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Jack Sisson's Life Ethics Blog
We must find new ways through many ethical issues, especially regarding bioethics, medical ethics, and criminal justice. Jack Sisson's 'Life Ethics' blog focuses on numerous areas of concern, including the philosophical and ethical dilemmas surrounding stem-cell research, abortion, medical research, and health care.
Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Of Acorns and Oaks
As a college freshman, I had to take a course in World History. I remember nothing about the course except (a) the professor's name, and (b) his striking description of a particular element of medieval philosophy. Item (b) had to do with how people knew that a thing was that thing, and not another. These medieval philosophers believed, said my professor, that "a table is a table because it partakes of table-ness."
I loved that. And it leads me to the subject of this post. If an acorn is an oak, why? and If a blastocyst is a person, why?
A recent Wired Science posting directs us to a Boston Globe column by Michael J. Sandel, who "teaches political philosophy at Harvard." He is also a former member of the Presidential Council on Bioethics -- yes, during the Bush administration. We may then safely assume that he is well-informed, regarding both the philosophical issues (on both sides of the stem-cell debates) and the position of the Bush administration.
As you can see from the page on the Wired site, both the summary and the complete Globe article have stimulated some of the usual reductio-ad-absurdum exaggerations of opponents views at both extremes of the debate, generally stopping juuuust this side of name-calling.
But, with thanks for bringing our attention to Sandel's column, let's leave behind the Wired blog entry, and focus on the column as it appeared in the Globe. It strikes at the heart of many issues at the heart of this Beginning of Human Life blog, here on sossisson.com.
The column may be broken basically into two sections.
In the first section, Sandel points out that neither pro-life nor pro-choice advocates typically expend a lot of effort trying honestly to understand and respect each other's arguments. He then takes up the gauntlet he has cast down, beginning with the pro-life perspective:
It is important to be clear, first of all, about the embryo from which stem cells are extracted. It is not implanted and growing in a woman's uterus. It is not a fetus. It has no recognizable human features or form. It is, rather, a blastocyst, a cluster of 180 to 200 cells, growing in a petri dish, barely visible to the naked eye. Such blastocysts are either cloned in the lab or created in fertility clinics. The bill pending in Congress would fund stem cell research only on excess blastocysts left over from infertility treatments.And then he moves on to summarize the position of advocates of embryonic stem-cell research:
[Brownback's] argument can be challenged on a number of grounds. First, it is undeniable that a human embryo is "human life" in the biological sense that it is living rather than dead, and human rather than, say, bovine. But this biological fact does not establish that the blastocyst is a human being, or a person. Any living human cell (a skin cell, for example) is "human life" in the sense of being human rather than bovine and living rather than dead. But no one would consider a skin cell a person, or deem it inviolable. Showing that a blastocyst is a human being, or a person, requires further argument.It's important to note (despite the hair-trigger vitriol with which some commenters at the Wired site respond) that Sandel is here not laying out his own position. He is attempting to describe the positions of others, in a way which shows respect for both sides. And he does a fair job of it.
The second section of the column addresses the real reason why he wrote the whole thing: To call the bluff of the Bush administration on the issue, because in their handling of it so far they have (as usual, hence unsurprisingly) demonstrated a shameless amoral hypocrisy:
...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. To adapt a slogan from the Clinton administration, the Bush policy might be summarized as "don't fund, don't ban." But this policy is at odds with the notion that embryos are human beings.Got that? Sandel is telling Bush (and his subordinates) to put up or shut up: If it's truly immoral to harvest stem cells in this manner, then at least have the cojones to make it illegal as well. Sandel concludes:
Rather than simply complain that the president's stem cell policy allows religion to trump science, critics should ask why the president does not pursue the full implications of the principle he invokes.To which the only response we can offer, really, is: Amen.
Roe v. Wade
Stem Cell Fight!
Bush the hypocrite
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