“I’m an ex-embryo”

Bioethicist Margaret Somerville discusses abortion and our obligations to the most vulnerable.



Bioethicist Margaret Somerville discusses abortion and our obligations to the most vulnerable.

For many people, abortion is a clear-cut issue about the rights of women to autonomy over their own bodies. Margaret Somerville, a bioethicist at McGill University in Canada, thinks there’s a bit more to it than that.


SIMON SMART: So Margaret, what about the other end of life? Now abortion is considered by many today as just such a fundamental right of a woman in controlling her own body and her life and so on. It’s reasonably clear cut, isn’t it? Or is this another complex ethical question?

MARGARET SOMMERVILLE: I think it is a complex ethical question – but it really depends on your foundational belief: this unique new life that is what you destroy with abortion – is that just a bunch of cells? (Again, language is important as we just talked about in euthanasia.) Or is it this unique life that has never existed before and unless identical twins result never will exist again? And what is the moral standing of that new life?

And today we don’t just have to worry about it as a new life in utero, but also it can be in a petri dish in a laboratory. So, what that raises for us is the ethics of the transmission of human life – is it wrong to create a new human life intending to kill it, intending to use bits of it as a source of, for example, therapies for other people?

And the way that anti-abortion people see it – as one person put it at a conference I was at at Harvard where we were all asked to introduce ourselves, and this was a conference where we were all asked was it ok to set up human embryo manufacturing plants to make drugs from the embryos. And everybody got up and they said things like, “I’m the Dean of Medicine at Harvard” and “I’m the Dean of Law at Columbia” and whatever else – everybody was pretty grand – and this man got up and he said, “I’m an ex-embryo.” And that’s what we all are.

And so anti-abortion sees the moment of conception as being the beginning of each of us as a new human being, and that we’ve all got the same moral status – that from that moment we are all in the process of development and we just keep on developing, and there’s a continuum and you can’t draw a bright line across it and say, “Before this you don’t count, you’re not a human being, and after this you are a human being.”

So the anti-abortion, what they do, instead of focusing the main spotlight on the woman and saying, “Again, we feel sorry for her, she’s got an unwanted pregnancy, she should be …” – all the same things as euthanasia – “she should be allowed to choose, we shouldn’t be restricting her self-determination, it’s a liberty right, it’s a security-of-the-person right”, the anti-abortion people focus that light on the fetus and they say, “Hey, wait a minute – this is a new human being, they’ve got a right to be protected, they are alive, they are already developing, we as a society have obligations to the most vulnerable among us, and when you’re looking at in Canada about 120,000 abortions a year, you’re not looking at a minor problem.”

SIMON SMART: No, and this is where it gets very complicated I suppose, because in terms of the people who are known often for progressive values – the left, if you like, of the political spectrum – will often have great sympathy for and interest in the vulnerable ‘other’. But it doesn’t seem to apply in this case, does it?

MARGARET SOMMERVILLE: Simon, what we’ve got in a lot of these instances is a conflict of two values, both of which both sides accept. One value is autonomy, self-determination, exercised through individual choice. And the other value is respect for life, and the need to respect that with regard to each individual person, and to maintain respect for life in society in general at the societal level. Now in abortion and in euthanasia – the two primary examples – both of those values are involved. And what happens is that each side gives priority to one of those values – chooses a different priority. Pro-choice goes autonomy, then respect for life; anti-abortion goes respect for life, then autonomy. It’s interesting that humans have always formed their major shared societal values around the two great events in every human life: the coming into being and the leaving being. So that’s why these debates are so important because they don’t just affect individual values, they affect societal values that are passed on from generation to generation.