Suppose that a group of astute scientists claims that certain types of experimentation hold great promise. The scientists present strong evidence suggesting that the success of the experimentation could lead to significant improvements in procedures including, but not limited to, organ transplantation, antibiotic application, burn treatment and vaccination. In many ways, in fact, the potential of such research seems limitless. The catch? The experimentation will frequently result in the torture, mutilation, and death of its subjects.
Now, as many have already, perhaps, noted, the type of proposal I am hinting at is no mere thought experiment. It is, unfortunately, a chilling historical reality: the proposed experimentation was devised and carried out in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany during the 1940s (see the proceedings of the Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals). Today, should a neo-Nazi advocate for the return of such experimentation, we would be unimpressed by appeals to the great “promise” such experiments hold for modern science and impatient with arguments concerning the employment of the German scientists in question. Rather, we would condemn such human experimentation without qualification, noting that the acts in question are repugnant violations of human dignity artificially masked by the term “science.” All but the most hardened consequentialists would be more than a little frustrated by any further attempts to justify the proposal.
Likewise, I am more than a little frustrated with the arguments made in Friday’s article, “Stem cell ruling blocks scientists.” The article suggests, among other things, that opponents of embryonic stem cell research wish to use “backwards-looking and bureaucratic federal policy” as a means of depriving victims of macular degeneration of their sight and scientists Lawrence Rizzolo and Yibing Qyang of their jobs. Such claims, of course, are patently false. Opponents of embryonic stem cell research do not wish to halt medical advancement any more than opponents of Nazi experimentation wish to squelch the employment of German scientists. On the contrary, we argue that embryonic stem cell research is bad politics and, more importantly, bad ethics.
On a political level, Royce Lamberth’s federal court ruling was hardly a matter of bureaucratic red tape. Rather, it was the product of sound logic and hermeneutics. The Dickey-Wicker Amendment is unequivocal in its language, prohibiting funding for all “research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death…” In light of this, the claim that it is still acceptable to fund research necessitating the destruction of human embryos as long as the researchers don’t destroy the embryos themselves seems more than a little ridiculous. It is comparable to arguing that I am not responsible for murder because, instead of killing the victim myself, I hired an assassin to do my bidding. Let’s not kid ourselves, then: Human embryos are being destroyed precisely because the foreseen research necessitates and incentivizes such destruction.
I would be remiss, though, in suggesting that there is nothing more at stake in this debate than political consistency. On the contrary, embryonic stem cell research is a grave affront to human dignity, and the biological facts bear this out. A human embryo possesses the complete genetic makeup characteristic of human beings. It is a genetically and functionally distinct organism and is biologically programmed to develop into a mature human being. Indeed, given a suitable environment, it will do so. The respective state (frozen or unfrozen) and origin (cloning or natural conception) of the embryos change none of these truths. Embryonic stem cell research, then, destroys a complete, though developmentally immature, human being, not merely a “clump of cells.”
In response, advocates of embryonic stem cell research frequently concede that an embryo is a human being while claiming that it is not, in fact, a morally relevant “person.” Yet, this line of thinking alone should give us pause: Perhaps the founding dogma of our country would be more suitable if it read that “some” men are created equal? Regardless, arguments aimed at excluding embryos from moral consideration fail decisively. Should human infants, for example, be similarly excluded from moral consideration because they, also, lack any rational capacity distinguishable from that of most animals? By no means.
Throughout the twentieth century, we’ve witnessed unspeakable atrocities committed by those whose consequentialist ethics regard the weak and vulnerable as less than human. Let us stop repeating these errors.
Stephen Paquin is a senior in Silliman College and a member of Choose Life at Yale.