Because of the failure of President Obama and his administration to do so thus far, we should consider carefully the ethical issues at stake in scientific experimentation that uses and destroys human embryos. That consideration can certainly begin from what the science tells us about the nature and biology of human embryos. And what it tells us turns out to be, in the president's own word, "inconvenient" for those who would treat human embryos as mere raw materials for research.
Following conception, from the single-cell stage of development onward, the human embryo is a discrete, living, self-directing, integrated, whole member of the human species who, if given the appropriate environment, will move along the seamless trajectory of biological development. From the beginning—and a fortiori at the blastocyst stage, when the embryo might be destroyed to derive embryonic stem cells—the embryo is a living, individuated organism. It is a whole and not a part.
Indeed, each embryo's constituent parts are integrated so as to advance the species-specific development of the whole being. Neither the facts of "twinning" (a rare process of regulation and restitution in which disaggregated blastomeres sometimes resolve themselves into a new organism) nor "natural embryo loss" (the seemingly high rate of embryonic deaths in utero before or shortly after implantation) calls into question the living embryo's status as an individuated whole member of the human species. Biologically, it is beyond dispute that he or she is a living organism from the very beginning—is, from the moment of conception, a human being.
These facts do not by themselves resolve the ethical question of the use of human embryos for research. We would not claim that science alone resolves moral questions. Rather, these facts inform our judgment of the moral standing of the embryo. They help us formulate the question that should guide public policy about the destruction of human embryos for research: Should human beings at the earliest stages of life be used as raw materials and have their lives ended for the sake of medical research, however promising that research might be?
This question could hardly be more important for a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. It gets to the heart of our commitment to the equal dignity of every human being. Biologically, the human embryo is as much a human being as any of us. But what does that fact mean, morally and practically? Is our equal humanity enough to merit some protection and regard—at least the minimal protection from being killed on purpose—or are we required to prove we have some other preferred set of capacities and abilities (which all humans possess to varying degrees in the course of their lives) to qualify for protection from harm? Do we refrain from mistreating fellow human beings because of what they can do, which excludes some, or because of who they are? Shall we treat the human embryo as less than human because that embryo would be more useful to us dead than alive? Or shall we treat our equal humanity as a vital brake on our ambitions, even when it comes at a price? Shall we limit our ambitions, even at a price to ourselves?
We believe these questions have a clear answer. Every human being deserves to be treated with the same basic level of concern and regard that we owe to all members of our species. At the very least, no innocent human being may be harmed intentionally to benefit others. To abandon this principle is to embrace an incoherent, indeed self-destroying, conception of equality. If equality means anything at all, it must mean that individuals deserve equal moral regard and legal protection in virtue of who they are, not because of their worth as judged (or assigned) by others according to their needs or wants.
The decision to treat some human beings as raw materials or instruments for the use of others—the fundamental decision embodied by the administration’s funding policy for embryonic stem-cell research—denies the equal dignity of every human being and insists that some deserve to be treated like human beings and others do not, for reasons that have to do not with the embryonic human beings involved but with the attitudes, desires, or needs of the rest of us. As a policy supporting such treatment with public dollars, moreover, it implicates us all.
Friday, September 17, 2010
The Neuhaus Colloquium -- a group of scholars and intellectuals looking to carry on the legacy of the late Richard John Neuhaus -- has issued a lengthy statement on the ethical, political and scientific issues raised by President Obama's stem cell research policy. It is worth reading in its entirety. Below is the section dealing with the ethical issues, and offering an argument against the killing of human embryos for research.