Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Worldviews Clash Over Embryos

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.


Tim Van Tongeren said...

I wonder if anyone has gone farther back in the process and questioned the ethics of freezing embryos in the first place, since the end result is almost always unused frozen embryos.

Phil Steiger said...

The call him...Tim?-

That is another pressing and fascinating question. The piece cited actually opened with the case of a couple tring to decide what to do with all their frozen and unused embryos. And one of Caplan's arguments against Bush's policy was that there are already thousands of embryos that are destroyed yearly by couples that don't know what else to do with them.

I think for many Christians it is a matter of a lack of education-they just don't know that IVF produces all these "extras" that will end up in a freezer or worse if they are not adopted.

Eric "the" Lind said...

It's that exact issue that makes me and my wife (it irks me that society's grammatical confusion makes the phrase "me and my wife" sound wrong) very hesitant about going the IVF route were we to have issues conceiving. We would rather not be responsible for having a bunch of proto-humans floating around with very little control over their destiny. I wish people didn't feel the need to go to extreme lengths to have children that are biologically theirs, when there are thousands of kids ready for adoption. Adoption saves lives any way you look at it.

Brian B said...

(Devil's advocacy for a bit)
Suppose there were exactly 1000 frozen embryos and that we knew that "no one will ever use [them] for any purpose whatsoever." Suppose further that if we used them for stem cell research, it would not tend to encourage further research, creating incentive for the creation of further embryos, etc., i.e. suppose there is no "slippery slope" problem in this scenario. Under these (rather unrealistic) conditions, would it be morally permissible to use the embryos for stem cell research, given the alternative of, say, burying them or throwing them away? How is this scenario relevantly different than using the body parts and organs of dead people for research or medical treatments (e.g. using kidneys, corneas, or cadavers)? (Here's one probably relevant difference - generally the dead people voluntarily donate their bodies/organs, whereas embryos have rather insuperable difficulty signing their drivers' licenses. How relevant is that difference, and is that the only major morally relevant difference, again assuming we've ruled out slippery slope issues?) The issue is whether, given that they already exist and will simply be buried or thrown away, it might not be morally acceptable to have at least something good - like medical research - come out of an already existing tragic situation that cannot be bettered.

Eric "the" Lind said...

I think a large difference is in the potential for an embryo vs. the potential for a corpse. An embryo is still endowed with all the potential of becoming a fully realized human. A corpse, on the other hand, has already used up all of its potential humanness and has no way of ever becoming human again.

Given the hypothetical situation, the potential of the 1000 embryos will never be realized, in that "no one will ever use them for any purpose whatsoever", but that does not deny the fact that they have the capacity for becoming actualized humans. That fact gives them a status above, say, a rock or a spleen.