Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Stem Cells and Cloning
Recently the issue of whether Australia should allow therapeutic cloning for embryonic stem cell research has been much in the news. The Federal Health Minister, Tony Abbott, is an orthodox Roman Catholic who strongly opposes such legal permission. Prime Minister John Howard, while probably personally opposed, has decided to allow a “conscience vote” on this issue rather than continuing to make opposition to the research the official policy of his Government. In all likelihood this will lead to the “green light” being given to therapeutic cloning and associated embryonic stem cell research, despite the vehement objections of the Health Minister.
Those of us opposed to this research point out that creating human beings to use as research material for the benefit of others is immoral because it is opposed to human dignity and the right to life. The response of those who support harvesting cloned embryos for medical research is that these embryos are simply not human beings, any more than a sperm or an egg. They are just a lump of cells that could theoretically, but not in practice, become a human being.
What are the arguments for using embryos in this way and against our objections based on the right-to-life? I will give the arguments in quotation marks as summaries, without implying they are in fact direct quotations, and then respond to each.
“Many diseases could be cured using embryonic stem cells.” Maybe, maybe not. Nobody can be certain either way, but it is true that embryonic stem cells have greater “potential” than non-embryonic stem cells, precisely because they are what biologists call “totipotent” rather than merely “pluripotent”. That is, they can become any and all other sorts of cell. Nevertheless, if we cannot get them without creating and destroying human lives, then the fact that other lives would be lengthened cannot justify the action, as we will see below. One human should never be made to be an expendable source of healthy flesh for another.
“This is a conflict between religion and science. In such a conflict, religion must always give way to the facts. Anyway, you have no right to impose your religious beliefs on society. If you think that such research is murder, you can just choose not to take advantage of it and leave the rest of us to do so!” Actually, this is not a conflict between religion and science. Firstly, all science can do is tell us what physical processes would be involved in the procedure and then predict possible or probable applications and insights. Science, properly speaking, cannot tell us whether the means to those ends is moral (see below) or even what “value” the ends have. Secondly, not all those opposing the research are religious, and even those who are religious do not believe the problems with therapeutic cloning are something esoteric or merely “impious”, they believe the problems with it extend to issues of human life and death and that the arguments against it are based on universally applicable moral principles, not simply divine revelation. It is not a matter of imposing religious beliefs, but of standing up for basic human decency and what philosophers used to call Natural Law. Nor is it a matter of trying to eliminate in others offences to our sensibilities, but of trying to defend the most vulnerable human beings from being harvested and killed.
“Once the benefits were known and fully understood, all opposition would cease, as it has to previous medical advances once distrusted.” There are three errors here, one a moral idiocy, one historical misrepresentation, and the other false analogy. The idea that knowledge of the benefits of a particular action must inevitably lead to reasonable people accepting that action as undeniably morally licit is absurd. It ignores the fact that there may be costs as well as benefits that are relevant to ethical judgement, and it rides roughshod over the fundamental question of whether the ends must always justify the means. As for the supposed precedents for once-opposed medical treatments eventually overcoming that opposition by their very success, they do not prove what they are purported to. The example of anaesthetic, which was opposed at first by a number of church-goers (and many physicians!) is not analogous to the present situation. There was no official or binding Church teaching on that matter, only the musings of individuals, as the sanctity of life itself was not at stake. In addition, other medical procedures which have had some success, such as In Vitro Fertilisation, have had the Church’s and others’ opposition remain consistent, precisely because the right to life was involved, given the regular creation and destruction of “surplus” embryos in this treatment.
“Whatever the status of the embryo or blastocyte in narrowly scientific terms, its moral significance is minimal because it cannot perform any of the mental or physical functions or consciously experience any of the sensations or feelings of a properly developed human being. It is human only in a technical sense, it is not a human person.” Here we come to the crux of the matter. The only way we can justify using incipient humans as experimental material is by understanding “true humanity” purely and solely in terms of present functionality and awareness. Intertwined with this justification is the belief that the only real evil is pain and the only real good conscious pleasure. Thus, it is asserted, the fact that killing the embryo causes it no pain and harvesting its cells may reduce suffering in others is amply sufficient reason to do it.
But this is to misunderstand what human life is and what killing a human being involves morally. Human life cannot be understood or appreciated except diachronically, as a process of development. The instantaneous snapshot tells us nothing since, even if we limit ourselves to addressing conscious awareness, we are dealing with something intrinsically temporal and dynamic. Consider some of the characteristics of human consciousness when it is fully operative: memory, expectation, step-by-step ratiocination, and learning. All these are tied inextricably to the passage of time. A human being is not merely what they appear to be at any one moment, but an accumulation of past human existence and an open potential for future experience. The older the person, the more the former “accumulation” should invest them with significance for others and themselves. The younger the person, the more the latter potentiality should invest them with rich significance. When we kill an innocent human being, we steal that person’s future. This “theft”‑aspect of killing is actually increasingly evil the younger the victim.
One of the most amazing blind-spots of those who say one is not a person if one is not aware and is unable to perform distinctively human mental acts is that they forget that this would render even adult humans “non-persons” whenever they were in a deep sleep, under anaesthetic or in a coma. In fact, if the avoidance of pain and maximisation of pleasure are the only morally worthwhile actions and the present functioning of higher mental processes the only guarantee of human identity, then the following scenario becomes morally reasonable: A man who gains great and lasting satisfaction from killing women (but not from inflicting pain) shoots a woman in the head while she is in non-REM sleep or after surreptitiously drugging her, in the knowledge that the chosen victim will feel no pain and has no close friends or family at present whose pain of mourning might otherwise outweigh the happiness he will receive from the deed and the treasured memory of it. If we can see that this scenario is patently and undeniably evil, then we have no alternative but to reject the utilitarian and consequentialist philosophy which “vindicates” it. And it is this very philosophy which underlies the advocacy of embryonic stem cell research.
Yet, there is an even more basic bedrock that ensures the dignity and rights of every human, even if we happen to know that they will not live long. Everything we have done and everything we could do as humans is dependent on what we are. External circumstances may prevent our human essence unfolding its full potential, but they are exactly that, external circumstances. They cannot therefore reflect back on our intrinsic worth. What gives a human being rights and dignity and makes their life sacred is their being human! That is why murder is more than theft of future. It is sacrilege.
It is this differentiation between intrinsic nature and extrinsic circumstances that undermines perhaps the most devious and shameful argument against considering the rights of the cloned embryo. I refer to the claim that since therapeutically cloned embryos would be created without any intention of ever implanting them in utero, they should not be even considered potential persons. What makes this so disgraceful is that a deliberate intention and arrangement to prevent these children from developing is used as an excuse not to consider them children in the first place. It is rather like saying that if I grew a fruit tree on somebody else’s land (and using their water supply) without their permission and without ever intending to either inform them or let them have any of the fruit, when I take the fruit for myself I have committed no theft. It should also be noted that if it ever became possible to create and develop babies to full term (or beyond?) outside the womb, the same “logic” would allow such children to be grown and farmed as spare parts for others, as long as there was a secure system for preventing their ever reaching any level of consciousness. It is not inconceivable that, with the correct use of drugs and physico-chemical suppression of “grey matter” brain development, such a thing could be achieved. Again, no pain is caused and proponents could claim that extending human rights to such beings would be unnecessary since they are created without any intention of allowing them to develop fully or normally. Please note, the fact that this is not presently on the horizon is irrelevant to the point I am making. I am not claiming that such a research programme is being or will be promoted. What I am saying is that the principles said to justify therapeutic cloning are perfectly consistent with such a programme. If we recognise the latter as palpably vile and wicked, we must reject the moral principles underlying both it and therapeutic cloning. In other words, once the embryo exists as an intrinsically viable and identifiable entity with all the human potential that is encoded in the genome, it has rights. Those rights cannot be taken away by our pre-emptive decision to avert such potential.
Fundamentally, the philosophical error we are encountering here is a refusal to perceive three things: the implications of the fact of a human's very existence, the necessity of considering potential properties as well as actual ones in assessing the value of human life, and the priority of essence over function or action. The specifically moral error is a refusal to see human life as anything other than a succession of evanescent sensations and mental acts, so that humans too young to think and humans too old and senile to think effectively become nothing at all, while those favoured with recognition of their personhood have their greatest fulfilment reduced to minimisation of pain and maximisation of pleasure. In other words, mankind’s summum bonum has become epitomised in pain-killers and orgasms.
Update: I have changed the first sentence of the last paragraph above, as its earlier version was grammatically incorrect, partly tautological and rather obscure. Apart from that it was fine!