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