Anscombe on Embryos and Persons
Hershenov (David) & Koch-Hershenov (Rose J.)
Source: Anscombe and The Catholic Intellectual Tradition. Neumann Press. Eds. John Mizzoni, Philip Pegan, Geoffrey Karabin.. 2016. pp. 143-160.
Paper - Abstract

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Authors’ Abstract

  1. Anscombe's essay “The Early Embryo1: Theoretical Doubts and Practical Certainties” (2005) and other works of hers appeal, to a significant extent, to an Aristotelian/Thomistic argument of mediate animation2 (aka delayed hominization). On this view, the growing embryo3 is animated by a succession of souls, ending eventually with the rational soul of a human being. This conforms to her belief that while the embryo4 is an individual thing, an organized body, it is not a human being due to a lack of organs. She also considers monozygotic twinning5 to pose significant problems to the claim that the early human embryo6 is a very young human being. Consequently, she argues, though very tentatively, that the earliest human embryo7 is not a human being. And yet, it nonetheless shares the same life as a future human being. To injure or kill the embryo8 in its mother’s womb eight and a half months before it was born would have been to harm it.
  2. In this paper we argue that it is a common misinterpretation of Anscombe to claim that she maintains that you were never an early embryo9 or zygote10. You did exist then, just not as a human being. We will present Anscombe’s argument and demonstrate her philosophical support of the Church’s mandate that we treat embryos11 as one of us. Since Anscombe elicits support from Aquinas, whom she deems to be “intrinsically worth referring to in this context”, we will then present a Thomistic argument for rational ensoulment at fertilization. This, we will argue, is compatible with the basic tenets of Anscombe’s theory, but is distinct from it in that it places the origin of the human being at fertilization. To do so, we will argue that Aquinas’ neo-Aristotelian embryology12 was — as Anscombe notes — erroneous, and that his delay of rational ensoulment is based on this. We will claim that Thomistic metaphysics applied to modern embryology13 renders much more plausible the embryo14 having a rational soul from fertilization onwards.
  3. This is true even in cases of monozygotic twinning15: we will both explain the “problem of twinning”16 and offer solutions that are compatible with a Thomistic read of embryology17. We will suggest that Anscombe overlooked how a hylomorphic account of the existence of two divinely created souls in the zygote18 is more palatable than a purely materialist account of two co-located individuals being present despite the appearance of just one.
  4. Welcome consequences of our view are that, with monozygotic twining, no human being fissions out of existence when monozygotic twinning19 occurs and there is no need for ensoulment to occur at different times for different individuals.
  5. Finally, our account, unlike Anscombes’s, can unequivocally maintain that we are essentially rational animals because we are human animals20 at all moments of our existence.


For the full text, see Hershenovs - Anscombe on Embryos and Persons.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: I don’t have – and can’t find on-line – this essay, but do have:-
"Anscombe (G.E.M.) - Embryos and Final Causes", and
"Anscombe (G.E.M.) - Were You a Zygote?"
which Hershenov also references.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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