our opponents’ theories. Therefore, this inconsistency is completely ignored even in the public debate and substantially hidden by almost all the media. On the ground of principles, only the voice of the religious fundamentalists appears to give a simple answer to a not so simple question.

The ignored and concealed inconsistency in our opponents’ argument is to be found in the postulate itself on which the “pro-life” campaign is based, i.e. the assumption that the embryo is already a human person. If taken seriously and brought to its inevitable consequences – inevitable not extreme – this postulate leads to conclusions that are so aberrant that only the most fanatic supporter of those theories would accept to defend them.

The most evident inconsistency is to be found in stating, on the one hand, that abortion is equal to murder, or even to an endless massacre, without asking, on the other hand, for the simple repeal or deep modifications of the existing laws, simply because it is known that in all our countries this request would be rejected by public opinion and defeated – as already happened in the past many times – in the countries where popular referenda can be held. For this reason those who apodictically affirm that the embryo is a “person”, generally limit their demand to the meticulous enforcement of rules that make abortion difficult, onerous, sometimes impossible to obtain due to a high number of conscientious objectors in the medical professions.

This is obviously a very weak argument: how is it possible, if you affirm that suppressing an embryo is equal to murder, not to ask for the absolute interdiction of abortion? Those who brag to stand out from the crowd in our secularised societies, who finally proclaim high and loud the evident truth that the others would withhold for fear or conformism, should then retreat in the face of that obvious, immediate, direct consequence of their own discovery?

Probably they understand that they could not stop there.

Many of the criminal provisions that until some decades ago punished abortion did not start from the premise that abortion was a murder. For instance, until 1975, the Italian penal code, adopted under fascism, did not punish abortion as a crime against the person, such as murder, but just as a crime “against the integrity and the health of the Italian stock [stirpe]”: a logic akin to the one that motivated the fierce repression of abortion in Ceauşescu’s Romania, and that in a number of countries forbade to advertise birth control, since it was believed that the might of the nation demanded high birth-rates. That is why art. 546 of the Italian penal code originally stated that the woman who decided to have an abortion and whoever practiced abortion with her consent would be punished with a statutory penalty from two to five years in prison, namely a penalty not comparable to the life sentence (at the time of the issue of the code, even the death penalty) provided for premeditated murder.

Actually the extremist thesis, that oddly nobody even discusses, since nobody seems capable to take it really seriously, but that is still supported in principle by the Catholic hierarchy up to its top, is even more radical: it was John Paul II who dared compare the legalization of abortion introduced in the last decades in almost every Western country to no less than the extermination of the Jews by Nazism. This is more than premeditated murder: here we are talking of gross violations of human rights, those violations so serious and heinous, such as genocide, apartheid, torture, mass execution, inhuman and degrading treatments, that are forbidden not only by domestic law, but also by customary international law. With the consequence that, wherever they are committed, whatever state would be authorized to proceed against whomever responsible; and excluding any statute of limitation, because the importance of these crimes results in their imprescriptibility.

Let us admit – even if it was not so – that the old Pope just wanted to use a rhetoric hyperbole (a hyperbole, however, recalled with the usual fatuity by bigoted supporters and obedient politicians): still, if the embryo is to be considered a human person, the legal protection against its suppression could not be less firm than the one granted to every other human being, and for a premeditated murder the expected statutory penalty, for instance in Italy, is a life sentence.

No way of getting by with the argument that it is not possible to punish with a sanction adequate to its claimed objective gravity a behaviour whose criminal character is underestimated because of the eclipse of traditional values: this argument was rejected, once and for all, by the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials and by Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, and it is rejected even by what Catholics usually call the “relativistic” jurisprudence of our time.

There is a further necessary consequence in our opponents’ argument: if accepted, and if a pregnant woman unsuccessfully attempted to have an abortion, the state could not abstain from adopting all the preventive measures necessary to protect a human life that was unequivocally threatened in its own existence. Given the premise, how would it be possible not to hold that woman under constant surveillance, and force her to give birth? Could a human being perhaps be left at the mercy of someone who seriously and certainly wanted to kill him/her?

Moreover, even if a pregnancy was caused by rape, but the embryo is considered a human person, “one of us”, how would  it be possible to authorize abortion even in this case? Could the circumstances of conception have any influence on the right to life of a “person”? Of course not: once accepted the embryo – and even more so a foetus – as a person, suppressing a foetus which is the result of a rape, would be as illicit as killing a born baby conceived by a rape: at most the woman’s physical alteration could be considered and a compassionate extenuating circumstance expected.

Perhaps abortion could only be allowed in the case of a serious and proved risk of death for the expectant mother, who in that case – we can admit – could claim necessity. But sure the same conclusion might not be claimed in the case of a risk, even a very serious risk, for the woman’s mere physical health, and least of all for her merely mental health: how to justify the prevalence of the protection of the mother-to-be’s health on that of the very life of another “person”? That would completely lack the prerequisite of the necessary proportionality between the suppression of another life and the entity of the risk run by the woman (the principle of proportionality to be applied to anyone who acts in necessity is prescribed by all the European criminal laws, and in Italy by art. 54 of the penal code).

Not even could  an abortion be considered licit in case of very serious foetal malformation, even if the life of the born baby is for sure very short and the pain excruciating: is it licit to kill a disabled? So, green light to irresponsible procreation: a ferocious behaviour from the point of view of those who, even without claiming that that is a self-evident ethical truth, think that giving birth to a baby knowing that it will carry tremendous disabilities and being able to prevent that, is barely less immoral than artificially causing the same infirmity to a healthy child.

And this is not enough. Once established the absurd equivalence between the embryo and a human person, how would it be possible to respect a law authorizing the “mass murder” of embryos? It would even be legally illicit to obey to a similar law, and morally compulsory to take actively position against it. If the embryo is a human person, abortion is murder, the law authorizing it is a law legalizing a slaughter and those who implement it are murderers, rather exterminators similar to Eichmann.

A last aberrant consequence, but absolutely not a distorted or extreme one, is logically inevitable for those who maintain the aberrant starting postulate. Non only one shouldn’t play political games and stop just a step before demanding that abortion be illegal and clandestine again: if Vatican officials and obedient politicians took seriously what they say, they could not stop there, they should seriously ask themselves whether to recommend to their faithful to cross the same threshold that was crossed many a time by some activists of the extreme religious right in the United States: those who, in their consequential insanity, thought it was  their duty to stop the “massacre”, by any possible means. Even a radical religious nonviolent theorist as Gandhi believed that there are two circumstances in which killing is not only licit, but even morally due: one was, for him, in some qualified circumstances, euthanasia; the other, that I think may be shared by everyone, is the defence of a third party when there are no other means to prevent his/her murder. In face of a murder that is on the point of being committed, and if that is the only way to stop the assassin’s hand, shooting at the murderer before he/she kills an innocent is licit and morally due as well. And what else the citizen of a state where a law authorizing mass murder is in force could do in order to “stop the massacre”? Sure he/she could not call the police, to avoid a “massacre” that nevertheless is legal. He/she ought to do what an honest, enlightened and heroic German citizen should have done facing Auschwitz: halting the executioner’s hand, if necessary, with violence.

An extremist conclusion? Too consequential? I wait for one of those frivolous advocates who affirm that every embryo is “one of us”, that abortion is a murder, and that legislation consenting abortion allows a genocide, to explain how they could escape these aberrant conclusions.

Even if a lot of democratic politicians would be afraid to come to that conclusion, the answer to be given is that the conclusions are aberrant because the postulate is aberrant.

The latter is not presented as a dogmatic truth peculiar to the Christian or Catholic faith, but as a natural fact, verified by science. Et pour cause: only affirming that it is a natural evidence, nowadays finally clear thanks to scientific research, the Catholic hierarchy can justify the fact that abortion was not considered a murder by its own predecessors, theologians, popes, bishops and councils, until the XVII century (except for some rare discordant hints) and that this thesis did not become official doctrine before Pius IX’s, to be finally introduced in the code of canon law only in 1917.

Unfortunately for the hierarchy and for its frantic and servile political and media claque, this “scientific” evidence cannot be confirmed by scientists that, as scientists, can only say what a zygote, a morula, a blastocyst, an embryo, a foetus, an individual are, but of course cannot define what a “human person” is, as this is no scientific concept; neither is this pretence considered as an undisputable truth by the generality of believers and nonbelievers, not even of Catholics; and it does not correspond even to the orientations by now prevalent in Europe among many Protestants, for instance, the Italian Waldensians.

The extremist and unfounded nature of the starting postulate is even unveiled by the sacramental and liturgical practice of the Catholic Church itself, that does not baptise foetuses, does not traditionally officiate religious funerals even of foetuses so developed to be confused by non-scientists as those of chimpanzees (in Italy uproar was caused some years ago by the isolated but consequential initiative of the bishop of L’Aquila, and if just now the custom starts to spread out, that is because it is essentially a political practice) and follows the common sensitivity when it does not consider a mournful event the missed natural implantation of a blastocyst in the maternal uterus and the consequent “death” of the “person” at issue: a fate that, concerning 80% of conceptions, should push the entire humanity, and especially all young heterosexual couples, to fall into a recurrent, obsessive and nearly perpetual mourning.

Instead we should rejoice: with a structural multiplication of the birth rate by five, human life on Earth would be extinct long ago; neither would it enjoy good health with the billion inhabitants more whose lack many fundamentalists deprecate because of the abortions performed in the last decades.

This last element should indeed impose a more realistic evaluation of the problem: for mother nature itself the embryo, until it is just an embryo, is just an attempt, that still has a negligible “value”. But an embryo that has not developed a hint of a nervous system yet, deserves our compassion less than a sentient animal, as the latter, at least from the physical point of view, is somehow capable of feeling pain in a way probably similar to ours. Claiming that even a set of cells of the size of less than a millimetre has the same value of a human being is a pure and simple absurdity, as demonstrated by the dilemma introduced at the beginning: those who really share the official Catholic opinions should also be prepared to prioritise the frozen phials and let the two children burn alive, since rescuing hundreds of “persons” is better than rescuing just two. That is a point of view similar to that of those extreme animal rights advocates, and extreme ethical vegans, who think that frying an egg is equal to wringing a hen’s neck. At a stage of development lower than that of a sentient animal, the embryo should not have, and it has not been given  in the past (when the catholic Church itself used to consider it “inanimate”), a value per se higher than that of a chicken. But less superficial would be the comparison to a coelenterate.

A value, an enormous one, can obviously be subjectively ascribed to the embryo by the pregnant woman, in the hope that it will develop and be born: but only if and as long as she does nourish that hope, within an affective relationship which is necessarily unilateral. And indeed an abortion committed against the will of the woman is rightly considered by everyone a very serious crime.

And if the advancements of the last years make it possible for less and less mature foetuses to survive (often in dreadful conditions), rather than reducing the time in which a woman can ask for the interruption of her pregnancy, or imposing her a “pause for reflection”, we should take care of facilitating a decision as quick as possible, even with all the more prompt tests that may be necessary and opportune, in order to avoid any physical suffering of embryos who have already developed some sensitivity, taking into account the more and more widespread concern for animal suffering.

But of course, the main way to avoid abortions should be the most widespread availability of information and means apt to prevent undesired pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, with a wider presence of condom machines, also in schools, and the free purchase and availability of the morning-after pill without prescription, as already happens in many countries. But that is exactly what religious fundamentalists and their political friends loathe, because their great concern for foetuses precisely originates from the will to artificially restore a waned political and cultural supremacy and to reinforce the privileges and the economical burdens imposed to the whole secularized community (as in the past Islamic sovereigns used to do against the dominated Christian populations); and to bring back all the manias, obsessions, prejudices, discriminations of a traditionalist sexual morality that has now been, since decades, largely in the minority: and not even through education or conviction, but just trying to materially damage the existence of those who do not line up with them. Eventually, it is not a matter of protection of the embryo as a “human person”, but just an attempt to compel all citizens to adopt behavioural rules consistent  with their own ideology, their own world view – and more often, eventually, with their own religion – and to make life miserable and difficult for those who do not want to adapt because they have different convictions, principles and values: especially concerning their own sexual life.

What has been said on abortion comes back precisely in the field of assisted human fertilisation. Not even the Italian law on artificial insemination – which was in its original version one of the most restrictive in the world, passed by a clerical and populist parliamentary majority lead by Berlusconi, and later declared in several parts invalid by the Italian Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights – got so far as to forbid any destruction of embryos within the necessary procedures: the law, in its original formulation, just limited to three the number of embryos that could be destroyed in the attempts of fertilisation and thus inflicted to the woman painful and useless procedures and harassment (this way pushing all those who could afford it to seek fertilisation abroad). But how is it possible that those who affirm that the embryos are persons then admit, even within rigid limits, their “murder”?

Same problem each time politicians decide to forbid or restrict medical research on embryonic stem cells, that, according to most researchers, constitutes the most promising way  to treat many serious invalidating or deadly diseases in the future. Even supernumerary embryos, produced within the procedures necessary for artificial fertilisation, and even if they cannot be used in other fertilisations, cannot, according to the Italian law and those of other countries, be used for medical research. Yet, as said, their inevitable supernumerary production has been foreseen, even though in the ridiculous number of three – a limitation ruled out by the Constitutional Court – by the ultra-restrictive law itself, introduced by Berlusconi’s majority. In this case, too, if  the premise is that every embryo is a “human person”, it should be evident how absurd the provided sanction is: destroying three “persons” was considered licit, but jail up to three years and fine from 50,000 to 150,000 euros was provided for professionals that would destroy a forth one! Moreover: three years and a fine, for a premeditated murder? What sense does it make to provide a compromise between a principle whose inevitable consequence would be the provision of the maximum punishment  provided for by criminal law and the obvious practical impossibility to enforce the aberrant consequences of that principle? In this case, too: how is it possible not to come to the conclusion that the consequences are aberrant because the premise itself is simply aberrant?

It is because of these ideological prejudices, that also in this case are inevitably applied with utter inconsistency, that most European and Western countries arbitrarily limit the freedom of scientific research and also impede investments, occupation and development in an economic and scientific sector among the most advanced in the world.

But it is first of all the human cost of the transposition into law of religious prohibitions in this field to be fierce and incalculable: the law does not just capriciously create obstacles to artificial insemination for sterile couples. Forbidding the research on embryonic stem cells makes it impossible for science to follow one of the ways considered by many scientists the most promising for the future of medicine and the research of treatment for the most deadly, dreadful and invalidating diseases of our times. Charlatan politicians with no scientific education often claim that adult stem cells can be used for scientific research as well, and that they are as good as the embryonic ones: but it is not a task for politics and politicians, but for the scientific community alone, to decide which ways are more or less promising for research.

Our opponents often object that disposing of embryos for any purpose different from reproduction would be prejudicial to human dignity. We should reply that the dignity to be recognized to the embryo – at very least as long as it is incapable of autonomous sensitivity – is the same that is to be recognized to any part of the human body detached from the person to which it belonged. It would be absurd to preserve at whatever cost a detached part of a human body, and it would be irresponsible to prohibit any use of it for medical treatments or medical research (as it is currently done with donated organs, and as medicine always did with corpses since the beginning of the modern age, defying previous prohibitions – and as it must be done, when strictly indispensable also today, even with sentient and superior animals). On the other hand, it is not and should not be allowed to dispose of an amputated human limb by throwing it into a trash container, and not just for sanitary reasons or in order not to hurt public sensitivity, but precisely out of respect for human dignity, and regardless of the fact that the amputated limb obviously was not a person.

So far our democratic, and even secular, politicians, have often felt obliged to restrain  from using the good arguments they could use, good like all the arguments with which the Enlightened liberal culture consolidated modernity in Europe.

Now they mostly stay aphasic in front of those who intimidate them reminding that all of us have been embryos once. It should not be so difficult to answer that, for that matter, before being embryos we also were dust.  And dust will we return. But that is no good reason to revere dust.

The time has come to face the question openly and without shyness: those who think of hushing us up with the argument that the embryo is to be considered a human person, have to be put in front of the aberrant  ethical consequences of a consequential enforcement of this principle into law. To those who warn us that every embryo is “one of us”, we should answer that this is nonsense. An embryo could of course become one of us: but it could become one of us only after its implantation, its development, its birth. Even an ovum and a spermatozoon, by the way, can become embryos, but only if they preliminarily meet and fertilize each other.

The embryo as such is not one of us and treating it like one of us simply makes no sense.

July 2017

(Translation by Francesco Cuccù, revised by the author)


A previous and shorter Italian version of this article was written for translation into Polish, and published in the “Anthology on Liberty”, “Antologia Wolność”, edited by Miłosz Hodun, Warszawa 2012, a book realized by the European Liberal Forum member organisation“Projeckt:Polska”. A number of European liberals were asked to contribute each with an entry of the dictionary. The publication, funded by the European Parliament, is not for sale, but can be freely downloaded in its Polish text from the ELF site.


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