Tuesday, March 18, 2008

So Much in a Sentence! Part 5 [Jay]

“We should resolve our national debate over embryo-destructive research on the basis of the best scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins, and the most careful philosophic reasoning at what is owed to a human being at any stage of development.”

Robert P. George Embryo Ethics Daedalus Winter 2008

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Sorry for the long delay in this installment. I am even sorrier for the length of this post, but I hope that it reads well enough to get you to the end. Now on to claim #2.

Embryos are human beings with some moral worth, but the greater moral good is served by being sensitive to issues of greater moral importance such as near miraculous cures and therapies for millions of suffering people.

Here we embrace two relevant facts:
1 – The human embryo is in fact a human being
2 – As a human being it is the beneficiary of certain moral rights

Here is the conversation that we imagine that sets us up for this one:

Are embryos human beings? Sure thing.

Do human embryos morally matter? Of course, what sort of insensitive cad would suggest otherwise?

So you agree that it is immoral to destroy them in order to advance medical research? Now hold on there, lets not get ahead of ourselves.

How is this getting ahead of ourselves? Well just because they are human beings and just because they matter does not mean that we stop using them for research.

It doesn’t? Of course not.

Why? Because other things matter even more.

The shadows of this thought linger over many publicly held opinions on this matter. Take for example Will Saletan’s insistence that we respect embryonic humans and be cautious in how we use them. Why respect them? Why be cautious at all? Because they are nascent human life and that matters. It just does not matter enough to stop advancing research that may help cure illnesses and diseases that impact the whole world.

In 2005, I read this article about the ability to take a section of skin from an aborted fetus and grow it into larger sheets in the lab. Then, in lieu of a skin graft, doctors attached sections of the fetal skin to the severe burns of children. Unlike a graft, the fetal skin was absorbed into the wound and then apparently triggered the growth of actual skin cells that filled the burned area. Theoretically, one aborted fetus could supply the skin that would heal thousands of severely burned children.

Now I do not want to address the merits of this research. I have not followed the story up and do not intend to for this post. Whether or not this proves to be an effective treatment is irrelevant to the discussion. What it important is that this gives us a concrete example of what this argument is proposing and how reasonable it seems. I was teaching a class at my church on cultural issues at the time and I brought this up during our discussion of the sanctity of life. I then asked many people in the class if they would endorse the destruction of one fetus if they knew that they could heal thousands of children by doing so. The room was silent for a moment, and then one man very honestly said, “That is tough.”

You see, we can not base our behavior on whether or not the treatments work, but the more promising the treatments are the harder it gets to clear that out of the way. I think I can cure Alzheimer’s if you allow me to destroy this embryonic human being for research. Alzheimer’s is terrible, and it slowly strips our loved ones of all seemingly dignified behaviors and graces of their former selves as they degenerate towards death. Who would not want to see the end of that? If you can promise me that, then it makes a difference in how I feel about killing embryonic humans for research. The same can be said for Parkinson’s and other afflictions.

Notice though that I said it affects how I feel about the act of destroying embryos. That is not the same as saying that we are morally justified to do so. I can understand why those who are impacted by terrible affliction can be motivated to pursue research even when they believe that embryos are human beings in an early stage of development with some moral worth. “Embryos matter, they simply matter less than our children and parents and husbands and wives. If you need to destroy a few embryos to help my loved ones or even me personally, then you have my blessing to do so.” You see, though, that the justification for this position is not and never will be objective. It is emotional and subjective in nature.

You could appeal to consequentialism to avoid emotional entanglement and say that the ends morally justify the means, but there are always serious problems that must be overcome with this line of reasoning. First, whose ends are being considered? Certainly not the ends for the human beings destroyed. The only ends considered in this argument are the ends of the individuals likely to benefit from the research. This then presupposes the point that embryonic humans are less valuable than human beings in a later stage of development. Also, no actual person is in a position to know the actual ends of this type of decision. Even if one could reasonably speculate that miracle cures were forthcoming, how could we possibly foresee that those cures balanced against the possible ill effects of devaluing human life at the embryonic developmental stage as a rule will be positive gains for humanity? We can not. It is not possible to do so, and so it is impossible to reasonably argue that we must be allowed to destroy human “A” for the benefit of humans “B – J” because it will serve a greater good to do so.

Finally, I think the most glaring problem with this line of thought is seen every day in the media and in the arguments in support of embryonic destructive research. Consider that your ability to destroy embryonic humans for research purposes is tied to the actual vs. possible successes that will be seen for many other people. Then in order to make your case you will necessarily be tempted to exaggerate what you can actually do versus what may possibly be done. Possible cures do not justify the destruction of embryonic humans in this argument. So suddenly possible results are championed as actual future results.

I have no right to kill you simply because I can gain a positive good for myself or someone close to me if I do so. And in the case of embryonic destructive research, it is just flat dishonest to pretend that anyone can know that destroying human being “A” today will ultimately be a positive good for all human beings from that point and beyond.

The next post will address the third claim.

Embryos are human beings and of moral value based on their nature or substance and ought to be treated with the same moral obligations and duties that are extended to all human life in later stages of development.


  1. I think we need to separate the following acts:

    1. Taking skin from a dead human being in order to save thousands of lives.
    2. Killing someone in order to save thousands of lives by using their skin.

    There might be general moral disagreement over 2 among different ethical theories, but I don't think most views have problems with 1 unless they assume the libertarian premise that people's body parts shouldn't be used without permission, even if the person is dead. I generally share that premise when it comes to something on the level of whole organs, but I don't think it's a big deal if the government scrapes some skin off me without my permission after I die and then uses it for saving thousands of lives.

    So what's different with abortion? The only difference I can think of is that these fetuses are being killed immorally, even if it's legal. But suppose it were even illegal. Once you allow what I allowed for in 1, it shouldn't matter if I happened to have murdered or if I died of a disease in the hospital that no one was morally responsible for giving me. So why should it matter with aborted fetuses?

    I'm not seeing a strong pro-life argument against this except maybe on consequentialist grounds, and that would only be because people might improperly draw the wrong conclusion from allowing this to the view that the killing itself was unjustified. But is that a good enough reason to avoid saving thousands of lives?

  2. Hey Jeremy,

    I am thinking about this comment and am going to write a seperate post to discuss this. For the purposes of this quick response:

    1 - I was using this as an illustration for the class to the strength of consequentialist and utilitarian arguments and not as an evaluation of this process.

    2 - I think that you are right that this does not qualify as a pro-life issue as it does not meaningfully address the natural rights of living beings.

    3 - I think that it is difficult to craft a counter argument to using the dead as organic resources because the dead do not properly have rights.

    4 - After spending some time working on this last night, I think that there is a danger in the pure utilitarian approach to organ donation.

    5 - Intuition and tradition are the only basis I have to argue for the dignity of the human body and proper respectful treatment of our dead.

    6 - I loathe the perspective that reduces the discussion of human remains to a discussion of property or rightful ownership though that is inescapably where we are now.

    7 - I think that abortion differs from random acts of murder in that it is the institutional and systematic destruction of innocent life and we have to ask serious questions about the ethics of saying that I think it is awful, but at least we can take the remains and use them for somthing good. I did not say I am settled it is wrong, but you rightly see that there are unintended consequences to this mindset taking root that may yield a bitter field for a future generation.

    You brought up an outstanding and complex point and pretty much left me totally absorbed in considering and studying a point that was not central to the above post. Thanks for that. ;-)


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