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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: _L-embryon-n-est-pas-un-etre-vivant-en-puissance

by Francis Kaplan

The Embryo Is Not a Potential Living Being

Translated Thursday 20 March 2008, by Isabelle Métral

Francis Kaplan is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Tours. He is the author of L’embryon est-il un être vivant? (Is the Embryo a Living Being?) Editions du Félin, 2008.

A person is a human living being. The question whether the embryo is a person presupposes another question: is the embryo, considered on the biological plane only, independently of the specificity that the fact that it might be human (namely, independently of the fact that it might be or will be conscious, intelligent, endowed with affectivity and moral sense) would entail- is the embryo at least a living being?

My eye can be said to be alive, because it can see, as can my hand because it can grasp - as opposed to a blind eye or to a paralyzed hand that can be considered as a dead hand or a dead eye in the sense that one speaks of dead leaves, dead tissues, dead cells, dead hairs.
My eye, my hand, are “living organic parts”, to use Buffon’s phrase: they are not living beings.

In fact, the only definition that can be given of a living being is this: it is a being that has functions that can specifically be called vital because they keep the living being alive and need no other functions to keep it alive, and because they are such that if one does not operate , then none of the others will, and then the living being decays. Now my hand, my eye do have functions –to grasp, to see– but they have no functions that keep them alive; they are only kept alive by the living being to which they belong, myself (in the case in point), who am a living being.

The same holds for the embryo. It has practically no vital function; the vital function it needs to be a living being are those of its mother. It is thanks to the mother’s digestive function that it receives the digested food it needs and it would not get this food if it had not been digested by her; it is thanks to the glycogenic function of the mother’s liver that it gets the glucose it needs; it is thanks to the mother’s respiratory function that the red corpuscles of its blood contain the oxygen it needs; it is thanks to the mother’s excretory function that it excretes the waste that would otherwise poison it.

The embryo is not even a “potential” living being in so far as a “potential being” is defined as something capable of passing from this potential state to the state of being that thing in actuality, and only thanks to internal factors. A blank sheet of paper is not a potential drawing, in so far as in order to pass from the state of blank sheet to the state of drawing it requires an external factor, namely the draughtsman. As opposed to this, an acorn is a potential oak, for the soil in which it is planted only plays a nutritional role and it passes from the state of acorn to that of oak by virtue of internal factors only.

The same is often considered to hold for the embryo. But in fact, it doesn’t. The latest scientific research – the full range of which has still not been fully appreciated – shows the mother’s indispensable role. Some of the growth factors that have been identified no doubt come from the embryo itself; but others come from the mother and are sufficiently important to be indispensable to the embryo’s growth: if put in a purely nutritious environment, the embryo will multiply self-identically or in a disorderly way. It is not correct to say of the embryo that it grows: it is grown by the mother. It is not a potential living being; the mother is the potential mother of a living being.

The question of course remains whether, in the course of its development, even before it is delivered, the foetus will not become, if not a complete living being, at least “enough of a living being” to be considered as a living being and if so, as a person; but whichever the answer to this or that question may be, it concerns the foetus (from the fourth month onwards) and not the embryo, which is only too evidently deprived of vital functions.

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