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Some Thoughts on Human Embryonic Stem-cell Research

March 12th, 2009 by Matt

Given Barack Obama’s reversal of the ban on federal funding for research on new lines of human embryonic stem-cells, I thought I might add my own thoughts on the issues around stem-cell research. My thoughts are somewhat tentative; largely because, unlike many in the media, I don’t see the issues as clear cut or as obvious as either side makes out.

I want to address one really bad argument in favour of human embryonic stem-cell research which gets repeated ad nauseum in the media. This is the repeated claim that human embryonic stem-cell research holds “great promise;” this promise offers the hope of discovery of cures for numerous debilitating diseases. In the media this is often accompanied by stories about Hollywood stars such as Michael J. Fox and Christopher Reeves who suffer(ed) from Parkinson’s disease and spinal cord injuries respectively. We are informed that stem-cell research might hold the key to curing these kinds of conditions, the implicit assumption (not actually stated) is that: any action that promises to find a cure for horrible medical conditions is justified.

Barack Obama apparently agrees with this argument as he stated,

Medical miracles do not happen simply by accident … They result from painstaking and costly research from years of lonely trial and error, much of which never bears fruit and from a government willing to support that work.

The problem with this line of argument is that this implicit assumption is false. Two examples will help illustrate the point; the first is from a leading proponent of abortion the second comes from a defender of human embryonic stem-cell research.

Judith Jarvis Thomson points out that if a doctor painlessly kills a group of healthy patients and harvests their organs, an even greater number of people can be saved from potentially fatal conditions via organ donation.[1] It is, in fact, conceivable that forcing people to under go various medical procedures such as kidney or bone marrow transplants would result in numerous people being saved from fatal illnesses.

Despite the ends, neither killing people nor enforcing compulsory transplants are permissible practices. Although such procedures may save people from or promote the happiness of others and in some cases might be life saving, they do so by unjust means; namely, killing and assaulting innocent human beings.

Don Marquis suggests a second case regarding experimenting on human beings and refers to the Tuskagee study where participants were not informed of their syphilis status and without consent were denied treatment for the purposes of medical research, the infamous Willowbrook experiments which involved experimenting upon mentally retarded children in order to ascertain information for fighting diseases such as Hepatitis and the Nazi experiments upon concentration camp inmates to learn how to combat hypothermia. Regarding these experiments Don Marquis notes

The Tuskegee, Willowbrook and Nazi studies were wrong, not because they were bad and useless science, but because the human subjects in them were treated inhumanely … There is now a consensus, both in society and in academic bioethics that this is wrong even when the research will clearly benefit the common good. In short conformity with a respect for human subjects principle is a necessary condition of morally permissible research whatever its benefits.[2]

I contend that Marquis is correct in these sentiments. What made such experiments wrong was not that they failed to bring about the significant results they aimed at but rather that the means they used to do so were unjust and involved disrespecting and degrading human beings. Hence, even if important advancements in understanding what syphilis does to the human body, how to combat hypothermia or hepatitis have been achieved the experiments should still be condemned.

It seems clear the inherent assumption that, any action that promises to find a cure for horrible medical conditions is justified, is false. In assessing a method of medical research one needs to focus not just on the potential benefits of the research but also the means by which these benefits are brought about. In particular, one needs to ask whether the research involves activities such as killing human beings or subjecting them to degrading treatment without their consent.

The problem of course is that in the human embryonic stem-cell debate this is precisely what is at issue. Human embryonic stem-cell research involves destroying human embryos. Hence, the central question must be,

Is an embryo a human being at the point such destruction occurs?
(Embryonic destruction occurs prior to segmentation, segmentation occurs around 14-21 days post conception).

If it is then the fact that Christopher Reeves could have regained the ability to walk or Micheal J. Fox might find a cure for Parkinson’s disease are irrelevant. The fact that you are a Hollywood actor or the President of the United States does not mean that other people can be destroyed and killed for yours or others medical welfare.

So, is an embryo a human being prior to segmentation?

Let me state categorically that I know of no argument for the conclusion that an embryo is a human being at this stage. I believe there are good reasons for thinking a fetus is a human being, which I spelt out in my PhD thesis and I have defended in my academic publications and on this blog. I think that the arguments against attributing humanity to a fetus, such things as the claim that a fetus is not viable, is not sentient, lacks brain function, lacks self-awareness, etc all fail. But the fact that there are good reasons for thinking a fetus is a human being does not entail that there are good reasons for thinking that an embryo is prior to 14 days post conception.

However, this is not as significant as one might think, because while their may not be any argument for accepting that an embryo is a human being at conception, there may be no good argument against this either. Further, a plausible argument can be made that in the absence of any reasons one way or the other, the morally correct thing to do is to refrain from destroying embryos.

Take this analogy, which I have adapted from James Humber,[3] suppose I am in the bush hunting deer. I am informed by radio that at some point on Friday morning a party of school children is going to be hiking along the deer trail where I am hunting. After 9:00am on Friday morning I hear rustling and see movement in the bushes. Despite careful examination I am unable to ascertain whether the movement I see is a deer, another animal, the wind or a human being. Am I justified in shooting at the target?

The answer is clearly no; in fact, even if the deer I am hunting has unusual shaped antlers which I could sell for millions of dollars on Trade Me, the proceeds of which I plan to donate to a local children’s hospital which will help many children be cured of diseases, it would still be wrong to shoot. This is because

(i) I know that at some point in the morning, in that place a human being will be present;
(ii) It is morning and I am perceiving a living object in that place; and
(iii) I am unable to identify whether what I perceive is human or not.

It would be an act of gross recklessness or negligence to destroy the target because these three facts are in play. Something similar seems to occur in the case of human embryo destruction.

I know that at some point that, between conception and the fetal stage, a human being comes into existence. I know that an embryo is in existence at this period of time. Hence, unless I have reasons for thinking it is not human it is seriously immoral to destroy it.

So the real question is whether there are any reasons for thinking that an embryo prior to segmentation is not a human being. The arguments, however, are quite tricky and deal with some interesting metaphysical questions about identity. Perhaps one of them is successful, but even if it is, the continual pontification about Christopher Reeves, Michael J. Fox or the constant reminder about the diseases that human embryonic stem-cell research may lead to cures for does not provide any reasons, at all, for thinking an embryo is not human or that research of this type is ethical. In fact Barack Obama has stated that he does not know at what point in development an embryo becomes human; when asked this questions he answered:

Whether you are looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity is, you know, above my pay grade.

The fact that so many people, including the President of the United States, support destroying a human embryo without even bothering to address this central question is deeply disturbing.

[1] Judith Jarvis Thomson “Killing Letting Die and the Trolley Problem” The Monist Vol. 59, p 205.
[2] Don Marquis “Stem Cell Research: The Failure of the New Bioethics” Free Inquiry, Winter 2002 Vol. 23 # v1.
[3] James Humber, “Abortion the Unavoidable Dilemma” Journal of Value Inquiry 9:2 (1975): 286.

RELATED POSTS:
Marquis, Pruss and the Twinning Argument
Is Abortion Liberal? Part 1

Is Abortion Liberal? Part 2
Sentience Part 1
Sentience Part 2
Viability
Abortion and Brain Death: A Response to Farrar
Abortion and Capital Punishment: No Contradiction
Imposing You Beliefs Onto Others: A Defence
Published: Boonin’s Defense of the Sentience Criteria – A Critique
Published: Abortion and Capital Punishment – No Contradiction

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51 responses so far ↓

  • What are those tricky metaphysical identity arguments Matt and where do you stand on them?

  • Interesting pov… it would seem a logical extension of the school children in the woods analogy, is not to put them at risk in the first place. That seemingly muddies the water even more, ie prohibit IVF.

  • You religious people really do tie yourselves into knots trying to define morality in an objective sense don’t you? Obviously a human embryo is simply a stage between conception and birth. Is it moral or amoral to experiment on human embryo’s? That’s for each society to decide, the universe really doesn’t care.

    Andrew W

  • Matt,

    That is a very good explanation of the immorality of embryo research. I also like your deer/children analogy on why, if you just don’t know, why it’s better not to proceed with embryo experimentation.

    Does that uncertainty with whether or not a human life is involved extend, in your mind, to abortificant contraception, such as the pill?

  • I just stick to the science when defining whether an embryo is human or not. And technically, once the embryo is conceived, they are now a unique human.

    The only real difference between an embryo and a foetus is location – one is floating freely and the first has attached to the lining of the uterus. Location has nothing to do with identity.

    I fail to see how you could find this questionable at all. Why are you unsure whether an embryo between conception and implantation is human or not?

    My own thoughts on this are here:
    http://sjdennis.wordpress.com/2008/11/13/the-morality-of-abortion/

  • I meant of course: “one is floating freely and the other has attached to the lining of the uterus.” Late night, my wife’s off at the ballet and I’m minding the boy…

  • Matt,

    Have you read Embryo, A Defense of Human Life By Christopher Tollefsen and Robert George?

    They address the issue of human identity prior to the apperence of the primative streak, and I think their arguments for personhood from the moment of conception are sound.

    They address the issue of twinning, natural wastage and other common arguments proposed to justify not giving personal status to an embryo.

    I think the precautionary principal argument you express here is a good one, and I use it often when addressing people who are unsure about this issue, but I think that a good case can be made for the personhood of an embryo using potentiality as a basis, and also including other advances in scientific knowledge in the area of embryology.

    I would be more than happy to lend you my copy of Embryo if you are interested.

  • There is no need to slice up babies to get stem cells: they can be (more or less) harmlessly obtained from adults.

    Why would Obama et al want to slice up babies when there is a body of opinion that says doing so is wrong (even if Obama sees nothing wrong with it)? Why not avoid political opposition and use adult stem cells?

    My hypothesis is that this I’ll-push-unnecessary-embryonic-stem-cell-research-at-any-cost blitzkrieg is part of the Marxist agenda of polymorphous perversism and destruction of the family.

    http://christianclassicalliberalist.wordpress.com/2009/02/20/barack-baby-killer-obama-is-bringing-back-embryonic-stem-cell-research/

  • There are 100’s of scientific studies that have been done on AFA and our product StemEnhance. There are also 100’s of scientific papers on Adult Stem Cell therapy. I have listed quite a few on my blog that you can read at http://www.phyl247.biz You can also find the book over at Amazon.com that Christian Drapeau wrote. It is called “The Stem Cell Theory of Renewal” Take a look if you would like to talk feel free to email or call me anytime 877-696-8581

  • Matt would you have any objection to experiments being carried out on miscarried fetuses?

  • Hi Mark V

    No, I would consider experiments on miscarried foetuses no different from an experiment on an experiment on a human corpse. Provided their was consent from the subject ( in this case the child’s parents). That said there are particular actions which I believe it is wrong to do to a corpse even with the subject consent, such as cannibalism or necrophilia. But none of these would plausibly contemplated in a medical context.

  • Andrew W

    Can you answer me wether you think its up to society to decide wether its moral or amoral to experiment on new born infants?

  • It seems the same arguments about personhood not being dependent on the level of development(adult-to-child, baby-to-fetus) extend here as well. Deeming an embryo a non-person is as arbitrary as doing so at any point after conception. Conception remains the only non-arbitrary point at which to declare personhood.

    As to the miscarriage question — I personally would have no problem with a child that has been miscarried being used in research, as I have no problem with any cadaver being used in research. That, in and of itself, would not be a problem. And of course, we’re talking about a miscarriage, not an abortion.

    The questions in such a case would be more about logistics and sensitivity. A miscarriage by definition is unplanned. A woman could have a miscarriage anywhere, and the likelihood of her being somewhere where her child could be collected, properly stored, and turned over for research are slim to none. It’s not the kind of thing you can plan for. And as far as sensitivity, you’re talking about a woman who has just lost her child in a gruesome, possibly painful manner! Is it really right to expect women who have just gone through that to put aside their current pain in order to collect and store their own child in order to turn it over for research?

  • Hi Little shepard

    I don’t think the arguments are quite the same. This is because there are some arguments which suggest a cut off at segmentation,(14-21 days post conception) and this is based on the idea that certain facts about the pre segmentation stage, such things as, cell division, twinning, toti-potentiality, etc make it impossible for the embryo to be the same organism as the human being that develops from it. If this argument can be sustained it is not appear to me to highlight an arbitrary feature of the fetus, if it is to be claim that human beings (such as you or I) came into existence at conception then what comes into existence at conception must be in fact that same organism as the human being that develops from it.

    After 14 days however there is no doubt really that the embryo/fetus is the same organism that develops into a human being. The issue is whether this organism contains the relevant properties to ground a “right not to be killed”. Its this latter issue that is applied arbitrarily.

  • Interesting. I never thought of the metaphysical implications of twinning before. I’d love to hear more about that sometime.

    I’m not sure about cell division and totipotency, though. The physical processes occurring are somewhat different than what happens later on, but it’s still just a stage of human development.

  • “Can you answer me wether you think its up to society to decide wether its moral or amoral to experiment on new born infants?”

    It’s up to a society to determine its own moral codes. Though as a result of the instincts we’ve aquired from evolution it’s unlikely that people would destructively experiment on infants they consider be their own, either culturally or genetically.

    Any major surgury is of course experimental to so degree the first time its performed, but obviously you’re talking about experiments destructive to the subject that are intended to be for the benefit of others.

    Such experiments have been conducted in the past, and to you and I, living in this society with the codes that we’ve been brought up with, such experimentation is repugnant but to other societies, (given the qualifiers above) they may be morally acceptable.

    Tell me Matt, what are acceptable punishments for the following sins:
    Homosexuality
    Adultery
    Theft
    Murder
    Rape

    and what punishments are so severe that implementation of the punishment itself would be amoral, eg; hanging, stoning, removal of the offenders hand?

    Andrew W

  • I hope Matt will explain more about his position on embryocide pre-segmentation. He and I hold different positions on this, I am against embryocide, he is not up to segmentation (after segmentation he opposes it).

    His position is based on Don Marquis’s arguments around continual identity and the problems of identity around the early cell division phase, twinning and recombining – is the person in existance still present if it splits into twins or do two new people pop into existence? If so, what happened to the first person? If not, which one is the first person? If the twins then recombine, as can happen, and go back to being a single person what happened to the two people that were in existence are both or only one of them now in existence, which one, or is this yet another new person? His issue is not the fact of twinning and recombining but what it means as to the identity of the entity. There are also issues around the multiple cell division immediately post-conception as none of the cells are differentiated and are identical to begin with.

    Given the complexity of his position I would not like to attempt to explain its significance, as I said, it is difficult to grasp what the problem is, how it works and why it is significant (I have probably given a very poor overview) – which is also why he is reluctant to get into it.

  • “Such experiments have been conducted in the past”

    I should have said: “Such experiments have been conducted in the past on infants that weren’t seen as members in the experimenting society”

    With behaviour acceptable in other societies that we in our society see as amoral this is inevitably the case, you can kill an enemy in war, or enslave a savage only because the protection a society extend to its members doesn’t instinctively extent to those outside of a society.
    Note: The boundaries of a society in the context I’m using are defined by the social affinity peoples have towards others, rather than by legal jurisdictions.

    Such boundaries are defined by each of us differently, eg. for some NZers Palestinians would be included, for other NZers Palestinians are definitely not people they have any affinity for.

    Andrew W

  • Call me a cynic Madeleine but that comment really is starting to sound like you’re arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. 🙂

    Andrew W

  • As I said, the argument is highly complex and I was not doing it justice.

  • Matt,

    I really recomend you read Embryo, a Defense of Human Life by Tollefsen and George – they make a sound case for personhood from conception, and they address issues such as twinning.

    At the very least I think their arguments provide a robust response to the personhood at primitive streak argument.

    I would also recomend the work of Father Marie-Dominique Philippe, a French philosophy professor and Catholic priest, who founded a religious order of Realist Thomist Philosophers – he does not argue for personhood from conception, but he instead argues that creative act of bringing a new person(s) into existence has already begun at the moment of conception, and therefore any act which interferes with that act to end it is gravely immoral because it denies the new life in process his or her right to life.

  • Once again an absolutely brilliant article.

    You should be published far more widely than you are.

  • Seems to me that this concern about stem cell research is manufactured. After all, despite some opposition when IVF was initially introduced it is now an accepted and much appreciated technique (I have a grandchild who would not exist without the technique).

    Implicit in the IVF technique is loss of embryos (which don’t take)and disposal of malformed and unused embryos. We seem to accept that. So why not have the freedom to donate such embryos to science?

    Seems to me that it is unethical to oppose such donation provided it is done in a transparent and ethical manner.

  • Hi Ken
    A couple of points,
    1. I don’t know who the “we” you refer to in your post is, but many of the people who oppose stem cell research opposed destroying embryos in IVF and continue to do so no inconsistency here. Moreover even if there was, I am not sure it follows that opposition to stem cell research is “manufactured” or mistaken. The fact that a person does not follow their principles consistently does not entail the principles are mistaken or that they are “manufactured”

    2. The fact your grand child would not exist without IVF does not mean that IVF is morally acceptable. There are some people who exist today who would not have existed if their parents had not been raped, it does not follow that rape is permissible.

  • Good Morning MandM,
    I appreciate this article, as it is very well written and stirs my thoughts, but hope that you would review some nettiquette rules about posting links aimlessy on other’s sites. Stop by my site again if you’d like and post your comment. Thanks and God bless you.

  • Not sure I follow, you write on your site:

    “here are the things on my mind

    Stem cell research – I have questions, don’t you?

    If you’ve already written a post about one of these topics … Sign below with a direct link to your relevant post.”

    How is leaving a direct link to a post on stem-cell research in the prescribed spot a problem?

  • Dear Anonymous,
    You didn’t finish the sentence that you were trying to quote from my site. After linking your post on my site, I ask that you also place my link into your post. This is the typical use of a Mr Linky widget. It enables both bloggers to draw extra traffic to their site. I noticed that MandM has posted on many Mr. Linky’s around the Net and have yet to see where the sites were linked back. It’s just courteous networking. Consider yourself informed. Thanks still for leaving a comment. More blessings 🙂

  • This functionality is not a common NZ phenomena; I have never seen a NZ site use Mr Linky, as such I am not familiar with the netiquette associated with it.

    I read and comment on a wide variety of blogs that speak on things broader than what we write on here. I link to the ones I think our readers would find interesting but some are more my interest areas and are outside the scope of this blog, especially the more cooking, parenting, home schooling, craft ones so I don’t link to all my regular reads.

  • Brendan are you able to give an overview of Tolefsen and George’s response to the continual identity problem that Marquis has laid out?

    I think Matt is happy to read the book and of course is always open to argument.

  • Madeleine, are you refering to Marquis idea that abortion is only immoral after implantation, because twinning cannot occur after this point?

  • Matt-
    “The fact your grand child would not exist without IVF does not mean that IVF is morally acceptable. There are some people who exist today who would not have existed if their parents had not been raped, it does not follow that rape is permissible.”

    Are you saying that IVF is the same as rape??? Do I have to look on my daughter-in-law as a rape victim??

    The fact is she, and the rest of the family, were extremely happy about this event.

    And another fact is that IVF is permissible (rape is not). It’s certainly legally and ethically permissible.
    There may be some individuals who object to it “morally” – but they cannot be allowed to make decision for the rest of society.

    These sort of discussion need to be made by society as a whole. When dogmatists have been able to dictate their own “morality’ it has lead to opposition to many important humane advances (eg. anaesthetics in childbirth, vaccination, etc., etc.)

    I think this illustrates that those opposing President Obama’s decision would also oppose IVF and probably many other humane procedures.

  • Hi Ken

    You write
    “Are you saying that IVF is the same as rape??? Do I have to look on my daughter-in-law as a rape victim??”

    No, nowhere did I say IVF is the same as rape, What I said was that the fact that a person you love was brought into existence by some action does not entail that the action is morally permissible. The example of rape illustrates this point, there are people whom are loved cherished and respected ( and rightly so) who have come into existence as the result of rape. that does not mean rape is Ok.

    You then add
    “The fact is she, and the rest of the family, were extremely happy about this event.”

    I am glad you and your family are happy. However, the question was whether stem cell research ( or in the case you raise IVF) is morally permissible. The fact that an action has a consequence that makes you and your family happy does not mean the action is morally permissible. If you were the family of a person needing an organ donation, the availability of an organ would make you happy, it does not mean however that careless motorists who kill organ donors in car crashes do something permissible. In fact in my original post I pointed out two cases where the action would benefit people and make them happy and yet the action is wrong. Simply repeating the claim I have already rebutted does not address it.

    You write
    “And another fact is that IVF is permissible (rape is not). It’s certainly legally and ethically permissible.”

    I am surprised you offer this argument as it’s clearly circular; the question is wether a particular argument is morally permissible, your argument apparently is to state it’s different from other practises because it’s permissible.

    “There may be some individuals who object to it “morally” – but they cannot be allowed to make decision for the rest of society.These sort of discussion need to be made by society as a whole.”

    You say “society as a whole must decide” the problem is that those who oppose Stem cell research are part of society so what you must mean is that the majority in society must decide. The problem here is that it’s simply false to assert that whatever a majority decides is correct. Many minorities have been persecuted and treated unjustly by willing majorities. The issue is whether a practise is right not whether its popular

    You write
    “When dogmatists have been able to dictate their own “morality’ it has lead to opposition to many important humane advances (eg. anaesthetics in childbirth, vaccination, etc., etc.)I think this illustrates that those opposing President Obama’s decision would also oppose IVF and probably many other humane procedures.”

    Ok there are two things here, first is your claim that “dogmatists have been able to dictate their own “morality’ it has lead to opposition to many important humane advances” This is a historical claim and one that is probably false. In fact the people you refer to opposed slavery, got rid of infanticide, gladiator matches, spoke out against witch trials, limited warfare and a whole host of over reforms.

    Second, even if you claim were true it does not show that these people are wrong on stem cell research. Pointing out that a person is wrong on some other issues does not entail that the argument they make on this issue is unsound. To show that you actually have to address their argument and show why its mistaken. I note you have not done this.

  • Hi Brendan

    I’d be happy to read the book you refer to.

    I guess my scepticism are based on the following issues.

    The twinning argument gives me some pause, up until 14 days an embryo can twin. Now clearly both twins cannot be identical with the organism that proceeded them because otherwise by transitivity of identity they would be identical organisms and not separate organisms. This means that either (a) One of them can be, identical with the preceding embryo or (b) neither are. If (a) is true there is a real problem because any grounds one has for identifying one with the proceeding embryo will apply to other and hence provide rational grounds for identifying both. If (b) we have to claim that twins do not begin at conception but at 14 weeks. Hence either the preceeding embryo was not human ( in which case its hard to say why an embryo which is the same in all other respects but does not twin would be) or to claim that a human came into existence and then was destroyed at twinning.

    This does not show that human beings do not come into conception, its possible that one twin began their and we have no rational basis for knowing which, and its possible human beings are destroyed by twinning. But this does I think decrease the plausibility of the claim that an embryo came into existence at conception and certainly I think raises questions about our ability to know that it does.

    However, the real question I have comes from Marquis latest work on Stem Cell research. He notes that after conception a single celled zygote ( lets call it Z)splits into two cells. (X and Y) He then notes that this creates problems about identifying which of these two new cells is identical with the preceeding ones. Any reasons for identifying X with Z will also provide reasons for identifying Y with Z, hence the appears no rational way of answering this. If one states that its both Y and Z individually the transivity of identity leads to contradictions. If one identifies it with the collective of X and Y together questions arise as to why given that individually X is no different from Z why a identifying a double celled organism is preferable to a single cell. The only reason I can think of is to preserve the belief that life begins at conception.

    It seems to me then that there are real puzzles regarding the early embryo which make me doubt we can really know what its status is. For this reason I think the kind of agnostic argument I offered is the most plausible.

  • Matt – your style of debate is problematic.

    Rather than discussing the issue of stem cell research or IVF on the facts of the specific procedures themselves (where surely the only logical, moral, conclusion can be based) you get into the red herring fallacy. Why bring up rape? Why isolate the possible benefits from this research and then compare the research with harvesting organs from healthy people? Why bring up experiments undertaken by Nazi specialists?

    All these are red herrings.

    If you oppose IVF then discuss the evidence based reasons for this by discussing the procedures – not comparing IVF children to those resulting from rape. Besides being insulting it is irrelevant – a red herring.

    If you oppose scientific research in areas like stem cells – then discuss the procedures and the issues around them.

    Personally I see your use of the red herring approach as an indication of weaknesses in your ability to justify opposition to IVF and stem cell research.

  • Hi Ken

    I am sorry but your comments show a fair bit of confusion.

    First, I have written my reasons for being critical of stem cell research based on the facts about the procedures in the post above. The facts I cited were (a) the fact that the procedure destroys human embryos, b) The fact that we do not know whether or not embryos are human beings and (c) a moral principle governing our moral duties concerning destroying organisms when we do not know whether they are human.

    You are still to address either of these points.

    Second, you again suggest my (actually Don Marquis’s) reference to “nazi experiments” is a red herring. This however is merely an assertion on your part and one that is false. If an example shows that a premise of an argument is mistaken then it’s not a red herring to cite that example in critique of the argument. That’s what I have done, it has been repeatedly argued that stem cell research is licit because [a] it holds promise for curing various medical conditions and [b] a procedure that holds such promise should be pursued. The nazi experiments show that this conclusion is false, I maintain that even if they had showed promise they would still be wrong. Do you disagree?

    In a similar way you defended stem IVF by suggesting that [a] your grand daughter would not be alive if not for the practise and [b] any action which is such that your grand daughter would not be alive if it had not been performed is permissible. The rape example shows that {b] is false. There are grand daughters who would not be alive today if not for rape; rape is not permissible.

    So I have given an argument based on certain facts and I have raised relevant counter examples to the arguments you and others have proposed. Simply calling this “insulting” and affirming that it’s a red herring ( when it isn’t) and claiming I gave no argument ( when I did) do not address the arguments I actually gave.

  • Yes – Matt. You have presented some arguments specific to the technique. My point is that these are inadequate – and have been judged so by society.

    The very fact that society judges morally acceptable birth control (often meaning the loss of human tissue, including fertilised embryos before implantation) and IVF suggests to me that society will also reject arguments arguments as acceptable moral objections to stem cell research. In fact there already seems to be a majority moral support for this in the US and I believe it will also be supported in NZ.

    Actually human life precedes fertilisation and this should not be used as a dogmatic moral barrier. There are moral and ethical issues around issues of fertility control and scientific research in this and other areas but they are a lot more sophisticated than the ones you present. In general, I think social discussion can get beyond the naive argumentation you present.

    My point is that your moral justifications are inadequate. It is irrelevant to raise issues of Nazis, rape, etc. You should address the moral issues surrounding the specific techniques of IVF and stem cell research (and there are some) – not bring in red herring justifications.

    I am not supporting IVF because of my grandson. My support (and that of my relatives) obviously preceded this. So it is silly to present my psotion in that manner.

    And it is no good responding by saying that because society accepts a procedure doesn’t make it morally acceptable. We are not stupid and don’t need that obvious point to be made. In these cases society has made the moral decision before legally accepting these procedures.

    As I said, the moral discussion is more sophisticated than the way you present it.

  • Hi Ken

    Still no attempt to address any of the points I made.

    You assert that my arguments are inadequate however merely stating this does not show it to be the case.

    You go on to assert call my argument is ‘naïve’ and lacks the requisite sophistication, but again calling my position names is not a response either. Moreover even if my arguments are niave and lacking sophistication that’s irrelevant the issue is whether they are sound and that’s determined by addressing them not calling people names.

    You state my arguments are irrelevant, however in my previous comment I pointed out they are not irrelevant and simply repeating a position I have offered an argument against is not an argument either.

    I am sorry but simply saying something over and over is not an argument.

    The closest I can see to an actual argument in your comment is your claim that “society judges morally acceptable birth control (often meaning the loss of human tissue, including fertilised embryos before implantation) and IVF” and that “society will also reject arguments arguments as acceptable moral objections to stem cell research.”

    The problem is that latter in the same post you admit quite candidly that this is a bad argument, you note

    “And it is no good responding by saying that because society accepts a procedure doesn’t make it morally acceptable. We are not stupid and don’t need that obvious point to be made”

    So its not clear exactly what you are saying. On the face of it you seem to both make and argument and then admit the argument is a bad one. How exactly does this esthablish anything.

  • Perhaps I haven’t made myself clear:

    1: We would be stupid not to recognise (we don’t need it pointed out) that just because society accepts a behaviour doesn’t make it morally acceptable.

    2: It is misleading to assume the fact of social acceptance always implies no moral consideration.

    3: Society often does go through discussions about the morality of procedures and obviously this is an important feature of the democratic process and social cohesion. (Some of the new possibilities offered by IVF are currently under discussion such as testing for genetic problems and/or sex selection, eye colour etc.).

    4: There is a general social consensus on the morality of birth control procedures and IVF procedures. This preceded legislation. One can conclude that this moral acceptance would also cover the use of surplus embryos (which otherwise would be discarded) for research. This is really the level of President Obama’s decision (and power to decide).

    5: There are other moral questions which could arise (such as the permissibility of harvesting extra ova specifically for research, payment for ova, etc., etc.). Obama hasn’t got the power to rule on those and obviously this would require further social discussion. I would imagine society would not accept many of these sort of procedures and legally they would be prevented.

    6: Now, you and others may have a minority moral viewpoint on these matters. However, you should recognise that the acceptance of the rest of society is not a decision made without moral consideration. That is, it is a red herring to use the argument outlined in para 1. And it is insulting because it assumes that society has not taken moral considerations into account in making its decision – just because their moral decision is different to yours.

    In general, my contribution was meant to draw attention to your red herring justifications as being inappropriate. We could discuss the details of your argument about when an embryo becomes human but I suspect that we just boil down to stating our different positions.

    However, I did say “human life precedes fertilisation and this should not be used as a dogmatic moral barrier.” Life is a continuous process and so the specific argument you proposed can lead to all sorts of silly conclusions (and they have done in the past) about contraception, masturbation, etc. That’s why I said we need a more sophisticated moral reasoning.

    In general social moral consideration of these matters has been more sophisticated.

  • “However, I did say “human life precedes fertilisation and this should not be used as a dogmatic moral barrier.” Life is a continuous process…”

    So morally there is no difference between an egg and a sperm and both joined into something that will in 9 months be a human being? “Human life” may preceed fertilisation, but the life of a human does not.

    In fact, that is so ridiculous an argument you are simply mocking your own claim to be rational.

    As for your “majority rules, don’t tell me they didn’t make amoral decision” arguement, what about S59? It’s very clear that society is against the repeal (as it was a repeal). Numerous surveys have been taken throuout the very extensive publicity and have shown, if anything, a firming of the opposition to a smacking ban.

    Yet it happened anyway. Society did *not* make a decision, a few people with an agenda did. I would be interested if you could somehow prove that abortion for example even had a majority support when the law was changed.

  • Matt and Ken,

    I believe Italy has the right idea as far as the ethical concerns of IVF is concerned, as they limit the number of eggs fertilized to 3, and all of these eggs are required to be implanted in the mother. There are, therefore, no extra embryos to be destroyed or otherwise disposed of. The issue of dealing with leftover embryos is therefore not something that either the parents or the fertility clinics have to deal with.

    Here is an article that addresses the ethical issue of leftover embryos: http://voiceofrevolution.askdrbrown.org/2009/03/18/leftover-embryos-what-are-our-options/

  • Back to the twinning argument. This is basically a natural cloning process.

    A conceived embryo is clearly alive, the issue here is whether it is a “person” or not, however we define that. Matt, you assert that as it may later become two people it may not yet be a person.

    If the technology ever becomes available to clone a human adult (some claim it has already been done), an human adult could later become two humans. Does this mean the adult was not a human before the cloning? Of course not.

    If a bacterium divides to produce two identical clones, does that mean it was not a bacterium before the cloning?

    The embryo is one human. If at some later point it can become two humans, that does not detract at all from the fact that it is already human. It only means that by killing it you have cut off the potential for two lives rather than only one – which is twice as bad.

    You may be mixing this up with the question of when the soul is placed in the body. This is a question that only God can answer. As He knows whether there will be one or two babies coming from that conception, He is able to sort this out himself – and one day we will get to ask Him when He did it. Until that day we cannot worry too much about this unanswerable question, and must stick to the science. Which in my mind is very clear – life begins at conception.

  • For those of you interesting in the continual identity issue that twinning and early cell division raises issues for, see Alexander Pruss on Marquis’s Transitivity of Identity Argument.

    I was struggling to answer Matt so I enlisted some help 😉

  • Hi Ken

    Still having problems seeing where exactly your argument is, as far as I can tell it boils down to three pionts.

    1.You state

    There is a general social consensus on the morality of birth control procedures and IVF procedures. This preceded legislation. One can conclude that this moral acceptance would also cover the use of surplus embryos (which otherwise would be discarded) for research. This is really the level of President Obama’s decision (and power to decide).
    Well as you noted the fact society affirms something does not make it right so its hard to see the force of this but I will add a point of fact. First, there is not a consensus on the things you mention, unless you assume that the Catholic Church is not included as part of society. Second, there is a consensus that one should not destroy or harm human subjects even if this advances medical research. And there is not a consensus on when an embryo becomes a human subject. In Roe v Wade the supreme court explictly stated that it could not address this question, moreover I quoted Obama himself saying that resolving it was above his pay grade. So the alleged consensu you refer to is not as solid as yo think.
    2.Now, you and others may have a minority moral viewpoint on these matters. However, you should recognise that the acceptance of the rest of society is not a decision made without moral consideration. That is, it is a red herring to use the argument outlined in para 1. And it is insulting because it assumes that society has not taken moral considerations into account in making its decision – just because their moral decision is different to yours.
    Well this would have bite if I had suggested society had not made some considerations or if I had said that there decision was mistaken just because it was different to mine. But I did neither, instead I noted that the arguments ( considerations) being made were unsound and I commended my own position not on the basis that it was mine, but on the basis of an argument, which again you ignore. I am interested which premise do you disagree with [1] that even if a medical technque promises to increase happiness its not justified if it achieves this goal by immoral means [2] that we have no reason either for affirming or denying that a fetus is a human being. [3] that if one does not know wether what a fetus is human or not its immoral to destroy it. Some actual argument against either of these premises would be of interest, merely stating my argument is a red hering is not.
    3.The best I can tell the only response I got was
    However, I did say “human life precedes fertilisation and this should not be used as a dogmatic moral barrier.” Life is a continuous process and so the specific argument you proposed can lead to all sorts of silly conclusions (and they have done in the past) about contraception, masturbation, etc. That’s why I said we need a more sophisticated moral reasoning.
    But note again I did not argue its wrong to destroy an embryo because its human life, I argued its wrong to destroy it because we do not know wether or not it is a human being. This is not true of sperm or ova, the very reason you cite this as a silly conclusion is because you and I recognise that a sperm and or ova is not a human being and it would be absurd to say it it is. Hence, this argument does not address my point.

  • Andrew

    When you affirm that society should decide or society has a right to decide, who invents that rule. It obviously can’t be society because they would need the right in order to invent it.

    It sounds like your actually an objectivist who believes that societies have an absolute objective right to be obeyed.

  • I must say your initial premise is incorrect. You cannot say that because society chooses to do stem cell research that it indicates we are prepared to carry out any research which has promise. Your thinking is making a great leap herewhich is wrong.I myself lean towards stem cell research however you have given me things to think about. First I cannot prove a blastocyst ( bundle of cells very early after conception) is either human or not human so you are right that ethically and morally the right thing to do is err on the side of caution and not to experiment on stem cells. I find myself considering IVF and the waste embryos which are discarded. I have long believed that we should use them for stem cell research. But I now think what if they are human I cannot prove or disprove this it is wrong to discard them in this case. As an analogy what if we were to experiment on death row inmates we know they are human but they are to be discarded. I think we can all agree it would be wrong to experiment upon them. Thankyou for this thought provoking blog you have given pause to consider my oppinion

  • Hi Guest

    Thanks for your generous comments
    I am not sure exactly what your objection to my argument here is you write I must say your initial premise is incorrect. You cannot say that because society chooses to do stem cell research that it indicates we are prepared to carry out any research which has promise

    I think more point is more that this appears to be an implicit premise in many of the arguments one hears. One hears frequently that embryonic stem cell research is justified because of the promise it provides for curing various diseases. This argument is unsound unless you assume that whatever has promise for curing diseases is justified.

    Recent blog post: Belief without Proof: Is Belief in God Rational if there is no Evidence? Part II

  • Sorry I was not clear before. Just because we choose one line of research which has promise does not indicate that we will choose any line of research which shows promise. We dont allow cloning of ourselves to produce limbs or organs. I agree that to say oh this shows promise therefore we should follow this line of research is wrong. Each line of research needs to be examined in an ethical vacuum to determine if it should be allowed.

    One thing I can say is that embryonic stem cells do have unique properties which adult stem cells do not. This one reason why they are considered especially important.

    Also you do not stop one avenue of research because another opens up ie embryonic stem cells vs adult.

    I am also saddened that Barack would side step such a morally charged issue with a relatively glib answer.

    I myself am still undecided, the scientist in me tells me that this is a sack of pluripotent cells which can if allowed become a human. The humanistic side says when does that sac of cells become a human.

    I refuse to work on animals or mostly even kill insects because I believe all life has an innate right to life just by having been born.

  • Andrew when you affirm that society should decide or society has a right to decide, tell me, who invents that rule? It obviously can’t be society because they would need to possess the right in order to invent it.

    You are coming accross more like you’re actually an objectivist who believes that societies have an absolute, objective right, to be obeyed.

  • “We are informed that stem-cell research might hold the key to curing these kinds of conditions, the implicit assumption (not actually stated) is that: any action that promises to find a cure for horrible medical conditions is justified.”

    That’s about the point the argument fails and falls into a strawman argument, the argument is based on the assumption you’ve made – not on what the actual stance is. Obama was simply pointing out the arduousness of doing research, the medical treatments we have today are the result of trial and error, some of it over centuries. I believe historically the first attempts at blood transfusion took place many centuries ago. Of course these experiments were doomed, because they didn’t understand blood grouping. Those attempts would never be replicated today, given the protections of the subjects of clinical studies. Since then there has been the continued development of the research and today, giving a transfusion is safe. Of course the Tuskegee, Willowbrook and Nazi studies were wrong, the subjects were not given the opportunity to give informed consent and it was truly unethical that once a cure for syphilis was found that this was withheld from the victims of the Tuskagee experiment as one example. However, it’s not that they happened but what we have learned from those horrors that is important, because none of us can change that past. Since then, protection for participants of research is required and continually being refined.

    The fact is that stem cell therapy not only holds great promise, but also that adult stem cells are currently used to treat over 80 or more conditions so the benefits are already well established in conditions like Leukaemia. The promise lies in the fact embryonic cells can become any cell type. In fact due to a discovery back in 2006 of the genes to reset a cell into a state where it can make any cell type (Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells) means the argument may be moot. Still doesn’t mean that other plausible research shouldn’t be investigated because the findings that mean that it may be possible to avoid use of embryonic cells wouldn’t have been possible without using embryonic stem cells.

    I think what gets missed is that life is an continuum – an ova is “alive” (and yes, it is a human cell) and so are my skin cells and nerve cells. An embryo is “alive” pre and post implantation, there isn’t a “death” state particularly when it comes to reproduction. But I wouldn’t equate the value of a already existing human life with a human skin cell, nerve cell or an egg cell and there doesn’t seem to be any reason in particular that because a sperm and a egg has fused to raise that cell above all by giving it special qualities of person hood. I’d presume that being pro-life also means being pro-living. Hope of a possible treatment and preventing suffering for existing people does then become important and recognises they have rights as existing human beings which includes medical treatment which involves investigating possible medical treatments for conditions that afflict them. It’s very difficult IMO to make a moral argument(which is often based on religous concepts when I’ve read anything on the topic) to argue that those cells be imputed the same or more rights than an existing person and that destroying them is the same as degrading or killing a already living person.

  • Thanks for this very thought-provoking article Matt – and the comments are interesting too. You don't appear to have got round to addressing Mr. Dennis's comments though…

    The embryo is one human. If at some later point it can become two humans, that does not detract at all from the fact that it is already human. It only means that by killing it you have cut off the potential for two lives rather than only one – which is twice as bad.

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