The Children of Science: Property, People, or Something In Between?


How should states classify embryos? The war has often waged between two classifications, people versus property. But what if a state assumed something in between, finding the embryo to be a potential person entitled to special respect? If a state adopted this position, how would the law affect medical research?

Presuming embryos constitute potential persons, the debate would continue with how to define “special respect.” The status of a potential person runs along a spectrum between property and personhood. How one defines “special respect” determines where the potential person falls along this spectrum. Special respect would create a spectrum of treatment that extends from a property-like limitation of ownership rights to something resembling rights afforded to an absolute person.

This comment theorizes about the impact of a state that statutorily regards an embryo as a potential person. Such a statute may assert that embryonic material with the active potential to develop into a live born offspring is a potential person due special respect. If special respect was presumed to lie on the person-oriented side of the spectrum, it would afford the potential person something akin to the most fundamental human rights. Such a definition draws into question the common practice of destroying embryos in IVF and stem cell research.

Part I assesses the current perception of embryos as persons, potential persons afforded due respect, and property. Part II discusses the potential insufficiency of characterizing embryos as persons and property. Part III analyzes variances within the spectrum of interpreting embryos as potential persons, including property that offers its owner a limited bundle of rights and persons who possess limited rights of their own. Part III also explains the value of treating embryos as more akin to persons than property. Part IV reflects on the implications that regarding an embryo as a person with limited rights would have upon medical technology. This includes an analysis on IVF, a consideration of traditional techniques for culturing stem cell lines, and an assessment of the most recent medical advances in deriving embryonic stem cells.


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Date of this Version

March 2006