60 Minutes recently did a special on embryonic stem cell research. The piece was interesting for a couple of different reasons. First of all, it completely failed to mention the recent scandal involving Korean scientists and their forged research results promising great advances in embryonic stem cell research. Since the field has been dominated with that news in recent weeks, it is extraordinary that 60 Minutes did not mention it.
The second reason was the clash of worldviews apparent in the piece. On one side of the debate was Robert George of Princeton and the President’s Council on Bioethics, and on the other was Art Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. The first move in favor of embryonic stem cell research by Caplan was the appeal to pity, or an appeal to possible utilitarian advances.
"You got people in wheelchairs. You got people trying to understand how to cure cancer," Caplan says. "You know, people who want to understand genetic diseases and you have embryos frozen that no one will ever use for any purpose whatsoever. There’s a moral equation here, too. And it seems to be to lead toward research, not just perpetual freezing."
On the other side was George arguing for the inherent value of embryos:
Asked why the embryos slated for destruction shouldn't be made available for research, George says, "The principle that the president laid down and which I support is one that says all human beings, irrespective of age or size or stage of development or condition of dependency, possess the same human dignity, because human dignity is inherent."
One of the problems with Caplan’s appeal to a sense of pity-there are sick and needy people who need this kind of help-is that it obfuscates the real issue at hand-the moral status of embryos. Now, in fairness, Caplan has certainly already decided that embryos are not persons, and therefore not rightful bearers of human rights. Another problem with that kind of appeal, is that if it is pressed to a deeper level of pity or utility, almost any action can be justified to reach good ends.
I believe the biology bears out George’s position, however. And if that is the case, then an embryo is a human whether it looks like a 12 year-old or not. Thus, it demands our respect and the protection of its rights.
But it doesn’t look like a 12 year-old. And that was the next move the host of the program, Lesley Stahl made. This is a great exchange between Stahl and George:
"Are you equating these embryos, these frozen embryos, with a full-grown man or woman?" Stahl asks.
"I’m saying they have the dignity of a human being, the way a full-grown man or woman has the dignity of a human being," he replies.
"And you’re equating them?" Stahl asks.
"Oh, sure," George says. "Yeah, I’m equating them in terms of human dignity."
What does he mean by "dignity"?
"I mean, shouldn’t simply be thrown out in the trash. Should be treated respectfully, the way we treat the remains of human beings at later stages of development," George explains.
"Like what? Like have burials?" Stahl asks.
"Buried or burned," George replies.
"You’re saying, take these little bunches of cells, and have burials for them?" Stahl asks.
"Well, you say bunches of cells in order to make burials sound weird," George says. "But those bunches of cells are very unique bunches of cells. Those are human beings in the earliest stages of their natural development. You were one once; I was one once."
If Stahl’s reasoning were pressed, you could replace each reference to embryos or bunches of cells with “really old people” or “people without arms and legs” or “people in comas” or “people much uglier than me.” The appearance of a person is not the necessary condition of his or her personhood. Appearances are contingent properties of persons; they are not a part of the substance of the person.
This raises a deeper worldview problem in our culture. We no longer think in clear categories, so the kind of mistake Stahl makes seems right to us. We typically cannot tell the difference between properties and essences, and thus we end up labeling things improperly. Embryos in their essence are persons, and their contingent set of properties will arrive given maturity. Therefore, whatever set of contingent properties they have or fail to have at some level of development is irrelevant.