Saturday, August 12, 2006

Honesty regarding human embryos

I've discussed here and here the need to be honest when debating beginning of life issues (e.g. embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and abortion). The question is NOT when human life begins, but rather what value we should recognize in nascent human life. I also contend that this is not a religion vs. science debate that can be dismissed with a wave to "the separation between church and state."

Dr. Robert P. George, joined by Dr. Alfonso Gómez-Lobo, of the President's Council on Bioethics wrote a statement as an appendix to Human Cloning and Human Dignity: An Ethical Inquiry (2002). In it, he argues with perfect logic and clarity that human embryos deserve full moral respect. It is the best argument I have encountered against human cloning, ESCR, et al.

The most important starting point in debating the moral respect owed to human embryos:

A human embryo is a whole living member of the species homo sapiens in the earliest stage of his or her natural development. Unless denied a suitable environment, an embryonic human being will by directing its own integral organic functioning develop himself or herself to the next more mature developmental stage, i.e., the fetal stage. The embryonic, fetal, infant, child, and adolescent stages are stages in the development of a determinate and enduring entity – a human being – who comes into existence as a single cell organism and develops, if all goes well, into adulthood many years later.

...The combining of the chromosomes of the spermatozoon and of the oocyte generates what every authority in human embryology identifies as a new and distinct organism. Whether produced by fertilization or by SCNT or some other cloning technique, the human embryo possesses all of the genetic material needed to inform and organize its growth. Unless deprived of a suitable environment or prevented by accident or disease, the embryo is actively developing itself to full maturity. The direction of its growth is not extrinsically determined, but is in accord with the genetic information within it. The human embryo is, then, a whole (though immature) and distinct human organism – a human being. (emphasis added)

This point is based upon what the embryo is according to science, and not upon any religious beliefs. We MUST acknowledge that embryos are human beings before proceeding in any further debate.

Since this is true, it immediately follows:
To deny that embryonic human beings deserve full respect, one must suppose that not every whole living human being is deserving of full respect. To do that, one must hold that those human beings who deserve full respect deserve it not in virtue of the kind of entity they are, but, rather, in virtue of some acquired characteristic that some human beings (or human beings at some stages) have and others do not, and which some human beings have in greater degree than others.

Dr. George goes on in depth to argue why he believes this position to be untenable. You may disagree with his conclusion about the morality of using human embryos as mere instruments in scientific research (I think his argument is irrefutable), but you MUST admit that your position casts certain human beings into a sub-category undeserving of even life itself. In the words of Dr. George, "The proposition that all human beings are created equal would be relegated to the status of a superstition." There is then nothing in principle that would prevent casting other classes of human beings into the same category.

I am not willing to make this step in the name of science. If you are, please be honest about what is up for debate.


Matt Kuzma said...

It seems to me that, in an attempt to find a solid and unwavering truth, you've woven science into politics, ethics, and religion in a way that works, but is in no way the only valid conclusion. In particular, I take issue with your use of a scientific definition of the individual to justify applying rights to embryos. For the purposes of biology, it is true that an embryo is an individual human, because it contains a unique set of genes describing a human being. But for the purposes of politics or morality, why shouldn't we require more of something before it is considered a human being?

Do you hold that a pregnant woman should be able to use the carpool lane?

It's clear that definitions exist to serve a purpose. The purpose of defining an individual along genetic lines in biology is quite different from the purpose of defining an individual in the political realm. Why is it inappropriate to require, as far as political rights are concerned, that an individual be born? I don't think that it is.

I also don't appreciate the slippery-slope argument that to draw distinctions between embryos and men is going to lead to denying basic human rights for other arbitrary classes of humans. If we require that the political definition of an individual include not being in the process of gestation within ones mother, we do not in any way pave the path towards denying human rights to any class of people. It's simply a false argument.

Anyway, I guess my point is that I require an individual in a political sense to be born. I don't think that leads to any kind of moral disaster, I don't think it opens the door to horrors unimagined, and I don't think it makes me dishonest.

Also, if you do believe that embryos are humans, deserving of all the rights and respect humans deserve, what of embryos that fail to implant in the uterus? Do we have an obligation to save them as we have an obligation to save a drowning baby? How exactly is that accomplished?

AbecedariusRex said...

That's poor reasoning, MT. By your argument (vis a vis "The purpose of defining an individual along genetic lines in biology is quite different from the purpose of defining an individual in the political realm. Why is it inappropriate to require, as far as political rights are concerned, that an individual be born? I don't think that it is.") we might just as easily state that the definition of an individual is subject to those with power to define it. Why ought a black man be an individual, for instance, instead of 1/3 of an individual? Why ought a woman to be an individual instead of the property of individuals who are male? The straw man of the carpool lane argument does not negate the fact that the definition of individual has to come from a concept of humanity derived from some immutable source. Whether that definition be taken from religion (in a more pious age) or science (in our current science cum religion age) is superfluous as long as it is a definition not dependent on the whimsy of individuals already possessed of the power to suppress others.

AbecedariusRex said...

mk, not mt, sorry. typing too fast.