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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.

 

Here's more from William Saletan, who, in last Sunday's New York Times, reviewed a new book called Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. In Wednesday's Slate, he returns to the subject:

Are embryos morally equal to people? I say no. Robert George, a member of President Bush's bioethics council, and his colleague Christopher Tollefsen say yes. In their new book, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, George and Tollefsen conclude not only that embryo-destructive stem-cell research should be defunded but that any research involving embryos should be banned if it even slightly risks an embryo's health. They propose to halt the common practice of producing extra embryos during in vitro fertilization and to require that every IVF embryo be transferred to a womb.

In Sunday's New York Times, I reviewed the book's arguments. A day later, the authors replied on National Review Online. This is a conversation worth pursuing. George and Tollefsen are pushing the discussion into an area—embryology—where, in contrast to the usual shrieking about abortion, real progress can be made. They're civil, logical, and smart. I've seen George pick apart fuzzy-thinking adversaries at meetings of the bioethics council. It's like watching a cat with mice. Today, unfortunately, I'll be the mouse.

The virtue of Embryo is that the authors stake their case on science and logic, not religion. What makes you a human being, they argue, isn't a soul, but "a developmental program (including both its DNA and epigenetic factors) oriented toward developing a brain and central nervous system." They believe that this program starts at conception and therefore, so does personhood.

I like this bet on science. It's scrupulous, brave, and constructive. Let's toss in our chips and call the bet. We'll have to accept what science shows: Conception is, as George and Tollefsen argue, the sharpest line we could draw to mark the onset of moral worth. But they, in turn, will have to accept the other side of what science shows: The lines of embryology are dotted, not solid. Such lines don't warrant severe categorical restrictions on stem-cell research or assisted reproduction.
Also:
George and Tollefsen assume a clear distinction between wholes and parts. Eggs and sperm are parts, they reason, while an embryo is a whole. At conception, the parts become a whole, the program launches, and personhood begins. But it isn't that simple. Some embryos divide after conception to become two or more people. Are those embryos, prior to twinning, an individual?
And:
The egg-embryo distinction, too, is permeable. George and Tollefsen write that eggs must combine with sperm or die. They say an organism "was never itself a sperm cell or an ovum." But look what just happened at a zoo in Kansas: another case of parthenogenesis—eggs becoming offspring without fertilization. This process has produced adults in dozens of vertebrate species, including sharks and turkeys.
I highly recommend that you read the whole article (and George and Tollefsen's response to Saletan's original review). It's a fascinating, intelligent back-and-forth on this blog's signature topic, the beginning of human life.

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