Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Moral Foil: Stem Cell and Torture

I recently posted one scientist's defense of the Bush administration's record on science. Will Saletan over at Slate just provided another very thought-provoking piece to the moral puzzle that surrounds one of the hottest scientific debates of the Bush presidency: embryonic stem cell research.

Though Saletan incorrectly describes President Obama's action as "lifting a ban" on stem cell research (the research wasn't banned; it was funded with severe limitations), he goes on to offer a word of caution to the proponents of embryonic stem cell research. He notes that they face a moral peril.

The best way to understand this peril is to look at an issue that has become the mirror image of the stem-cell fight. That issue is torture. On Jan. 22, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting interrogation methods used by the Bush administration to extract information from accused terrorists. "We can abide by a rule that says we don't torture, but that we can still effectively obtain the intelligence that we need," the president declared. "We are willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard."

Did you catch the comparison? Apply that argument against torture to the stem cell debate. Ask yourself if your logic works when you switch topics using the same argument. It is a very probing question.

You don't have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings—I don't—to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?

If you have trouble taking this question seriously—if you think it's just the hypersensitivity of fetus-lovers—try shifting the context from stem cells to torture. There, the question is: How much ruthless violence should we use to defeat ruthless violence? The paradox and the dilemma are easy to recognize. Creating and destroying embryos to save lives presents a similar, though not equal, dilemma.

Thanks for making me think, Will. That's why I keep coming back.

1 comment:

Frank Staheli said...

I agree that Will Saletan makes an excellent point. I'm not sure how we get those who are fixed in their determination to see it, though.

It is forever ironic that, even though non-government-funded research continues with embryonic stem cells, no cures have been found, while, with adult stem cells, several cures are available.

It bothers me when President Obama and others refer to "embryonic stem cell research" as simply "stem cell research", confusing a lot of people into (a) thinking that there's only one kind of stem cell research, and (b) not knowing just how successful stem cell research has become--IF it's of the adult stem cell variety.