Thursday, May 26, 2005

Thank You, New York Times!

I'd like to thank the New York Times for providing an excellent illustration of the faulty thinking I referred to yesterday in today's editorial. The article faults President Bush for imposing (there's that word again! It appears three times in the brief piece) his theological beliefs concerning the humanity of embryos on our pluralistic nation.

Concerning President Bush's statement that federal funding of embryonic stem cell research would "take us across a critical ethical line," the Times says:

Never mind that this particular ethical line looms large only for a narrow segment of the population. It is not deemed all that critical by most Americans or by most religious perspectives. Rather, the president's intransigence provided powerful proof of the dangers of letting one group's religious views
dictate national policy.
Apparently, the Times would have us play ethics by the numbers. Right and wrong are determined by straw poll. We don't have to turn far back in our history books to find proof of where that kind of thinking leads, do we? Beyond that, the Times is being disingenuous in suggesting that the only reason for concluding that human embryos are individual human beings is religious. Prior to the politicization of the issue with Roe v. Wade in 1973, numerous textbooks on embryology and reproduction pointed to conception as the beginning of an individual's life as evidenced by the following quotes appearing in Frank Beckwith's Politically Correct Death:

[A]ll organisms, however large and complex they may be when fullgrown, begin life as but a single cell. This is true of the human being, for instance, who begins life as a fertilized ovum. (Dr. M. Krieger, The Human Reproductive System, 88 [1969])
The formation, maturation and meeting of a male and female sex cell are all preliminary to their actual union into a combined cell, or zygote, which definitely marks the beginning of a new individual (Dr. B. Patten, Human Embryology 43 [3d ed., 1968])
The Times editorial goes on to say:
The president's policy is based on the belief that all embryos, even the days-old, microscopic form used to derive stem cells in a laboratory dish, should be treated as emerging human life and protected from harm. This seems an extreme way to view tiny laboratory entities that are no larger than the period
at the end of this sentence and are routinely flushed from the body by Mother Nature when created naturally.
The conviction that embryonic life should be protected is only "extreme" if one begins with the premise that the value of any particular human life is proportionate to its size. But that's sheer nonsense. Our obligation to protect another human being from harm does not increase with his or her size or maturation. If anything, the reverse is true. The more vulnerable a person is to being oppressed and mistreated by those more powerful, the greater our responsibility to protect him or her.

To argue from the fact of spontaneous abortions (the natural expulsion of zygotes from the womb) to the conclusion that the intentional destruction of embryos is therefore moral, is to commit what's called the naturalistic fallacy. Many of the degenerative diseases that proponents of embryonic stem cell research are hoping to cure occur naturally but I don't think the Times would therefore conclude that it would be moral to afflict individuals with those diseases if we had the ability to do so. What's the difference?

The editorial proceeds to advance its discriminatory agenda when it says:
These blastocysts, as they are called, bear none of the attributes we associate with humanity and, sitting outside the womb, have no chance of developing into babies. Some people consider them clumps of cells no different than other biological research materials. Others would grant them special respect but still make them available for worthy research. But Mr. Bush is imposing his different
moral code on both, thereby slowing research that most consider potentially beneficial.
How foolish and/or deceitful can one be? Blastocysts bear all of the attributes associated with humanity at that stage of human development. The issue isn't what some people consider them. The issue is what they actually are. Some people consider members of certain minority groups inferior. Some consider children desirable sexual partners. Some consider the Holocaust a fictitious event. Others even consider it a good event. What do any of those statements tell us about the objects of consideration? Nothing. But they tell us much about those doing the considering.


Carl Gobelman said...


This is an excellent post. Great job disecting the faulty thinking of the Times editorial board.

I remember back in college (before I was a Christian) arguing against abortion using an Aristotelian argument. The embryo is potentially a human being (much like an acorn is potentially an oak tree), and given the chance to develop naturally, will always become a viable human baby.

Now, I just use the Biblical argument, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you" (Jeremiah 1:5).


Franklin Mason said...

You say,

"Blastocysts bear all of the attributes associated with humanity at that stage of human development. The issue isn't what some people consider them. The issue is what they actually are."

This presupposes, rather than proves, that a blastocyst is a human being. I find another view more congenial. It is this: the embryo, at least in its early stage of development, is not yet the human being that will later come to be. Put otherwise, when in January 1968 my mother conceived, I still did not yet exist, and I did not exist when in her womb the embryo became a blastocyst.

No doubt the blastocyst is a stage in the creation of a human being and not, say, a horse or a dog. It is in this sense human. But that it is human in this sense does not imply that it is a human being. Compare: egg and sperm, before united, are a stage in the creation of a human being. And they are human. But they do not yet constitute a human being. So from 'x is a stage in the creation of a human being' one cannot infer that x is a stage at which exists a human being.

Why do I think that the blastocyst is not yet the human being that will later come to be? I find it plausible to say that a human being is a certain integral whole of parts. A human being is organ systems so arranged as to be able to carry out the charcteristic functions of a human being, and these include such things as respiration, digestion and so on. A blastocyst is not such an integral whole.

Franklin Mason said...

After a bit of reflection, I've come to this conclusion. You say that the NYT was either deceitful, foolish or both. That seems to assume that the answer to the question, Just what is the moral status of a blastocyst?, is blindingly obvious. Even if what I say in my previous post is false, it seems to me that what to say about a blastocyst is not obvious. It seems to me an issue on which serious, intelligent people of good will can disagree.

KP said...

Hi, Franklin. At last I’m getting around to responding to your thoughts although I can’t promise I’ll be able to engage in an ongoing conversation.

It’s arbitrary to select a particular stage of development in the life of a distinct member of the human species at which to acknowledge him or her as a human being. And there’s no doubt that an embryo is genetically distinct from either of his or her parents. That’s why it’s incorrect to draw the analogy between an embryo and a sperm or ovum. Sperm and ova are parts of the bodies from which they came, sharing their genetic composition. It’s more appropriate to liken gametes to fingernails, hair, or skin cells, none of which are distinct human individuals possessing the biological criteria for life.

Embryos are indeed integrated wholes on paths of self-directed development. That they do not exhibit traits characteristic of older human beings in no way disproves that they are distinct human lives. This is equivalent to arguing that since newborns don’t have teeth they are less than human beings since human beings have teeth.