Can a fetus be viewed as an individual


Prof. Dr. Dr. Norbert Hoerster

Prof. Dr. Dr. Norbert Hoerster

To person

Born in 1937, studied law and philosophy. From 1974 to 1998 C4 professor for legal and social philosophy at the legal department of the University of Mainz. Numerous book publications on ethics, legal philosophy and religious philosophy.

Point of view Norbert Hoerster

Is the embryo already a "human"? In the biological sense, yes, believes Norbert Hoerster. From this alone it does not follow, however, that this human being in the early stages of its existence must be viewed as a human being in the full sense.

Prof. Dr. Dr. Norbert Hoerster (& copy Norbert Hoerster)
Articles 1 and 2 of the constitution of our state guarantee every “human being the inviolability of his“ dignity ”and the“ right to life. ”The right to life is of crucial importance when it comes to the permissibility of the killing of embryos - be it in the womb, be it in a test tube - if the embryo already has to be considered a "human" in the sense of the constitution and thus has the right to life, this has the following very far-reaching consequences.

First, abortion in general - both early and late abortion - must be prohibited by law. At most, an abortion, which serves to avert death or serious damage to the health of the pregnant woman, could be discussed. The usual abortions in our society, however, which only serve to terminate a pregnancy that the woman does not want, are completely incompatible with the embryo's right to life as a human being. The stress that a woman is exposed to after the birth of her child is often much more serious than the stress before the birth. But is a mother allowed to kill her born child despite his or her right to life - for example because the child's father left her or because her current partner rejects the child or because as a mother she cannot pursue the desired job? No, anyone who claims that our currently valid release of early abortion is compatible with the human nature of the embryo and the resulting right to life are mistaken for themselves and others.

However, nothing else applies to killing the embryo in a test tube. How can one justify the fact that one may in no way simply kill born, but unborn humans in order to use them for research purposes? Even if this research serves to cure serious illnesses of numerous people: Individuals with their own right to life must never - regardless of their gender, skin color, state of health or age - be sacrificed for the benefit of society.

So the all-important question is: is the embryo - just like the toddler - already a "human"? One has to understand this question correctly. Without a doubt, the embryo is already a human in the biological sense - a human being who, under favorable circumstances, will continuously develop into a typical adult human. From this alone, however, it does not follow that this human being in the early stages of its existence must already be viewed as a human being in the full sense, i.e. also in the moral and legal sense of the word - as the holder of the human right to life. Rather, this is a normative, ethical question that cannot be decided on a linguistic level alone. In this context the not uncommon assertion that every decision for the beginning of the right to life after the beginning of existence of the biological human being is from the outset arbitrary, even discriminatory, is misguided. For it could just as well be said that political voting rights only begin at the age of eighteen are arbitrary and discriminatory. The only thing that matters is this: In the case of the right in question, are there sufficient ethical reasons to grant this right to the living being or human being sooner or later or perhaps not at all?

Why should a human being have a right to life at all? And why should other living beings (such as animals and plants) not have the right to life? Perhaps, as some people think, should not plants be given a right to life, but animals - or at least certain animals as well as humans? Or is it easy to assume that all human beings have a right to life from the beginning of their existence, but not a single animal? This latter view can only appear to be coherent in itself if one presupposes the Christian doctrine of the image of God, especially of man, and of his being animated at the time of fertilization. But this doctrine can hardly be made the basis of the right to life in a modern, religiously neutral state. That means: we have to look for a secular, everyone comprehensible justification for the right to life in general and for its beginning.

Such a justification, based on empirical facts, looks like this in my view. The right to life is of unique importance to ordinary people because it serves a typically human interest in survival. What this means is that people usually have an interest in survival in both senses of the word. You have both the immediate desire to live in the future as well as always new, more or less concrete, future-related intentions and wishes (such as the desire to go on vacation in a month), which cannot be realized without your own survival . It is precisely this specifically human interest in survival that animals do not have, since their conscious life is exclusively focused on the present or the immediate future: If a cat wants to eat food at 4 p.m. on a day, then it wants it here and now and not - like a person under certain circumstances - only in the evening in the beer garden. The interest in survival that people have is based on the fact that people are able to perceive themselves as individuals who are identical in the past and the future and who can reflect on their own past and future.

But it is not only animals that lack this specifically human interest in survival. Even human embryos clearly do not have this interest. The fact that from a certain point in time onwards they definitely have a nervous system and a sense of pain does not change that. As is well known, animals have this too; indeed, some adult vertebrates are undoubtedly much more developed in this respect than human embryos. However, if embryos cannot yet have the specifically human interest in survival due to their development, then there is no ethical justification for granting them a right to life. The following two objections are often raised against this view, but they do not stand up to closer scrutiny.

First of all, it is said that even newborn children and toddlers do not yet have the specifically human interest in survival. So, according to the opinion represented here, these children should also be denied the right to life, which is of course absurd. The premise of this argument is correct, but its conclusion is hasty. The fact that the interest in survival is the real ethical reason for the right to life does not prevent the application of a practical norm for pragmatic considerations that makes the birth of the human being the beginning of his right to life. Because, realistically speaking, how could an alternative limit for the beginning of the right to life be that, firstly, only approximately as clear and easily recognizable for everyone as the birth and, secondly, certainly not too late at the beginning of the right to life?

Secondly, it is said that the embryo must be given a right to life because, given the natural course of events, it will in any case develop into a person with an interest in survival and because this perspective would be illegitimately taken away from it by a possible killing. This argument is therefore unconvincing because a strict distinction must be made between violating an existing interest in survival and preventing the emergence of a future interest in survival. Anyone who does not want to make this distinction would have to condemn any form of contraception, which has the same effect as an abortion, as a violation of the right to life.

For details on the embryo protection dealt with here and on other issues, see Norbert Hoerster, How worthy of protection is the embryo? On abortion, PGD and embryo research, Velbrück Wissenschaft, Weilerswist 2013.