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The Tiresome Argument II

UPDATE: While we're talking about these kinds of things, Dean Esmay has a link to a news story about chimeras, which kicks off a very interesting discussion.

I would never have believed what a can of worms republishing my old post about Leon Kass and therapeutic cloning would open up. (Of course, the Instalanche was a major factor.) First off, Daniel Moore took me to task on definitional grounds. (Note the excellent comments by co-blogger Stephen Gordon and M104 member Karl Hallowell.) Grace at Orthodox and Heterodox found my views "chilling," while Justin Katz and friends at Dust in the Light went to some trouble to show that my views amount to advocacy for slavery and other evils. Gumby at Two Docs and a Shovel comments as follows:

This is why the hair on my neck sticks up. No longer does this blastocyst exist as a potential person, it is an object. A thing to be grown and discarded at the whim of the donor.

Well, I'm not suggesting discarding it. To me, the analogous situation is a comatose person who has been declared brain dead. If that person is an organ donor, there are surely those who would argue that this human being has become a "thing" to be used and discarded at the whim of those who would benefit. But the family who have lost a loved one, as well as the person who benefits from the organ donation, would likely not see it in those terms. Gumby continues:

In essence, what we have here is the promotion of human organ farming.

Organ farming is a horrifying prospect. My view is as follows: just as it would be wrong to harvest organs from an unwilling donor with a functioning brain, it would be wrong to take an embryo which has begun to develop a brain and a nervous system and treat it like an object. Even at the stage when the brain is so poorly developed that it wouldn't pass any test for brain activity used to determine whether a comatose person is still alive, it is logical to argue that an embryo should be recognized as a living human being.

So I would agree that a potential human life should be recognized as human life.

But seeing as the brain is the seat of eventual personhood, I think it is also reasonable to argue that there is no potential human life until a brain begins to develop. Yes, you have a living human organism (just as you do with a comatose person on a respirator) but you don't have a person. By and large, we see the biological and neurological definitions of human life overlap. But the overlap isn't perfect. There are times at the very end when the biological process is ongoing, but the neurological process is irretrievably lost. At that point, we say the person has died.

Isn't there also a time at the very beginning when the biological process has started, but not only has the cognitive process not started, there is not yet any place for it to start? As Stephen pointed out in one of his comments on Katz's blog, many (perhaps most) blastocysts never make it past that stage.

It seems that (unlike the brain dead person on a respirator) the personhood of an embryo at this stage is not once removed, but twice. The comatose indiviual whose brain has ceased functioning is analogous to an embryo who has begun to grow a brain, but whose brain is not yet capable of supporting personhood as we understand it. At that stage, we must treat the embryo as a human life, a person, because (unlike the comatose indiviual) the embryo can now be expected to grow into a human being.

But prior to that stage? The argument seems to be that because one stage leads to the next, an embryo at any stage must be considered a human being. My response is that because the stages are radically different developmentally, it is logical and moral to treat the embryo differently at different stages, while still presuming in favor of personhood and humanity well before the embryo passes a reasonable threshhold for achieving them.

In the end, such a position may not prove tenable. I've written recently about encouraging developments of extracting stem cells from spinal cord blood and potentially from eggs which have been "tricked" into dividing as though fertilized. From a practical standpoint, it makes sense to explore whether we can achieve the benefits of stem cell therapy and even therapeutic cloning without having to take on this immense debate about the meaning of humanity and personhood.

It's hard to imagine how any progress could be made in such a debate, when one side views the entire matter as closed to discussion. On Justin's blog, a reader named Mike S. objected to my characterization of the position that zygote = human being as religious dogma:

It's not a 'Christian' answer - it's an obvious biological answer. A fertilized egg is a unique human individual, genetically and physically.

He then goes on to quote Ramesh Ponnuru from the National Review to demonstrate the weakness of the "liberal" position in the debate by not allowing opposition:

Liberalism's hymns to reason always end up truncating reason. They are pleas for open debate designed to rule things out of debate.

Well, I'm not calling for a debate at all, open or otherwise. Rather, I was suggesting that it might be better to skip this one. However, I certainly never ruled anything out within that debate, if we were to have it. On the contrary, I agree with Ponnuru's position "that a religious tradition could strengthen people's reason could help them reach rationally sound conclusions they might not otherwise reach."

But some folks seem to want to have it both ways. Mike S. and company begin with the assumption that a fertilized egg is inarguably a human being. Taking a practical approach, I suggest that — since the position is inarguable — let's not argue about it. But of course, that just means that I'm a "liberal" using "truncated logic" to squelch the other side.

Mike S. amplifies his argument as follows:

The only question is whether to arbitrarily deny it protection because one claims that it is not a person. Your own comments seem to indicate that if there were no medically useful benefits to destroying the embryo, that you would be inclined to afford it protection. In other words, the personhood of a human being depends upon it's utility, or lack thereof, to others. Now you see why the analogy to slavery is used.

(emphasis added)

In other words, the definition of personhood is self-evident and inarguable. (But not dogma.) It's an obvious scientific fact, albeit one that is not open to discussion. That's too bad. In the past, we've been able to explore and sometimes even refute other "obvious" scientific facts e.g., the "fact" that the world is flat. However, this one cannot be questioned. It is special, sacred. (But not a religious belief.)

Since the zygote = human being position is the one and only true and moral position, all others are arbitrary and are proposed from suspect motives. So the "debate" that I am expected to open up to is one in which I outline my position as carefully as I can so that folks from the other side can comment on how "chilling" and "frightening" it is, and provide hints about what a deeply misguided (if not evil) person I must be. They will do this, naturally, by arguing that I am really just an advocate for organ farming, slavery, and (presumably) eating baby brains on toast for breakfast.

I think I'm going to pass.



...sorry about that - had to be done.

I've eaten dinner with Phil twice, and I'm happy to report that he didn't eat a baby either time.

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