Stem Cells and the Right to Life

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I've found the same gross misrepresentation of the pro-life position on stem cell research in several different places over the last few weeks. The most surprising place to find it is in a philosophical work in a chapter on the moral status of the fetus. Referring to the position that moral status begins at conception, Anne Fagot-Largeault says:

Since the 1980s, however, there have been extraordinary advances in scientific technology, and these have brought into sharp relief some of the drawbacks of the preceding position. In fact, the position leads to some unconscionable outcomes. On the one hand, it implies that an embryo that is, for example, the carrier of the genetic defect that results in Down syndrome has the same right to live as a non-carrier. On the other, the view entails that we must not use embryonic research in order to strive to eliminate such maladies as Thalassemia -- to do so, according to this view, would entail choosing between the lesser of two evils. In general, this implies a very tragic conception of the moral life, namely that whenever humans substitute their choices for those of God, they can only make matters worse.

Nowadays, this position has lost much of its force. With the explosion of stem cell research, there are so very many cells that have embryonic potential that the supposed natural organic distinction that was once relied upon has crumbled under its own weight. The claim that stem cells have an enigmatic ontological status itself now seems enigmatic. [Fagot-Largeault, "The Fetus in Perspective: The Moral and the Legal" in Laurence Thomas, ed., Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy, p.117.]

What seems enigmatic to me is why anyone would think the pro-life view on stem cells is that stem cells themselves have any moral status. If you stuck a stem cell in a woman's uterus, I wouldn't be holding my breath waiting for it to implant itself and begin developing. You have to alter a stem cell to make it an embryo for that capability to develop, just as you have to alter an egg by fertilizing it or turning it into a clone to give it that potential. No one thinks stem cells themselves have any special status. The only opposition to embryonic stem cell research is that acquiring the stem cells involves killing an embryo. It's not that there's anything special about the stem cells that should lead us to protect them. It's that the embryos should have protection as human beings. Stem cells can be acquired in other ways, and no one objects to those ways. It's hard to exaggerate how unfair it is to the pro-life view on stem cells to claim that anyone assigns some enigmatic status to stem cells themselves or that the embryonic potential of stem cells somehow undermines the distinction between what counts as an organism and what doesn't. There's no scientific reason to support the confusion of (a) stem cells that have potential to become embryos and (b) embryos themselves.

This isn't the first time I've seen this ridiculous portrayal of the pro-life position. I've seen it several times now, but it's pretty disturbing to find it in an academic paper in a philosophy textbook. The author isn't actually a trained philosopher. She's a biologist. But that's no excuse. biologists should be aware of the positions they're writing in response to if they're going to publish essays in philosophy textbooks arguing philosophically against those positions. That I've seen the very same argument in unrelated places suggests to me that perhaps there's a more widespread misconception going around among those who favor killing embryos for the greater good of people who weren't killed at the embryonic stage.

It's hard for me to resist commenting, while I've got the above quote in front of me, on her line about an embryo with the genetic defect leading to Down syndrome and an embryo without such a defect. It's hard to see how it's unconscionable to think those two embryos have the same moral status. It's hard even to see how it's conscionable to think the two embryos have a different moral status. Even those who immorally think it's perfectly all right to abort a fetus purely because it has Down syndrome (a view that a lot of pro-choicers think is horrific, I should add) do not justify such an argument on the view that such a fetus has less moral status than any other fetus. They justify it based on compassion for the fetus that, if they abort it, will never have the supposedly-awful life that they project Down syndrome people to have. There's never any suggestion of the fetus itself having less right to life. It's that view that I find unconscionable, and my reasons for finding it unconscionable make as much sense even on pro-choice premises.

There's one other argument in the quoted passage that makes no sense to me. A lot of people think there are some things that are wrong enough that it requires a huge amount of good being at stake to overcome the moral resistance to doing it so that it would be potentially all right. Killing a human being is one of these. On pro-life principles, it's not going to be easy to get around this problem for policies that lead to killing a lot of human beings whose existence only occurred in order to kill then, in order generate lines of stem cells that have some undefined possibility of leading to some good medical treatments if they can get around the tumor problem and if the more promising stem cell methods without the moral problems doesn't get there soon. That's a pretty clear moral argument, one that I admit involves controversial premises, but none of those premises involves a distinction between (a) making choices and (b) refraining from making choices so that God's can occur instead. The important distinction in the pro-life argument about embryos is that the moral prohibition on killing human life doesn't get easily overcome even if there's a great potential for good that comes from it, as anyone outraged at Joseph Mengele's research could attest to. It's not that making any old choice between two evils should lead to inaction, as if inaction means we don't interfere with God but action means we do. It's that doing some things would be so bad that even good consequences wouldn't be enough to overcome the moral wrongness of the action. You can only conclude that it's opposed to what God wants once you establish its moral wrongness. That's not part of the argument at all. It's the implication of the conclusion of the argument.



You are making a fallacious distinction between parts and wholes when you write:

No one thinks stem cells themselves have any special status. The only opposition to embryonic stem cell research is that acquiring the stem cells involves killing an embryo. It's not that there's anything special about the stem cells that should lead us to protect them. It's that the embryos should have protection as human beings.

According to your argument, human embryonic stem cells (hESCs) must have special status, since they comprise the human embryo, which has special status. Otherwise you are forced to defend an incoherent argument, namely that a special whole (embryo) is made up of parts (hESCs) that are not special.


Huh? Why should you think I'm committed to such a crazy thesis? It's treason for a U.S. citizen to engage in certain actions that would undermine national security, but it's not treason to destroy a house in a legal demolition activity, even though that house is part of the United States. It's murder to kill me (under usual conditions, anyway), but it's not murder to clip my fingernail off or cut my hair or even to amputate one of my limbs. The part/whole distinction is often morally relevant, and the case of embryos and their parts is exactly analogous to the case of human beings at later stages of development and their parts.

It is in fact you who are committing the fallacy of composition. It doesn't follow from something's being true of a whole that it is true of the parts. A painting can be valuable when you'd have nothing of value if you reduced it to smaller parts. You can't assume something to be true of the parts just because it's true of the whole, unless you've got a particular argument why that particular property has to be true of any parts of the whole or of that particular kind of part.

Now there are some who make the mistake that you think I ought to be making. They take the stem cells to be derivatively valuable in the sense of moral worth and thus propose not allowing us to do anything with the cells once they exist. I find that view untenable for reasons expressed here. The moral wrong, on the pro-life view, is the killing of the embryos. There's no such thing as moral pollution that infects the cells that result. The only reasons there might be to refrain from doing things with the cells once the embryo is dead is if we want to forestall further embryo-killing, not because the cells have intrinsic moral worth. Such a view would require us not to use organ donors' organs if they were murdered. That's a pretty crazy conclusion that your view seems to imply.

Very interesting and well written thoughts. Thank you so much for saying "the supposedly-awful life that they project" because that's all it is.. an incorrect supposition and projection. The only thing that would have made that sentence more perfect would have been people-first language... "people with Down syndrome" instead of Ds people.

"You can only conclude that it's opposed to what God wants once you establish its moral wrongness." I usually think of this the other way around... as in "if its opposed to what God wants, it must be morally wrong." though my thinking doesn't stand up to the Abraham/Issac story ;-)

Anyway, thanks for getting me thinking this morning.

It's a lot simpler to speak of left-handed people than to say "people with left-handedness". I'm therefore much more inclined to speak of my sons as my autistic sons than to use the roundabout expression "my sons with autism". With Down syndrome we don't have as ready an adjective, but I think the objections to speaking in the adjectival manner are morally unfounded. The idea is that using the adjectival form defines people by that trait, but I don't see why that's true or why it would be a problem if it is true. It's wrong to stereotype people according to race, but most black people would prefer to be called "black people" than "people with blackness". It's wrong to have negative attitudes toward people who can't see because of their blindness or to think their blindness is the all-defining element of them as people, but it's really strange to refer to them as "people with sight-impairments" rather than as blind people. It's wrong to think homosexuality is the fundamental aspect of someone's character just because they're gay, but that doesn't mean with should call them "people with homosexuality" to avoid calling them gay or homosexual.

My use of that particular expression was more out of a desire to simplify the grammar of the sentence, even if it led to an awkward expression in other ways. I see that negative aspect, but I think the economy of expression outweighs the awkwardness. But I don't think the moral objection to using such terms in an adjectival way has any merit, despite the current unpopularity of such expressions in today's disability-conscious circles.

The issue of the logical order of moral wrongness and God's opposition deserves a separate comment. I'm not here taking a stand on the logical priority of either. Some people think moral wrongness is prior to God's disapproval, and others base wrongness in God's mere will. I happen to think moral wrongness depends on what's good in God's nature, not in God's mere will. But that's not the issue here. The issue here is how we know something is wrong. If we already have explicit disapproval from God, then of course we know it's wrong, given that God is omniscient and perfectly good and wouldn't disapprove of it unless it's really wrong. This is so regardless of the stance you might take on the logical order issue. All that needs to be true is that everything God disapproves of is wrong. But what I'm saying here is that on issues where we don't have explicit statements from God we first need to establish that something really is wrong before we know if God would disapprove. It's about our understanding of things, not about what makes it true. Those who accept the Bible as authoritative can't point to any verse talking about embryos. That terminology isn't anywhere in the Bible, so they have to look to implications that aren't explicit or moral arguments apart from revelation. Those who don't believe in revelation at all can't even rely on that and thus must look to moral arguments. Either way, you first need to discover if it's wrong before you could conclude anything about God's disapproval, if God hasn't explicitly condemned it. That's a completely separate issue from the logical ordering of God's relation to what makes it wrong.


I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. The early human embryo is composed of 2 types of cells – trophoblasts and hESCs. Therefore if the human embryo is special (as you claim), then its “specialness” must reside somewhere. It seems the only choice is the cells it is made out of. If you think that’s incorrect, then please explain where the specialness is located.

Such a view would require us not to use organ donors' organs if they were murdered.

We don’t use others’ organs without their consent precisely because those organs are considered special. That’s also why there are no legal markets in human organs.

That's a pretty crazy conclusion that your view seems to imply.

You should refrain from guessing what my views are, since I have not stated them.


I'm trying to draw out the implications of what you're saying, the same as you're trying to do with me. There's nothing improper about that.

What makes a human being special is not the fact that it has a certain kind of cells. There's more to what distinguishes us as humans than just biology, but the biological difference that makes all the difference is whether you've got an organism present. Once conception occurs, you've got an organism with its own DNA. That's not true before conception. That's why an embryo is special. It doesn't have anything to do with the kinds of cells embryos have.

We don't require consent to use organs. We require consent to use adults' organs. Kids' organs can be harvested according to parental consent, so the same could be done for embryos if they are killed. That's why I don't think it's in-principle wrong to use stem cells derived from immorally-killed embryos. It's the killing that I think is wrong, not the use of the stem cells derived from such a killing. There might be moral reasons to resist doing this, just as there are moral reasons to prevent an organ market. But these aren't in-principle moral reasons.

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