Tuesday, April 10, 2007

On Embryo Ethics

Life size model of baby at 8 weeks after conceptionLife size model of baby at 8 weeks after conception
The Boston Globe recently ran an article about embryonic stem cell research titled "Embryo ethics". I suspect the article's author, Michael J. Sandel, and I draw fairly different conclusions at the end of the day, but I welcome his article to the debate. For far too longer, there's been effectively no debate.

Let me start by addressing some minor "meta" things that irked me before engaging in the debate myself.

First, the article made the front page of Digg, with the Digg submission titled "Embryo ethics: Why Stem Cells Aren't People". I suspect from the article that Sandel would agree that "stem cells aren't people" but he never makes that stark claim, nor does he in any sense "prove" such a claim.

Second, the Digg submission is in Digg's "General Sciences" category. Most of the article deals specifically with President Bush's views on embryonic stem cell research and the article is pretty much devoid of scientific facts and figures. It's largely philosophical and political (which is fitting given the fact that Sandel is a political philosophy professor at Harvard). The article should have been filed under "politics," not science.

Third and final "irk." In the Digg submission title, in the article lead in, and in the article's introductory sentence, the phrase used for "embryonic stem cell" is just "stem cell." Doing so confuses the debate and I wish people (by which I really mean "the media," I guess) would take the time to regularly differentiate what kind of stem cells they're talking about.

OK, now to the content of Sandel's article. Sandel uses the four pages of his article to ultimately arrive at the conclusion that President Bush's position on embryonic stem cell research isn't logically coherent. Sandel's argument boils down to:

[Bush] vetoed a bill that would have funded new embryonic stem cell research, saying that he did not want to support "the taking of innocent human life."

But it is a striking feature of the president's position that, while restricting the funding of embryonic stem cell research, he has made no effort to ban it.


If harvesting stem cells from a blastocyst were truly on a par with harvesting organs from a baby, then the morally responsible policy would be to ban it, not merely deny it federal funding.

Sandel's argument is a valid one, and I can recall Bush highlighting the fact he wasn't working to ban embryonic stem cell research as though that was a "good thing" back in the 2004 debates. When he did that, it rubbed me the wrong way because it doesn't make sense. "I'm commited to not having the government fund murder - but, don't worry, I'm not going to ban it!"

Unfortunately, I suspect most American might actually hold a similar view. And, in fact, Sandel event hints at this, saying "But those who view embryos in this way should not only be opposing embryonic stem cell research; they should also be leading a campaign to shut down what they must regard as rampant infanticide in fertility clinics. Some principled right-to-life opponents of stem cell research meet this test of moral consistency", which leaves a pretty strong implication that there is a good portion of the right-to-life community that isn't part of that "principled" "some".

The fact that the President and a supposed outside-the-principled-some don't have a logically coherent moral position doesn't dismiss the claim that a blastocyst stage embryo is a human being however. Sandel hints at an implication that it does some how dismiss that claim (and the Digg community is apparently buying that implication.) That implication is nothing more than a twist on the argumentum ad populum fallacy. ("If the majority can't believe it in a logically consistent way, it must not be true!")

And at this point, I'd actually like to draw on another logical fallacy - Loki's Wager. To quote Wikipedia:

Loki is a trickster god [...] who [...] once made a bet with some dwarves. The price should Loki lose the wager, it was agreed, would be his head. Loki lost the bet, and in due time the dwarves came to collect the head which had become rightfully theirs. Loki had no problem with giving up his head, but he insisted they had absolutely no right to take any part of his neck. Everyone concerned discussed the matter; and, one could suppose, they are discussing the matter still. Certain parts were obviously head, and certain parts were obviously neck, but neither side could agree exactly where the one ended and the other began. As a result, Loki keeps his head indefinitely.

Consider the question of "when (human) life begins." Like identifying what's a "head," there are some example it's easy to classify. A 20 year old, a five year old, and a 1 month old are all easily classified as "human life." How about a fetus only still partially in the womb? A fetus entirely still in the womb? An eight week old fetus (a model of which is shown above)? An eight day blastocyst stage embryo?

Much like distinguishing exactly where the neck ends and the head begins, deciding a cut off on when life begins is currently, at best, nothing more than conjecture and is colored as much by theology as science.

To give in to Loki's fallacy would be to conclude that since the "concept cannot be defined, [it] therefore cannot be discussed". That's not what I'm aiming for here. Rather, what I'd like to add to the embryonic stem cell research debate is the claim that until we can say with absolute certainty that a six to eight day blastocyst stage embryo is not a human person, we should withhold government funding from embryonic stem cell research (and, in fact, ban embryonic stem cell research).

Moral relativism quickly enters the picture and tries to blur things with a counter claim along the lines of "well, if I don't believe a blastocyst is a human person, I should be able to do research and/or be benefited by research done on human embryonic stem cells." This is yet another fallacious argument; if I hold a sincere belief that you aren't a valid human person, that doesn't give me license to experiment in a way that would destroy your life.

What matters is the actual nature of the blastocyst stage embryo: is it a human life or not? Until it can be definitively shown as not being a life, how dare we engage in activities that destroy what may be a human life.

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