17 August 2006

Stem Cell Follies

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

On July 19, 2006, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that permitted the federal government to fund research on embryonic stem cells from embryos that were left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. This is consistent with his earlier decision in 2001 that made federal funds available for research concerning currently existing stem cell lines, but not new ones. Bush’s stated reason for vetoing the bill was that it would support the taking of human life. He stated that, "Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value."

Despite the overblown rhetoric, his argument here probably rests on the notion that embryos have a right (that is, are owed a moral duty) not to be used in research aimed at generating treatments for cancer, spinal cord injury, heart damage, and other maladies. But do embryos have such a right?

An embryo is a human being in the sense that is alive (it metabolizes nutrients, grows, etc.) and is human (rather than, say, a frog). However, those who think it is okay to eat are meat likely reject the notion that all living things have a right against being killed. Ducks are alive and tasty.

In general, whether something is a human being is not relevant to whether it has rights. If there were intelligent alien beings (for example, ET or Barney) who had lives like ours, they would have the same rights that we do and for the same reasons. This tells us that it is not a biological category that determines who has rights. Rather, it has to do with whether something is a person. The exact conditions of personhood are controversial, but they are related to quality of thought or emotion. Specifically, persons have rationality, self-consciousness, complex emotions, or something along these lines.

The stem-cell opponents' best response here is to argue that embryos have rights against others because if left alone, they will naturally develop into persons. The proponents argue that this is analogous to newborn infants who are thought to have rights despite not yet being persons.

One problem with this natural-future theory is that it doesn't result in all embryos having rights against being killed. Some embryos have genetic defects that ensure that they won’t develop into persons. For example, some embryos have genetic defects that will cause them to be severely retarded or not live more than a year or two. However, some opponents might accept this conclusion.

A second problem is that a being's natural future is irrelevant. Consider a newborn with a bowel obstruction who will die unless a surgeon operates on him. In some areas such a newborn will likely receive the surgery (e.g., Dunkirk) and in some areas he won't. Focusing on a newborn’s natural future makes its status depend on things such as whether it will develop without medical care (natural as pre-technological) or its likely future (natural as the statistically likely outcome). Clearly both are irrelevant in explaining whether a newborn has a right not to be killed. A newborn's moral status doesn't depend on whether surgeons live nearby. This shows that the natural-future argument is mistaken.

This result is unsurprising. Theories that focus on whether something is natural have a history of failing. Theologians and philosophers who argue that only natural sex is permissible invariably fail to explain why this is the case.

Embryos aren't persons and don't have a right not to be killed. Hence, they are fair game for stem cell experiments. The obvious objection is that my argument would support the claim that newborns also lack rights and this is a jaw-dropping absurdity. But why is this conclusion absurd? Attributes like the newborn's pre-technological future and statistically likely future are irrelevant. The parents’ relation to the newborn might suggest that there is a right in the parents, but not the newborn. For example, a person might love his dog but that doesn't result in his dog having rights that an unloved dog doesn't.

It might also be objected that stem-cell research will bring about a general lack of respect for human life that will coarsen our society. For example, the 2004 President’s Council on Bioethics raised this concern. Opponents then claim that such coarsening will then bring about suicide, murder, indifference to others’ suffering, etc. I haven't seen any evidence for this claim, so it looks like mere guesswork to me. In addition, even if such an effect were to be present, the costs of this effect would have to be weighed against benefits in fighting other maladies like cancer and heart failure. In short, President Bush's argument against funding stem-cell research is unconvincing.

07 August 2006

Stem Cell Controversy: Veto City

The Objectivist
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer

Embryonic stem cells are cells that are taken from a three to five day old embryo. An embryo at that stage is largely undeveloped in it consists of a basketball-like clump of around 50-150 cells. The embryonic stem cells can renew themselves for a long time and can generate cells with a variety of functions (e.g., they can generate cells that are part of the heart, lung, and skin). These attributes lead some medical researchers to believe that such cells hold promise in treating diseases such as Parkison’s, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes and toward treating spinal cord injury and heart failure. On July 19, 2006, President George W. Bush vetoed a bill that would have permitted the government to fund research on embryonic stem cells that were left over from in vitro fertilization procedures. The research is controversial because it involves either destroying an embryo or cloning.

The destruction of embryos led President Bush to argue that the bill was unacceptable because “it would support the taking of innocent human life.” In my next column, I will argue that this was incorrect since early human life is different from personhood and it is persons who have a right against being killed. In this column, I want to focus on two flawed arguments that are common in Congress and the relevant scientific and ethical communities.

Rep. Michael Castle (R-Del.) and columnist Mitch Album have argued for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research because it puts an otherwise wasted resource to good use. Album, for example, quotes Dr. Sue O’Shea, director of the Michigan Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research as stating that per in vitro treatment, roughly 20-30 embryos are created and then thrown away. He then argues that performing research on these embryos is surely as respectful toward them as throwing them out. Album dismisses the claim that they would otherwise be adopted since there have been only 128 adoptions of such embryos in the past nine years and there are 400,000 frozen embryos. Note that stem-cell opponents dispute this second figure.

The problem with this argument is that it treats letting a human being die and killing him as morally equivalent. This is counterintuitive. For example, consider if we had several patients who were going to die within 24 hours and whose organs could be harvested to save others only if we killed them, albeit painlessly, and surgically removed their organs. We would fail to respect these patients if we killed them even though doing so would make the world a better place. This argument does show that for someone who thinks that human embryos are human lives, in vitro fertilization clinics are horror shows, but this is not the issue that Congress and the President addressed.

Some ethics committees (such as The President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004) have suggested that embryonic stem cell research is morally permissible only if the embryo is dismantled early in its development (specifically before it is ten to fourteen days old). A closely related position is that it is permissible if done before this point. As summarized by William Saletan, the ethics committees often cite a rough convergence of different features of the embryo: individuality (twinning won’t occur), organization (the division and differentiation of cells), implantation (attachment to the uterine wall), and the development of a nervous system. It’s clear that none of these changes matter. Consider twinning. Imagine that in adulthood, a single human could divide into two persons similar to how an amoeba divides. This wouldn’t show that killing an adult is permissible. Given this, it’s hard to see how it’s relevant in the context of embryos. Organization is similarly irrelevant. In judging the value of an early stage in human life there’s no reason why it should matter whether a relatively small number of cells are organized or not. Implantation is also irrelevant in that a being’s rights or value can’t depend on what it’s connected to. The concern over whether the embryo has a nervous system is just a backdoor method of focusing on consciousness. However, since plenty of animals we eat every day are conscious, this is plainly irrelevant.

In any case, regardless of whether embryonic stem cell research is permissible, it doesn’t follow that the government should support it. Michael Tanner of the CATO Institute points out that stem-cell research is already legal and well funded by the private sector. He notes that in 2005 such research received $102 million in venture-capital funding and is also pursued by corporate giants such as Johnson & Johnson, General Electric, and Novartis. Since federal funding will likely displace private funding, and poses a substantial threat of politicizing research, it will likely make things worse. The inefficiency of the government is well established and the chance of the research not being politicized via the politics of abortion is incredibly small. Remember this is the same group of buffoons that jumped into the middle of the Terry Schiavo fiasco. In the end, then, Bush was correct to veto the bill, but not for the reason he gave.