Thursday, June 08, 2006

Veritas? Harvard's Stem Cell Initiative

Last night I read a press release announcing Harvard University's launch of a privately funded program that will create cloned embryos for the purpose of embryonic stem cell research. I wondered how the institution would handle the ethical controversy surrounding the procedure so I read this article in the Harvard Gazette. Doing so left me thinking how ironic it is that the school's seal bears the Latin word for "truth."

Consider the following quote from Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president:

While we understand and respect the sincerely held beliefs of those who oppose this research, we are equally sincere in our belief that the life-and-death medical needs of countless suffering children and adults justifies moving forward with this research.
Notice, Summers didn't identify the beliefs he claims to understand and respect. Nor did he attempt to offer any reasons why those beliefs are false. He, like many other backers of embryonic stem cell research simply evaded the issue of greatest importance - the moral status of the human embryo.

What's more troubling, however, is that a leader of a renowned intellectual center would suggest that the sincerity with which one holds a belief is sufficient warrant for holding it. Instead of offering a rational justification for Harvard's actions, Summers essentially says, "We're as convinced that we are right as our opponents are that we're wrong." So much for debate and moral discourse. What kind of example is Summers giving Harvard's young scholars when he engages in this kind of rhetoric?

Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute didn't fare any better in his attempt to address the ethical issue:

But Melton responds that "all human cells, even individual sperm and eggs, are 'living.' The relevant question is 'when does personhood begin?' That's a valid theological or philosophical question, but from the scientific perspective, this work holds enormous potential to save lives, cure diseases, and improve the health of millions of people. The reality of the suffering of those individuals far outweighs the potential of blastocysts that would never be implanted and allowed to come to term even if we did not do this research," he said.
Melton tries to blunt the force of the fact that harvesting an embryo's stem cells inevitably results in its death by likening it to any other somatic cell. But this is misleading. Yes, it's true that human cells are alive but the crucial difference between an embryo and a sperm or egg cell is that the embryo is a complete human being - not simply a part. In order to escape this, Melton evokes the artificial distinction between a human being and a person, saying that this is the relevant question. The inescapable conclusion of reasoning like Melton's is that human life has no inherent value. It is whatever qualities he thinks a human being must possess in order to qualify as a person that are actually valuable. And, of course, this has troubling consequences for more members of our species than just the preborn.

If you pay careful attention to Melton's comments, you'll also note the frequently observed attempt to trump philosophy and theology with science. Sure, philosophy and theology may ask some valid questions but they don't deal with reality like science does. Melton contrasts the philosophical/theological issue of when personhood begins with the scientific fact (?) that embryonic stem cell research holds great potential for finding cures for millions. Improving the lives of this number outweighs the cost of destroying nascent individuals. But note that this is not a scientific but an ethical (and thus, philosophical) assertion.

I'm thinking Harvard needs a new seal...again.


Modern Diogenes said...

I'd like to think that I am an open person, willing, and indeed, hoping, to hear all sides of an issue before judging on it. I can see clearly your frustration with this article's claim to respect all beliefs on the matter without, in your opinion, describing what precisely those beliefs are. I can also plainly see that the author did not mean offence but simply could not address every variance of an opposing view. So please, fill that role and tell me exactly what those beliefs and the arguments supporting them are, because I haven't seen them in this post. I am genuinely interested in the controversies of the topic, but the only arguments against it seem to be those of the anti-abortion type, which have little relevance as stem cells can be collected from many sources, including umbilical cords. Do you not agree that, out of respect for human life, embryos created in the process of in vitro fertilisation and those aborted for any reason and due to be simply thrown away should be instead used to preserve that human life which is already gone from it?

KP said...

Hello, Diogenes. You are correct to note that embryos are not the sole source of stem cells. You are incorrect, however, when you state that pro-life arguments are irrelevant to the ethical question of embryonic stem cell research. Yes, it is true that embryos are not the sole source of stem cells. They can be acquired from other sources in ways that do not require the destruction of human life. However, harvesting stem cells from human embryos necessitates their destruction/death and is thus a violation of the principle that human beings have intrinsic value and are not to be exploited for the benefit of other members of the human family.

The logic behind opposition to embryonic stem cell research is, in fact, the same as that behind opposition to abortion. A human being's value (and hence our obligation to treat him or her with respect) does not increase with maturation, size, abilities, etc. Using such criteria could very well justify the mistreatment of those for whom cures are being sought. They are incapable of functioning in certain ways but we do not from that conclude that their lives are more expendable than those with greater capacities.

An ethically relevant distinction must be made between the scientific use of cells and organs of those who have already died and the killing of humans whose body parts we desire to use for research.

We do not show respect for human life by killing some humans to benefit others. Instead, we show that we really value certain traits and are willing to kill those who do not display them for the sake of others who do.