Chapter 13  : Reproduction: Assistance and Control Issues 

Section 4. Readings

Peter Singer,  Creating Embryos

Summary on "Creating Embryos," by Peter Singer by Sepideh Roozdar, QCC, 2007


In his article, "Creating Embryos," Peter Singer writes about the "standard argument" and how it fails to be convincing in the pro-life argument for an embryo. The "standard argument" states, "Every human being has a right to life. A human embryo is a human being. Therefore the embryo has a right to life" (Munson, 5 th Ed., Ch.8).


The first point Singer brings into question is of "the objection we have to killing human beings, over and above any objections we may have to killing other living beings, such as pigs and cows and dogs and cats…" This egoist idea pinpoints the idea of Homo sapien supremacy over all other living animals and plants. The idea that human beings are different from other animals rests on the idea "based on our superior mental powers," or in other words, "our self-awareness." Singer rests the argument against the first premise of the "standard argument" based on the idea that there exists an obvious plausibility that   "the assertion that human beings have a right to life depends on the fact that human beings generally possess mental qualities which other living beings do not possess."


The argument against the second premise of the "standard argument" is that "the embryo, especially the early embryo, is obviously not a being with the mental qualities which generally distinguish members of our species from members of other species." In other words, it's the contradiction between the idea of Homo sapiens having a higher mental power and the fact that the early embryo does not have a nervous system that makes the "standard argument" invalid in Singer's belief.


Furthermore, he also believes that it is morally wrong to simply say that human beings belong to the Homo sapien species and, therefore, should not be killed. He thinks that it is stronger to make a point as to finding the actual characteristics to make a valid argument. He writes, "we will conclude that neither race nor species can, in itself, provide any justifiable basis for such a distinction." Moreover, Singer also rejects the idea of "the argument from potential," stating that anything with the potential to become a full-fledged human being must also have a right to life. But there is no general rule that a potential X has the rights of an X." In addition, he does not believe that there is much moral significance to the argument that a fertilized egg on its way in becoming an embryo has the existence of a genetically unique entity and, therefore, should be spared for its life.


All arguments against the "standard argument" aside, Singer argues that the "minimum characteristic that gives an embryo claim to consideration is 'the capacity to feel pain or pleasure.'" It is a critical point that the moment at which an embryo feels pain is when strict controls should be placed to prevent the destruction that may be caused through experimentation and/or abortion. Practically, he concludes his article by stating that before this point of feeling pain is where the line should be drawn for the morally ethical way to approach discarding early embryos.

Summary on "Surrogate Motherhood as Prenatal Adoption," by Bonnie Steinbock


In her article, "Surrogate Motherhood as Prenatal Adoption," Bonnie Steinbock argues that surrogacy is not intrinsically wrong, as it should be a regulated procedure as opposed to being prohibited. She starts her article with the case of Baby M, a child born to a surrogate mother, Mrs. Whitehead, who refused to surrender her child at birth. After a long custody battle, the child was granted to the Sterns on the grounds that the Whiteheads were not able to offer a stable home to Baby M. At the same time, the legal mother, Mrs. Whitehead was granted visitation rights—a long story which left the courts pondering over legislations that ensures that this scenario would never happen again.

Outline by  Don Berkich,  University of Texas, Corpus Christi (by permission)

An alternative view is offered by Singer.

Singer is attempting to show that it is permissible to freeze, discard, and sometimes even experiment on embryos. Note that the freezing and discarding of embryos was explicitly rejected as morally impermissible by the Catholic Church's Congregation Document, and experimentation on embryos was allowed by the Congregation only if the procedures were designed to benefit the embryo.

Singer's strategy is to consider two arguments, the Standard Argument and the Argument from Potentiality, which imply that freezing and/or discarding human embryos is morally illicit. He then criticizes these arguments in such a way as to show that they are unsound. Thus we can conclude that Singer thinks that the Catholic Church's Congregation and like-minded theoreticians bear the burden of proof. Accordingly, Singer is assuming it is presumptively true that

It is morally permissible to freeze and/or discard human embryos.

It is interesting to note that this is one of the few instances where new technologies are presumptively permissible. In most cases new technologies have to be proven to be morally permissible to use. There are, perhaps, reasons for being suspicious of Singer's assumption. But, in any event, his arguments are fascinating.

Since his criticisms against the Standard Argument are both complex and interesting, I will review them briefly here.

First, consider the Standard Argument:

1. Every human being has a right to life.

2. Every human embryo is a human being.


3. Every human embryo has a right to life.

Note that if every human embryo has a right to life, then discarding human embryos is clearly morally illicit, as is the freezing of human embryos since it lowers the chances that the embryo has to develop.

Now remember; Singer wants to show that the Standard Argument is unsound. The puzzle is just how to go about doing this. He first points out that the usual strategy is unsatisfactory.

Just what is the usual strategy? The usual strategy for showing the Standard Argument unsound is to accept premise 1 but reject premise 2. In other words, the usual strategy for showing the Standard Argument unsound involves accepting as true the proposition that

Every human being has a right to life,

but rejecting as false the proposition that

Every human embryo is a human being.

Hence, if premise (2) is false, the Standard Argument is unsound. But is this a satisfactory approach?

Singer thinks not. He gives two reasons for rejecting the usual strategy for showing that the Standard Argument is unsound:

1. An embryo is clearly a homo sapiens, but it is not clearly a person. Thus this premise is true only if what we mean by 'human being' is homo sapiens, since all it says in such a case is "Every human embryo is a homo sapiens," that is to say, every human human embryo is genetically human. So there is a sense of 'human being' under which this premise is true, contrary to the usual strategy. What the usual strategy is rejecting, of course, is premise (2) where 'human being' is understood to mean person. In effect, they reject the premise that every human embryo is a person.

2. A further problem for the usual strategy of showing that the Standard Argument is unsound is that it implies that a 32-week fetus does not have a right to life but a 26-week premie does. On the face of it this is absurd, since the 32-week fetus is clearly more developed than the 26-week premie.

Accordingly, Singer rejects the usual strategy for showing the Standard Argument unsound. But he is still interested in showing the Standard Argument unsound, so how does he do it?

In brief, Singer's strategy for showing the Standard Argument unsound is to argue that premise (1) is true only if 'human being' means person, whereas, as we have already discovered, premise (2) is true only if 'human being' means homo sapiens. In logical terms, Singer is accusing the Standard Argument of committing the Fallacy of Equivocation. Essentially the Fallacy of Equivocation is committed when the same word or phrase is used at least twice in a given stretch of argumentation but means different things each time. Thus the argument is unsound not because it has a false premise per se. Rather, the argument is unsound because in order to have all true premises, it must be invalid. Before looking at this in more detail, why does Singer think that premise (1) can only be true if 'human being' means person?

Singer first points out that premise (1) is clearly true if 'human being' means person, since it makes the altogether trivially true claim that every person has a right to life. But why is this the only way in which premise (1) can be true?

If instead what we mean by 'human being' is homo sapiens in premise (1), then what we are claiming is that every homo sapiens has a right to life and we have two problems. First, what about non-homo sapien persons--E.T., for instance? Surely if there are non-homo sapien persons, then they too have a right to life just in virtue of being persons. Having a right to life just in virtue of being of a particular species like homo sapiens seems to get the reason for having a right to life wrong. Second, if we say that an entity has a right to life because it is of a particular species--homo sapiens in this case--then we are engaging in what Singer thinks is the moral equivalent of racism; namely, speciesism.

So if Singer is correct, we can only make sense of the truth of premise (1_ if 'human being' means person and we can only make sense of the truth of premise (2) if 'human being' means homo sapiens. But just how does this show that the Standard Argument is unsound? It does so by showing that the Standard Argument is invalid. Let's replace the terms as appropriate to make the premises true and see what happens:

1. Every person has a right to life.

2. Every human embryo is a homo sapiens.


3. Every human embryo has a right to life.

Now we see that the Standard Argument, suitably rewritten so as to make the premises true, is invalid. In particular, one sees that it is possible for the conclusion to be false even though the premises are both truth. There is not the tight connection between premises and conclusion as there must be for the argument to be valid, such that if the premises are all true then the conclusion must be true. In this case, note that every person can have a right to life and every human embryo can be a homo sapiens without it following that every human embryo has a right to life.

Singer's strategy to show that the Argument from Potentiality is to argue that the first premise of the argument is false. That is, it is not the case that every potential human being has a right to life. Singer's counter-argument hinges on the Two-Petri Dish Thought Experiment and its refined variation.

Susan Jacoby: Entitled to the Embryo?

Selling embryos jeopardizes the value and uniqueness of all humans.

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