The Week in Books, No. 17

Embryo: A Defense of Human Life by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen will almost certainly make my top 15 books of 2008 list. The book offers a comprehensive and studied approach to embryo ethics, answering critics and potential objections to the arguments advanced in a logical style you’ll recognize if you’ve done much reading in philosophy.

George (Princeton) and Tollefsen (University of South Carolina) discuss questions of when life scientifically begins, whether or not “personhood” is conveyed immediately or at some arbitrary point post-conception, and who should be in charge of making ethical decisions at taxpayer expense, without using religious supports. That decision is interesting first because it in no way diminishes the arguments made in the book (which are quite strong and well defended), but also because critics of pro-life positions often dismiss such ideas out of hand as being purely religious and therefore not worthy of discussion. George and Tollefson do an excellent job in this volume of engaging in a critical debate using widely accepted terms and easily defensible scientific conclusions, inviting their critics to respond with reason.

Although the book specifically addresses the need for ethics in embryology in the contexts of stem cell research and what to do with cryogenically frozen embryos left over from IVF procedures, the arguments obviously carry over into the areas of abortion and certain birth control methods. The conclusions a reader reaches about any of these controversial topics will vary, but I think an open-minded reading of “Embryo” will serve to deepen your understanding and give you food for thought even if it doesn’t change your mind.

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