Is Bush Inconsistent on Discarding Embryos?

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Jonathan Ichikawa defends the non-personhood of embryos at Fake Barn Country. I don't have time to look at his argument in detail right now, and I don't know if I want to think about reading the 63-comment discussion that follows, but I did notice that Jonathan agrees with me that his argument for the non-personhood of embryos is question-begging. I think all arguments for the non-personhood of any stage of human life are circular. The debate is over the meaning of the term 'person'. If you define 'person' in a way that guarantees the non-personhood of whatever you want to kill, that's question-begging. Yet that seems to be exactly what the original pro-choice arguments in the early 1970s did. The issue is over whether a fetus (or embryo) has moral rights, and their answer was to tie moral rights to personhood and then to tie personhood to features like self-awareness, the ability to look forward to one's future, etc. Yet that begs the question against those who don't think such conditions are necessary for something to have moral rights. That account of personhood has now become standard in philosophy, but I still haven't seen an argument for it that doesn't assume what it's trying to prove. Since he admits his argument is question-begging, I don't expect that it will be what I haven't yet seen.

That's not why I'm writing this post, however. I just consider his admission noteworthy. I'm writing this to respond to Jonathan's discussion (on his own blog) of whether Bush is inconsistent on these issues, along with his suggestion that most pro-life activists are similarly inconsistent. I don't think Bush is inconsistent on this, and I think he's just plain wrong on the empirical question of what most pro-life groups believe.

Consider the following Google search: pro-life embryos in vitro. The first item makes the claim that Jonathan is making, that pro-life people don't care about the discarded embryos in standard in vitro cases. The next eight state quite clearly the view that he says pro-lifers don't care about. The tenth item on the first page is another example of someone claiming pro-life people don't care about discarded embryos from in vitro fertilization. There's a similar enough pattern on the second page. Some of them say pro-lifers don't care about this issue, and the others are pro-lifers expressing deep concern about what the others are saying pro-lifers don't care about. The empirical claim Jonathan makes is a common meme among those who take his general view, but it's simply false. Pro-life people care tremendously about in vitro cases that lead to discarded embryos. I realize that this will mean he will think even lower of them than he already does because he thinks this view is even nuttier than the inconsistent one, but it relieves them of the charge of inconsistency, which is what I care more about.

Bush himself responded to the current issue by bringing forward people who exist only because people were willing to adopt embryos that otherwise would have become discarded. He's also made it quite clear that his practical decisions on abortion policy will be to support changes only if he thinks the American people are ready to implement them, which is why he doesn't favor attempts to make all abortion illegal overnight but is willing to pursue smaller goals that might have some possibility of happening. I'm not sure why he didn't take a similar approach to the FMA, but I think in he's consistent in applying this criterion to pro-life issues.

Also, the policy Bush was willing to implement about stem cell research involved using the cells derived from already killed embryos where the stem cell lines were already in existence and not still part of dead embryos. What he's opposing now is taking stem cells from dead embryos. He thinks it's ok to do the former but not the latter. I don't seen an inconsistency here. An analogy will help. You might think it's wrong to take bone marrow stem cells from a corpse if the person didn't consent to it before dying. If you hold such a view, then you might also think that it's wrong to use such stem cells that someone else had already taken from someone without their permission. You might. Then again, you might not. You might insist that it's wrong to take them, but it's not wrong to use ones someone else took.

This is similar to the issue raised when immoral Nazi experimentation became known. The international consensus was that the immorality of the research somehow magically infected the results of the research, as if the truth that such research made available was itself wrong merely because the method of attaining it was wrong. I find such a view thoroughly unmotivated. The international consensus was simply wrong. They shouldn't have destroyed the results of that research. I'd go far enough even to say that it was immoral to destroy the results of the research, because even though it was wrong to do the research at least something good might have come of it, and these people were set on making sure that even that couldn't happen. I realize this is a controversial position, but all it takes to show consistency is that there's a possible view that doesn't lead to contradiction. I think this sort of view would explain that for Bush.

Stem cells themselves have no rights, on anyone's views. Embryos do have rights, on some people's views, and dead embryos might even deserve respect of some sort the same way corpses do. But already-removed stem cells of an adult corpse or a destroyed embryo simply have no rights on any view, and the view that using such stem cells disrespects the corpse or embryo in the same way taking the stem cells does seems to me to be like saying we should destroy mere information that was obtained immorally when all parties agree that the method of obtaining the information was immoral. The only difference here is that it's cells and not information, but cells don't have rights any more than information does.

It doesn't follow from the view that the research was immoral that using the research is immoral. You need a further moral premise that I won't grant. It's similarly consistent to say that taking stem cells from corpses without prior consent is immoral, while thinking it's ok to use already-taken stem cells from corpses without consent. It's also not an inconsistent position, therefore, to say that using stem cells that were previously removed from embryos is ok, while removing them yourself is immoral.

8 Comments

I honestly don't know when life begins, but at conception seems the most reasonable. Where else to begin but at the beginning?

No one seriously denies that life begins at conception. An embryo is alive by any biological criterion of life, and it's human with its own DNA, so it's impossible to deny that it's its own human organism, i.e. a human being. The question is whether it has the status of being morally relevant starting at conception. The philosophical orthodoxy says no. I'm a heretic on this issue, but I think the burden of proof is on those who deny what are undeniably human beings the rights that all other human beings unquestionably have by their own criteria. I haven't seen an even halfway decent argument to that end that should convince someone like me, and it's striking that those who demand evidence of theists don't care to offer anything here but circular arguments.

Not only that, but you end up with the strange view that you and I and everybody were never embryos. If I didn't come into existence until sentience or consciousness or whatever, then I couldn't have existed before I had a brain and therefore I never was an embryo. Yet, the human organism that was an embryo is the same human organism that I am today. This leads to the conclusion that I am not physical in any way, only that I "inhabit" something physical.

So it's not just that it's circular, but it also seems to lead to some strange beliefs if followed to their logical conclusions.

Actually, there are some pretty easy ways around those problems. Personal identity and persistence issues raise problems completely independent of this issue, and some of the views on that can apply here so as not to say the thing you're saying. One view is that the person and the organism aren't the same thing, and then the fact that one is longer-lived than the other isn't a problem. One constitutes the other, but the organism doesn't always constitute a person. Another view is that you were once an embryo but weren't a person then and thus didn't have moral rights. You became a person gradually and came to have moral standing gradually. That's probably the standard view. There are plenty of other views as well. It's not going to follow right off that I wasn't ever an embryo. Some of the people in the 63-comment threat at Fake Barn Country were saying that, but there are ways not to say it.

I'm not sure how one could say I was once an embryo, yet not attribute moral rights to embryos. That is, if I was once an embryo, then it seems to follow that the moral rights I have now should be the same as the moral rights I had then and vice versa. Why should me right now have more rights than me when I was an embryo? The fact that I didn't have a brain or whether I'm conscious or whether I'm viable seems irrelevant to whether or not I should have had the moral rights we are talking about.

So that's why I was talking about the "I was never an embryo" view. It seems like the only consistent one. The "person and the organism aren't the same thing" view is the one I thought I was talking about. I don't think there is anything wrong with that view, other than that I don't understand the reason for making the distinction (other than trying to support pro-choice and pro-ESCR views). The distinction seems really arbitrary to me.

Although, perhaps I'm not using I in the same way as others use it. If I means being conscious or self-aware or something similar, then it follows that I never was an embryo. If I means having moral rights, then what I said above in the first paragraph follows. If I means being the same organism, the I was once an embryo. Then we might say that the organism I was back then doesn't have the same moral status as the organism I am now because I didn't have the correct properties or physical structure, but this seems not only arbitrary but discriminatory.

BTW, if this is too off the topic of your original blog entry, we don't have to continue.

The "personhood" argument is also quite elastic - see Peter Sanger's suggestions that a newborn infant isn't really a "person." I recently read a post by someone who took exception to the notion that pro-life folks cared more about "blogs of tissue" than they did about "real people." Yet this illustrates the problem yet again: on one level, we're all "blos of tissue," and having defined some people as "real" means that you don't need to be concerned about the welfare of those you deem devoid of "personhood."

Do any Christians use the idea of a triune personal God to argue for personhood?

I'd just be interested to know because I recently learned that in the first few centuries of the church, the Christian idea of the trinity gave rise to the idea of personhood deriving from relationship. Human beings were not (as the Greeks thought) simply role players on the stage of history, but they were now thought of persons who were of value because they were in relationship to God, who was himself three persons in one.

As I understand it, the reconception of people as persons rather than role players was one of the reasons why early Christians took care of abandoned babies who were dumped by the pagans because they considered them to be of no worth (e.g. they were female and the parents needed a male).

I get the impression that often arguments about personhood centre on when life begins or when the baby has a soul etc, which might be very difficult to answer, if we can answer them at all. Yet we conceive personhood as deriving from relationships then right from conception a baby is a person because it has both a mother and a father at that stage.

Any thoughts? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

I know that the English word 'person' derives from discussions of the Trinity. I don't know about the concept(s) of personhood. That sort of thing is very hard to investigate. Can we even know if the early Christians in the Roman empire had the same concept(s) of personhood that we now have? I'd be very hesitant to say much positive on that score.

I think the key issue here is not personhood but moral status. Personhood is a shortcut some people think can use limit moral status only to those we might call persons, but I think it can be a dodge and a distraction.

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