Friday, March 7, 2014

Picking on Small People: A Gigantic Case of Begging the Question [SK]

Question-begging means that you assume what you are trying to prove.

Consider President Obama's recent affirmation of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court case that legalized elective abortion. The president praised the the decision "because this is a country where everyone deserves the same freedom and opportunities to fulfil their dreams."

Mr. President, does "everyone" include the unborn?

Flashback to 2001: Lutheran theologian Ted Peters and colleague Gaymon Bennett provide a perfect example of this fallacy. And they try and use Scripture to get away with it. In their article Theological Support of Stem Cell Research, the authors repeatedly assume the unborn are not human. Yet the humanity of the embryo is precisely what is at stake in the debate over destructive embryo research. Thus, the authors beg the question.

You can read the full article at the link above. Below are statements by the authors (italics), followed by my comments. As you read their article, ask if any of the reasons they give for killing embryos for research work for killing toddlers for that same reason. If not, what are the authors assuming about the embryos in question? Pay particular attention to words like “neighbor,” “healing,” and “humanity.” To whom do these authors apply those terms?

“The stem cell debate has been framed by the wrong basic question: its moral heart lies not with abortion, but in its potential good. Stem cell research is morally significant first because it promises healing.” 

Healing to whom? Are the embryos in question healed by this research? Is it “good” for them? Suppose the issue was destroying two-year olds to cure five-year olds. Would the authors suggest we ignore our moral qualms and focus only on the alleged cures? Only by assuming the embryos are not human does their argument work.

“Theological and ethical reflection are at their best when framed by beneficence--a selfless love of one's neighbor that inspires struggle against suffering and death.”

Is the embryo my neighbor? Does destructive embryo research further his well being? Authors beg the question here and simply assume the embryo is not one of us.

“Beneficence asks: Does stem cell research further or hinder the betterment and well being of humanity?”

Again, the authors beg the question. Are embryos members of the human family? If so, killing them to benefit others is a serious moral wrong.

“For those who follow Jesus of Nazareth, decisive here is the Nazarene's ministry of healing. The Christian doctrine of salvation includes healing of body and soul. We human beings emulate God when we engage in our own ministry of healing. Medical research, in its own way, contributes to God's healing work on Earth.”

Does killing embryos for research “heal” them? And does medical research untempered by morality contribute to God’s healing work? What about the Tuskegee experiments in which Black men suffering from Syphilis were promised treatment only to have it denied so scientists could study the disease?

“The destruction of embryos for this research is not irrelevant to our ethical considerations. We must ask a question: when does life begin? Or better, when does morally relevant personhood begin?”

This is truly remarkable. Notice how quickly the authors ditch the scientific question—“When does life begin?”—for a purely subjective one—“When does morally relevant personhood begin?” The authors trumpet science when it suits them (when talking about alleged cures), but ignore it when the humanity of the unborn is at issue.

“The embryo is a potential human being, to be sure; respect for the early embryo shows our respect for God's intended future destiny. As such we do not support research that would lead to the wholesale fabrication of embryos for research purposes.”

Why not? If the embryos in question are not human beings, why not create them solely for destructive research? If they are not human, killing them for research requires no more justification than pulling a tooth.

“Rather, we support research that uses stem cell lines derived from embryos taken from fertilization labs. In the deep freezes of these clinics are thousands of embryos slated for destruction.”

The reasoning here is vacuous. All of us die sometime. Do those of us who are going to die later have the right to kill and exploit those who will die sooner? Death-row inmates are slated for die. May we kill them to harvest their organs? Again, only by assuming the unborn are not human does the argument work.

“Is it ethically licit to take surplus embryos and press them into the service of life-saving medical research? Armed with the principle of beneficence we want to answer, yes.” 

But armed with science—which establishes the humanity of the embryo—and objective morality—which says we shouldn’t kill one human so another can benefit—the answer is no. We do not have a right to kill distinct, living, and whole human beings to benefit others.

“We might recall Jesus' parable of the Good Samaritan. In this story a robbed and beaten man is left on the side of the road to die. Priests pass by on the other side of the road, avoiding offering aid. A Samaritan happens along the road, carries the suffering one to the next town and pays for his health care. Confronted by suffering, the Samaritan chooses agape in the form of beneficence. Reducing the stem cell debate to the abortion controversy, we allow the unnamed suffering man--suffering from heart disease, Alzheimer's, or cancer--to die without aid.”

This misses the point entirely. The parable of the Good Samaritan does not establish the so-called “principle of beneficence” as defined by the authors, but refutes it. Central to the parable is the fact that a man was unjustly beaten so that other people (thieves) could benefit from his demise. Only the Samaritan set aside his own self-interest (benefit) to perform his moral duty to one who was vulnerable and defenseless. If the embryo is a human being, a point the authors scarcely entertain much less refute, their place in the story is that of the thieves who rob from one human being to benefit another.

Again, imagine if the above article were written to defend killing two-year olds to treat five-year olds. Would anyone today justify the author’s rationale?

[updated 9:23 to include Obama's quote.]

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