The Eighth Amendment


Sir, – I write to take issue with some of the scientific points made by Prof David McConnell in his opinion piece “Repealing the Eighth Amendment – the case for the middle ground” (February 6th).

Prof McConnell writes: “It (the fertilised egg) is human and alive but no different in these respects from a sperm – which is swimming around and very obviously alive and human – or indeed any other human cell. From a scientific perspective it is impossible to think that a cell, or small collection of cells, though human and alive, is a person”. He goes on to claim that “a fertilised human egg does not have a different potential from any other kind of cell – we can grow mammals from many different kinds of cells”.

But, of course, a fertilised human egg is very different from a sperm cell. First, the egg contains copies of both parents’ genetic material, while a sperm contains only the father’s genetic material. Second, the fertilised egg will develop, first inside and later outside the mother’s womb, along a biological continuum of embryo, foetus, baby, child, adult, old person and terminating eventually in death. A sperm cell is entirely incapable of this development.

Now, while it is true that, as Prof McConnell states, whole mammals can be “grown” starting out with many different types of cell, this can only be achieved with the aid of heavy technological intervention. No human baby ever naturally developed in the mother’s womb along this route.

The early human is not merely “a collection of cells”, it is the most wonderful community of cells equipped with the full genetic instructions to guide its development along the biological continuum as already described.

Prof McConnell thinks that it is impossible to scientifically think of an embryo as a person. But I would argue that personhood is more properly defined by philosophy than by science.

If you define personhood in terms of the activities capable of being carried out and you define a person as one who can think, anticipate, regret, plan etc, then clearly the embryo is not a person. Neither incidentally is a newborn baby. Philosophically speaking, this way of thinking is called functionalism.

But if you define a person in the philosophical frame of essentialism, ie having the intrinsic capacity or essence to develop the activities of thinking, etc, then the embryo is a person right from the start. In this philosophy, being is actual and functioning is potential.

In other words, the embryo is not a potential person but a person with the potential to become a musician, swimmer, even a professor of genetics! I believe that essentialism harmonises much better than functionalism with the biological fact of the embryo’s smooth development along the continuum.

In his comprehensive article, Prof McConnell generally makes a patently sincere and decent effort to square the circle of the very difficult subject of abortion. Although I am not in favour of abortion, I think there is one thing both Prof McConnell and I could agree on, which is that abortion on demand, where one in five pregnancies are aborted (UK statistics), is not a good thing. – Yours, etc,


Emeritus Professor,

University College Cork.