13 Mar

The Embryo Question

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Amy L. Graeser
Published: 03/13/05

Writers for The New Atlantis consider the question of destroying embryos for stem cell research, setting parameters for the debate and examining the language employed in the discussion thus far.

The embryo question presents us with some of the essential dimensions and deep tensions in the American character—including the devotion to technological progress, the fidelity to biblical morality, and the belief that all human beings are created equal. In the essays that follow, the authors explore the embryo question in full, seeking to guide the current policy debate and to grapple with more fundamental questions about out [sic.] politics, our ideals, and our humanity.

So reads the introduction to a three-part feature published in the Fall 2004/Winter 2005 edition of The New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology & Society. The feature, titled The Embryo Question, contains articles by Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, Eric Cohen, Leon R. Kass, Yuval Levin, and Amy Laura Hall. It identifies terms and analogies employed in the debate about whether or not human embryos should be destroyed for stem cell research, explicating and disclosing weaknesses in the arguments of those in favor while establishing a strong case in opposition. In the first two sections of the feature George, Lee, and Cohen discuss the framing of the debate and what is at stake in how it is framed. Section III finds Kass, Levin, and Hall responding, in turn, to Cohen's article in section II.

In the first article of The Embryo Question, Acorns and Embryos, George and Lee explain that the debate about using stem cells from human embryos for research purposes is couched in language that clouds the issues at stake. The controversy is about the ethics of deliberately destroying human embryos in order to harvest their stem cells. The main question of the debate, therefore, should not be: should there be embryonic stem cell research? but: is it unjust to kill members of a certain class of human beings—those in the embryonic stage of development—to benefit others? Along the way to answering the latter question in the affirmative, the authors dissect an analogy that many advocates of research on stem cells harvested from destroyed embryos tout in order to justify their position: that embryos are to humans as acorns are to oak trees, and that since there is no moral outrage over the destruction of acorns, neither should there be any over the destruction of embryos. George and Lee demonstrate how the analogy fails and conclude their essay by exhorting biomedical science to remain faithful to the moral norm against killing some human life in the effort to bring healing to other human life.

Cohen, in The Tragedy of Equality, also protests the way the debate is framed for the public; he contends it ought not to be portrayed as a clash between religion and science. Putting the debate in these terms, he writes, makes it far too easy to presume that religious opposition to the practice is irrational and that the case for it is rational, grounded in the best scientific evidence available. The complex truth is quite the opposite, he states. After explaining why this is the case he claims that such destruction of human life undermines one of the foundational principles of democratic states: that all human life is equal and ought to be treated thus. The state would be cannibalizing its principle of equality, he writes, if it allowed embryos to be destroyed for stem cell research.

Section III, titled Equality Reconsidered, begins with Kass's response to Cohen. Kass spends the greater portion of his essay, Human Frailty and Human Dignity, outlining and summarizing Cohen's. Cohen portrays the embryo debate as a story about the fate of the democratic idea of equality hanging in the balance as society considers sacrificing it to serve the health of some. While Kass shares Cohen's moral sensibilities about destroying embryos for research, he diverges from Cohen in portraying the cultural conflict surrounding the debate as a conflict about equality; it is better understood, he writes, as a tension between concern for human frailty and dignity. He explains that, while he is not certain that a human embryo is morally equivalent to older people, he is certain that embryos deserve to be treated with respect, dignity, and awe, especially since all people were once embryos. Dignity and prudence ought to restrain the current generation from using the seeds of the next generation to its advantage, he concludes.

Levin also amends Cohen's article, but for reasons different from Kass's. In The Crisis of Everyday Life he states that Cohen gives two extreme responses to the practice of destroying embryos for stem cell research, neither of which is attractive. Cohen implies that society can either abandon its commitment to equality by sacrificing embryos for the sake of others, or, in order to uphold the truth that all humans are equal, it can martyr its sick by not developing cures for them through such research. Levin notes that these options may not be the only two available, and he encourages practices that would allow society to capitalize on modern scientific progress—such as research on stem cells taken from adults—without sacrificing moral principles.

Finally, Amy Laura Hall takes The Tragedy of Equality as a starting point for considering what it means to affirm that all humans are equal. In her article, "In What Sense Equal?" she examines three ways (upheld by Scripture and the western canon) in which humans are equal, and describes how one way is particularly helpful for bioethics and thinking about stem cell research. Equality through redemption, she explains, is the idea that all people suffer and all are shown mercy; thus, because one has been shown mercy, one ought to extend it to others. The Kantian idea of equality—that people deserve equal treatment because of their rationality—is the framework on which bioethics is loosely based, writes Hall, and it stands in need of a supplement. If not supplemented with other reasons for treating people equally, she states, it could encourage the destruction of human life that is without rational capacities and that seems extraneous. Complementing the Kantian idea of equality with the idea of equality through redemption would discourage the destruction of extraneous life.

The New Atlantis is a publication produced by the Ethics and Public Policy Center; for more information, visit the journal's web pages. Readers who would like to learn more about bioethics and the issues involved may wish to consult past interviews on the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal; guests include Leon R. Kass, Nigel Cameron, C. Ben Mitchell, and Gordon Preece. [Posted March 2005, ALG]