Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

Ooooh Controversy!!!

Thursday, June 9th, 2005

On another forum, someone posted a comment basically saying she didn’t know what the big deal was about stem-cell research using discarded embryos.

An excerpt:

“I just don’t think cells in a petri dish are the same as an unborn, viable fetus. Looks like I’m not the only one:”

Part of the discussion left off with the thought that if the embryo was never going to be implanted and would be destroyed anyway, where is the harm in using the embryos in research. “What harm can it cause?”

My response.

The harm that can be caused (if you are of the mind-set that every embryo is better off as a child than a science experiment) is not that one or eight or one-hundred embryos that would otherwise be discarded will be used in science experimentation. It’s that doing it one or eight or one-hundred times makes it that much easier to do it more and more often to more and more embryos.

Decisions like this aren’t made in the middle. They are made in the margins. If you wouldn’t ever make this decision, then you are not on the margin. Essentially, as more people who are capable of being convinced to donate their embryos to research are actually convinced to do so, the borders of the margins shift farther along the “Not Willing/Willing” axis and more and more people become marginal, continuing the process.

Those who don’t want to see “unwanted” embryos used in stem cell research don’t want this slide to begin, so they are trying to nip it in the bud (at least from a Federal Funding standpoint, which is the only thing that has been prevented). Keep in mind too that those who don’t want embryos destroyed for research also, generally, don’t want them destroyed period. The desire isn’t so much wanting to impede science, the goal is prevent the destruction of potential life. Given the choice, they would see every embryo stored until someone was willing to take that embryo, try implanting it, and carry it to term.

I am personally ambivalent on the isse because I haven’t reasoned my way to one stance on the other. I don’t like the idea of destroying a potential child to spur research, even beneficial research, and I have yet to see real evidence that stem cell research can fulfill half the claims made about them. However, I don’t have any rational reason for believing that life begins at conception either. Perhaps the beating heart is the cutoff for actual life’s beginning. Perhaps its formation of a neural network. I don’t know. But I do know that after hearing my children’s heartbeat in utero, I could never have made the decision to abort the child. Because that would have ended their life, by my lights. I digress, but the point is that I don’t have a set time-frame for the life/not-life demarcation so I can’t feel 100% comfortable that a viable (which means capable of life) embryo is not, in fact, life and can conscionably be destroyed. In that uncertainty lies the harm.

Many evil things have begun with the phrase “What harm can it cause?”

The next question posed compared the potential cruelty resulting from locking this potential life in a freezer forever with the compassion inherent in “letting it die or allowing its parents to donate it to science. If you believe an embryo is a living thing with a soul, why not send the soul to heaven instead of trapping it in a freezer forever? If you don’t believe an embryo is a living thing with a soul, then why would it bother you if it’s dismantled and used for research?”

My response:

herein lies the rub.

I am an atheist. I don’t believe in a soul. I do believe in individual personhood, and that the only existence a person has is here, on earth, while in a physical living body.

What I don’t know is when that physical body becomes living. In suspended animation, it still has that potential to live or become living. When that embryo is destroyed, such potential is destroyed too.

You refer twice to “living thing with a soul.” Since I am an atheist, the “soul” never enters the equation. The amiguity surrounds when it is a living thing (read: human). If an embryo has no life in its present state (setting aside the life-potential) then there I have less anxiety around the issue of destruction of the embryo for research. Any anxiety is the result of grief at the life that will never be. If an embryo does have life, then destruction of the embryo for research is morally wrong in that you are, through force, removing the only real thing of value a person ever owns: his life. Since I do not have the knowledge or ability to know (and neither does anyone else) whether an embryo constitues human life, I can not in good conscience make the decision to terminate it for some “greater good.” Err on the side of life, as they say.

Again, those who don’t want to destroy embryos for research don’t want embryos destroyed at all. Ideally, each embryo would find a willing womb to take its shot at making itself into an advanced multi-celled creature. If it fails to implant, it will die, but at least it had it’s chance.

Another person responded to this with

I think you need to address the difference between having “life” and the state of being a “person.” A dog is a form of life and has life; it is not a person. An embryo has “life”, but it is not a person. It fails to have the essential qualities (heartbeat…brain activity…capacity to survive outside the womb) that we normally associate with personhood.

Scary no?

That was the gist of my comment. There is no agreed-upon marker at which time an embryo goes from living thing to a living human.

As to this “A dog is a form of life and has life; it is not a person.” A dog can only ever be a dog. Since the only thing an embryo, if left unaltered by some sci-fi mad scientist, can become is a human, if you concede that an embryo “has life” then it MUST be human life. We start to encroach on very dangerous ground when we decide to make distinctions between human life and personhood. All you have to do to justify murder is declare a person, a group or a race as “not persons.” Obviously, that isn’t your intent. However, I don’t want to take the discussion to that distinction.

If you are willing destroy human life at the embryonic stage, why not just a bit later (i.e., “So what if it has two cells instead of one, we’ll just draw the line there,” “So what if it has four cells instead of two? It’s only one step later, we’ll draw the line there,” “So what if there is a beating heart? It would still be legal to abort it, why not use it here?” – I know at the last point, the fetus would be useless to a stem cell researcher, what with the differentiation having taken place and all, but I wanted to illustrate the point).

If an embryo has life (which, at this stage of the game we can’t know) then it is, by definition, human life. When we call any human life expendable for the common good, then we devalue all human life.

I just thought it was an interesting discussion and I liked the thought process. I like to take an adversarial side in debates like this just for the intellectual exercise. I hadn’t really examined my feelings on the issue of embryonic stem-cell research. I didn’t lie throughout this debate though. Since I can’t be positive where life begins, I can’t unambiguously declare embryonic stem-cell research viable. Thankfully, umbilical and adult stem-cell research is receiving tons of federal funding and seems just as promising. I post this here to generate discussion, so please feel free to comment. Please?