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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.

 
acorn
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.

The blastocyst represents such an early stage of embryonic development that the cells it contains have not yet differentiated, or taken on the properties of particular organs or tissues -- kidneys, muscles, spinal cord, and so on. This is why the stem cells that are extracted from the blastocyst hold the promise of developing, with proper coaxing in the lab, into any kind of cell the researcher wants to study or repair.

The moral and political controversy arises from the fact that extracting the stem cells destroys the blastocyst. It is important to grasp the full force of the claim that the embryo is morally equivalent to a person, a fully developed human being. For those who hold this view, extracting stem cells from a blastocyst is as morally abhorrent as harvesting organs from a baby to save other people's lives. This is the position of Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, a leading advocate of the right-to-life position. In Brownback's view, "a human embryo . . . is a human being just like you and me; and it deserves the same respect that our laws give to us all."
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.

Some try to base such an argument on the fact that human beings develop from embryo to fetus to child. Every person was once an embryo, the argument goes, and there is no clear, non-arbitrary line between conception and adulthood that can tell us when personhood begins. Given the lack of such a line, we should regard the blastocyst as a person, as morally equivalent to a fully developed human being.

But this argument is not persuasive. Consider an analogy: although every oak tree was once an acorn, it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that I should treat the loss of an acorn eaten by a squirrel in my front yard as the same kind of loss as the death of an oak tree felled by a storm. Despite their developmental continuity, acorns and oak trees differ. So do human embryos and human beings, and in the same way. Just as acorns are potential oaks, human embryos are potential human beings.
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.

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. If some doctors made a practice of killing children to get organs for transplantation, no one would take the position that the infanticide should be ineligible for federal funding but allowed to continue in the private sector. In fact, if we were persuaded that embryonic stem cell research were tantamount to infanticide, we would not only ban it but treat it as a grisly form of murder and subject scientists who performed it to criminal punishment.
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.

If he does not want to ban embryonic stem cell research, or prosecute stem cell scientists for murder, or ban fertility clinics from creating and discarding excess embryos, this must mean that he does not really consider human embryos as morally equivalent to fully developed human beings after all.

But if he doesn't believe that embryos are persons, then why ban federally funded embryonic stem cell research that holds promise for curing diseases and saving lives?
To which the only response we can offer, really, is: Amen.

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