Ethics: August 2009 Archives

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.

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