Posted March 20, 2009on:
I am dismayed by the news that US President Barack Obama plans to lift restrictions on federal funding for embryo-destructive research on new stem cell lines.
Stem cells are cells with the capacity to turn into any other type of human cell, be it a bone, muscle or nerve cell. The popular media often speak as if all scientists are in favour of harvesting cells from human embryos for their potential use in a range of life-saving therapies, and that the arguments against it are posed by reactionary religious groups out to stymie ‘progress’. This is dangerously misleading. It perpetuates the self-serving myth of ‘science as our saviour’ and the muddled view that science and religion are implacable foes.
We are all human animals. And the vast majority of us- all those who were not the products of monozygotic twinning (i.e., twinning from a single fertilized egg) – began our lives at conception. From a scientific point of view, there is no doubt at all concerning what the early embryo is. The early human embryo is a human being at the earliest stage of his or her development. Not a ‘potential’ human being, or a ‘pre’ human being, or a mass of cells, or mere tissue, but an individual member of the species Homo sapiens. The embryo is a new human being- the same self-directing human organism as the later child and adult. The changes from embryo to fetus to infant to adolescent to adult are merely changes in degree of natural development of the same individual.
Where moral reasoning enters is in the following argument. If we accept that human beings are intrinsically valuable and deserving of full moral respect by virtue of what they are (as opposed to what they either possess or achieve), does it not follow that they are intrinsically valuable from the point at which they come into being? In that case, embryo-destructive research would be a violation of the most fundamental human right, namely, the right to life of an innocent human being.
This is the argument that is powerfully advanced in a recent book simply called Embryo, authored by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen. George is a prolific writer and is professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, while Tollefsen is a philosophy professor at the University of South Carolina. Although they are both Christians, they do not evoke a single Biblical text or explicitly ‘religious’ argument. Their approach is based solely on scientific evidence, drawn from human embryology and developmental biology, and moral reasoning that is open to all. The authors are unafraid to tackle head-on the counter-views on the moral status of the embryo that have been put forward, whether they be ideas about the moment of ‘ensoulment’ or attributive views of personhood.
Much of the impetus toward embryonic stem cell research comes from the fact that there are thousands of ‘surplus’ embryos produced by IVF techniques and condemned to perpetual cryopreservation or eventual incineration. This is certainly an unprecedented situation in human history- so many nascent human beings in a state of limbo with little hope of being brought to term. However, this is no argument for killing them, even for putative human benefits, for the same argument could be extended- and is rejected- for infants and children.
George and Tollefsen point out that ‘From the moral point of view, the certainty of death- whether in ninety years or nine minutes- does not alter our inherent dignity or relieve others of obligations to respect our lives. That someone will soon die, no matter what we do, is never a licence for killing him. That the human being whose death is imminent happens to be at an earlier or later stage of development is morally irrelevant. And that he or she came into existence this way rather than that way is scarcely any more relevant.’
Moreover, they urge that the practice of creating and freezing extra embryos as part of IVF treatment ‘should come to an end if we wish to be a culture that treasures life and children, and not one that commodifies, instrumentalizes, and mechanizes them. Reform of the assisted reproduction industry should therefore rank high on a list of partial solutions to the moral and cultural question concerning excess human embryos.’ They commend the example of Italy: under Italian law, it is not permissible for couples to fertilize more than three eggs, and all successfully generated embryos must be implanted in the mother.
When, and even whether, embryonic stem cell research will prove to be therapeutically useful is a highly speculative matter, notwithstanding the inflated claims that have been made on its behalf. In contrast, adult stem cell research has already led to many therapeutic benefits, and it poses no ethical hazards. Similarly, recent studies have suggested that stem cells extracted from placental tissue may offer the same advantages scientists hope to obtain from embryonic stem cells.
Should we- scientists, entrepreneurs, legislators in rich nations- not be promoting these alternative avenues of research as top priority? Surely research that does not involve the production or killing of embryos should be what receives public funding from a government concerned to protect its most vulnerable citizens and to promote the well-being of all. And would it make a significant difference to popular perception if we started referring to ‘embryonic human beings’ rather than simply embryos?
[For more on the 'hype' surrounding embryonic stem cell research, see ch.5 of my Subverting Global Myths (2008)]
 Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (New York: Doubleday, 2008)