Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Stem Cell Confusion

The Detroit News recently had dueling opinion columns on embryonic stem cell research between Kristen Cella and Leonard Fleck, philosophy professor at Michigan State.

Fleck's editorial on embryonic stem cell research contained numerous falsities that proponents of embryonic stem cell research usually make so I'd thought I address a few of them.

Fleck does deserve credit for admitting that embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) requires the destruction of human embryos. Many proponents of ESCR deny this reality altogether so it is refreshing to see someone admit this. That is about where my agreement with Fleck ends.

My main argument with Fleck is his complete lack of argumentation regarding "personhood." Fleck honestly contends that "Philosophers and theologians argue about whether those embryos are persons with the same rights you and I have." Note that no arguments are given to which side is right or wrong and no evidence is presented as to what the difference is between human beings and persons. He then goes on to list "potential beneficiaries" of embryonic stem cell research (incorrectly including people with Alzheimer's) and states that no philosophers or theologians argue about their status as persons (which I actually doubt is true). Fleck then asserts that "Actual people should matter more than merely future possible persons." So what's the enormous unproven assumption here? That human embryos aren't "actual persons."

Instead of actually proving that human embryos aren't persons or telling us what the difference is between human beings and "persons," Fleck has backdoored his way into asserting that grown human beings are more valuable than embryonic human beings without ever making a real argument. He's saying that if philosophers argue about whether you are a person or not, then your life is less valuable than the life of someone whose "personhood" philosophers don't argue about.

For fun, let's see what kind of line of argument can I form from Fleck's assumptions? 1.) Someone's "personhood" and with it value are a certainty if all philosophers agree on it. 2.) If one or more philosophers disagree regarding someone's "personhood," then "personhood" is in question. 3.) If "personhood" is in question (which doesn't mean that the human being in question has been proven a non-person), then killing the questionable-person is ok if other non-questionable persons could be helped in the future. 4.) Some philosophers, most notably Peter Singer, have argued that newborn infants aren't "persons." 5.) The "personhood" of newborn infants is in question 6.) Therefore, it should be legal to kill newborn infants if killing them might be able to help human beings whose "personhood" isn't in question.

Other points of contention:

Further, the couples who own these embryos are not compensated for donating them. Hence, no one can claim they are pressured to make these donations.

Does it cost money to store human embryos? Couldn't years of storage be quite costly? Is it possible that couples could feel pressured to "donate" their embryos because they can no longer afford to store their unborn children?

Is it possible that they could be pressured in other ways that aren't financial? Such as researchers claiming that their embryos and the stem cells procured from them could possibly save lives? Isn't that pressure?

There are 400,000 such frozen embryos in the country. They are going to be discarded or destroyed no matter what.

I feel like displaying one of those big Xs they show on the Family Feud when someone's answer isn't on the board because this statement is simply not true. The myth of the 400,000 embryos about to be disposed is pure nonsense. Arlen Specter also deseminated this myth Sunday morning on This Week. The large majority of these embryos, about 90%, are being stored by their parents for possible future implantation. Over a year ago, Eric Cohen in the National Review wrote, "The same 2003 study that arrived at the 400,000 number made it clear that only about three percent of these frozen embryos are actually available for research — the others remain in the custody of the parents who created them, and are specifically designated for future use in initiating a pregnancy."

I tell my students that I was never an eight-cell embryo. Many are initially incredulous. Then I explain that my body is physically and causally continuous with what was once an eight-cell embryo. But "I," the very distinct person that I am, only came to be gradually in the months and years after birth. I was not there for my conception, and hence, "I" would not have been harmed if that embryo had been used for stem cell research.

Physically and causally continuous with what was once an eight-cell embryo? I think that's the fanciest way I've ever heard to say, "I was once an eight-cell embryo."

By this same skewed reasoning, "Leonard Fleck" wouldn't have been harmed if "his" mother dropped "him" on "his" head when "he" was 3 months old. "His" body would have been physically harmed and damaged but the "very distinct person" that "he" is would not have been harmed. "He" also wouldn't have been harmed if as an infant "he" was killed for medical research because "he" only came to be gradually months and years after birth.

I feel sorry for the philosophy students at MSU that have to endure this.

Can you imagine Fleck sitting with his children and saying, "I remember when that newborn body that was physically and causally continuous with Nathan looked up at me and smiled for the first time" or "I just felt the kick of that fetal body that will gradually become Nathan."

Fleck's essay also contains the mandatory "don't let religious beliefs effect public policy" section that I might feel like addressing at a later date.

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