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.


The Objectivist said...

Religious arguments are not a problem for atheists. However, there might be theists who read this blog.

To them I would note that bringing in religious defenses of the embryo won't work. Here's why.

(P1) If God does something, then he acts from a reason.
(C1) Hence, if God gives souls to embryos, then he has a reason to do so.
(P2) It is false that God has a reason to give souls to embryos.
(C2) Hence, God doesn't give souls to embryos.

The first premise follows from the notion that God is perfectly rational. Hence, it would irrational to not act for a reason. As a side note, if reasons for and against an action are equally balanced then he has a reason to adopt a random decision procedure.

The second premise follows from the notion that embryos are not yet distinct from other beings that we kill and eat regularly. This can be seen in that they lack sentience, self-awareness, emotions, etc.

So the column is designed to be convincing independent of one's religious orientation.

The Objectivist said...

One more argument that rests on an example from a Harvard professor to show why I think the religious community's argument is wrong on this issue.

Let's assume that the particular embryo below has a 99.9% chance of developing into a person. Also, assume that the future life of this embryo will be as good as that of the ten year old.

Let us adopt the following claim.

(1) The value of a future person rests on either the value of their future life (or, perhaps, the product of the value of their future life and the likelihood that it will come about).

Now imagine the following case: LAB FIRE

You are a scientist sitting in your lab with a ten year old and a rack of test tube with 100 embryos that are about to be put inside different women. A fire develops and you can only save the rack of testtubes (it's very heavy) or the ten year old. Who do you save?

You would likely think that it would be better to save the one ten year old than the 100 embryos. Hence, (1) is false and with it the valuable-future theory of an embryo's value fails.

Without the valuable future argument the anti-stem-cell-research position has no other arguments. This is because the stem cell has no other current properties that make it valuable.

The Constructivist said...

O, what do you do with the objection that your definition of personhood excludes far more than infants from the realm of human rights? Weren't similar arguments made in defense of land-grabs from 'savages' and enslavement of 'primitives'?

On the side, via David Brin and Douglas Adams, can you think of any animal species that are protected under your definition of personhood?

The Constructivist said...

O, head on over to the Becker-Posner blog when you get a chance and leave some comments on their stem cell postings from August. They read their comments and often respond to their commenters. Due to my screw-up deleting the blog ealier this month I'm sure your postings on this topic are not getting the readership they deserve.