Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Soul Search

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, August 22, 2000 --  

When a British government advisory panel recently proposed allowing human cloning research, it rekindled a long stagnant discussion about the point at which human life begins. The proposal would allow British researchers to grow cloned human embryos provided that they destroy them within 14 days -- the point at which an undifferentiated mass of stem cells begins to show signs of nervous system development.1

The obvious point to this limit is that the human brain, the center of the nervous system, is the most uniquely human part of our physical anatomy. An embryo with a brain is much more human than an embryo without one. Destroying such an embryo would likely lead to much more vocal objections, of the kind that cause periodic shootings and bombings of abortion clinics across America.

Many people, notably Christians, believe strongly that life begins at conception. There have always been problems with this argument. Under natural conditions, many embryos never manage to implant in the uterine wall and thus never even lead to a pregnancy. Of those that do, some later split into two ore more distinct masses of cells, which develop into identical siblings. Few would argue that identical siblings amount to only a single human life derived at the time of a single conception. Such problems should make it doubtful to any rational person that conception is the single point where a person's unique life begins.

These problems have been magnified a thousand fold by the discovery that unique human lives can be created by cloning adult cells. At the surface, it would seem a slight modification to the Christians' "life begins at conception" mantra would be possible -- perhaps, "life begins with a single cell." But such a proposition would be made troublesome by the application of stem-cell technology. One of the research applications of growing a mass of cloned embryonic cells is not to produce a unique individual, but to implant into an existing person (likely the source of the cloned DNA) for the purpose of regenerating damaged tissue. If such a technique were used five times for a single patient, "life begins with a single cell" adherents would have to argue that five other poor souls -- each an identical sibling -- are trapped within the body of the original person. Such an idea is simply ridiculous.

Indeed, it is the idea of the soul that is so critical to this debate. The soul, or consciousness as scientists prefer to call it, is the sense of self that makes us all unique individuals. When it appears in the body has long been of religious and philosophical interest -- now it is of scientific and technical interest.

Throughout history to today, there have been a multitude of opinions. For five hundred years until the 19th century, the Catholic Church believed that "ensoulment" did not occur until the time of quickening -- the point in a pregnancy when a mother first feels the fetus move in her womb.2 Jews have traditionally held that the fetus is but a part of the woman's body until the moment of birth, when it becomes a unique individual.3 The Muslim Koran, meanwhile, argues that the soul enters the body at the time of "khalqan akhar", a vaguely defined third stage of pregnancy that is certainly after the beginning of embryonic organization.4

Thanks to the British panel, we have a brand new proposal -- human life, in some degree, appears on the 15th day of embryonic development. Such an arbitrary point is certainly subject to revision -- it is obviously designed to be a conservative choice with the intent to avoid controversy. As the inevitable revisions are made, tempers will flare. The years to come will host a fascinating but discordant debate about the origin of a human life. With luck, the discussion will be as constructive as it is exciting.

Related Web Column:

Saving the Planet With Clones, June 17, 1997


  1. The Washington Post, British Panel Urges Allowing Human Embryo Cloning, August 17, 2000
  2. Abortion in Law, History and Religion, Childbirth by Choice Trust, 1995
  3. Zwerin, Raymond and Shapiro, Richard, Judaism and Abortion, The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, 2000
  4. Al-Hibri, Azizah, Family Planning and Islamic Jurisprudence, 1993