Stem Cells and Skin Cells

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by Gene Callahan

Ronald Bailey of Reason Magazine has attempted to dismiss the complaints of those objecting to medical research that uses stem cells culled from embryos. (The embryos are destroyed in the culling process.) He bases his dismissal on recent advances in applied biology. Bailey says:

That brings us to the question of whether the embryos from which stem cells are derived are persons. The answer: Only if every cell in your body is also a person.

You see, Bailey informs us:

Each skin cell, each neuron, each liver cell is potentially a person. All that's lacking is the will and the application of the appropriate technology. Cloning technology like that which famously produced the Scottish sheep Dolly in 1997 could be applied to each of your cells to potentially produce babies (a mammary cell was used to create Dolly).

At first reading, one may pause. I certainly don’t want to be charged with murder for showering and washing away a few skin cells, now, do I? But, on closer inspection, it turns out that nothing in the argument has any bearing on the question at hand!

Those opposed to stem cell research should not base their opposition on the notion that embryos could become people; they should base it on the idea that they are people. Biology has nothing to tell us about this categorization, because what is being discussed is an ethical, not a biological, category. The question is not: What entities, biologically speaking, should be classified as people? It is: What entities, ethically speaking, should be classified as people?

Imagine that the dreams of A.I. researchers come true, and they succeed in creating an entity indistinguishable from an average human, in respect to its mental life. There will be a strong ethical case for considering this entity to be, ethically speaking, a person. (In other words, all rights considered appropriate to humans would apply to this artificial fellow as well.) Arguments from biologists that his physical makeup was unlike that of humans would rightly be set aside as irrelevant.

Bailey goes on to say:

Like turning the key in the ignition to begin a journey, simply starting a human egg on a particular path, either through fertilization or cloning, is a necessary condition for developing a human being, but it isn’t sufficient. A range of other conditions must also be present. Those conditions include the availability of a suitable environment such as a woman’s womb. (Some 40 percent of embryos produced naturally do not implant and so never develop into babies.)

Well, mere implantation in a womb isn’t enough either, is it? For one thing, the baby must be left there, in other words, not aborted. The mother must remain alive. And even after birth, the baby is far from being fully human in terms of its capabilities; nor is simply being born a sufficient condition to ensure completion of that process. The baby, being completely helpless, must have food and shelter supplied to it, among other requirements.

So, by this criterion, no one except an adult human of full capabilities has a right to any protection against murder. (This may seem too ludicrous for anyone to believe, but "ethicist" Peter Singer has arrived at conclusions nearly as repugnant.) And even this limit is not given to us by biology – there are no biological facts indicating that murder should be forbidden. The fact that biology yields no argument supporting the protection of embryos is not surprising, given that it yields no such argument for the protection of fetuses, infants, toddlers, are human adults, either. No biological facts can possibly be of such a nature.

Consider a situation where some parasite is decimating the human population. A biological view of what is occurring is an abstract description of various biological processes involving the humans and the parasites. Ideas positing the parasite as "good" or "evil," or contending that it should (or shouldn’t) be stopped play no part in a true biological description of the plague.

Bailey is, as Michael Oakeshott would put it, trying to drag arguments from one abstract realm (the physical sciences) over into another (ethics). Oakeshott says in Experience and Its Modes, "And the result of all such attempts is the most subtle and insidious of all forms of error – irrelevance."

When a biologist says something like, "Humans should not attempt to genetically modify plants," he is not speaking as a biologist, but as an ethicist. His training in biology gives him no special expertise in addressing the issue at hand. The findings of biology can yield us knowledge of the consequences of certain actions, but that is entirely orthogonal to deciding if we should welcome those consequences.

The road to a coherent ethical view of stem cell research runs not through the biological facts about what cellular processes are occurring, but through the contemplation of human action. Human action attempts to move us from what is to what ought to be. Practical ethics is the effort to create a coherent world of what ought to be. Ethics can (and should) employ knowledge from other modes of experience in its judgments. As Professor Leland Yeager points out, in Ethics as Social Science, it is an error to recommend as ethical something that the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, or economics tell us is impossible. The attempt to move from what is to what ought to be must also be an attempt to move from what is to what could be. But other than by delimiting the realm of what is possible, the sciences can never produce final answers to ethical questions. And the question of who, for ethical purposes, should be considered a person is an ethical, not a biological, question.

Bailey lists several good things that could come from stem cell research: "…stem cells derived from human embryos could possibly cure a host of degenerative illnesses such as Parkinson's disease, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and cirrhosis of the liver." Such nave consequentialism cannot generate a coherent ethical world. As Oakeshott points out, such a formulation doesn’t answer ethical questions but merely pushes them into the future. If we have no criteria by which to decide what is good today other than the results that it will bring tomorrow, then we similarly have no way to decide what things are good tomorrow other than deferring the answer to the day after tomorrow. We first must decide what ought to be. Only then can we move on to the issue of what actions will bring about that state of affairs.

Even given that all of the wonders promised by stem cell research are delivered, the result would not be an ethically coherent world. As Michael Novak says:

In what kind of world will the persons now cured by new medical techniques live? … A world without the habit of heeding moral principles, when the heat of desire waxes hot. A world in which the human life of the vulnerable must yield to the pragmatism of the sophisticated and the powerful. A world in which utilitarianism turns all human beings, in principle, into means, not ends.

The difference between ethical and unethical behavior lies in the intention of the human actor. If a doctor, using the best medical knowledge available, undertakes the optimum-known treatment, and yet kills the patient, we do not consider him to have behaved unethically. If the problem with this treatment is discovered a year later, his behavior does not retroactively become unethical. Conversely, someone who fires a gun at an innocent person, while believing it is loaded with live ammunition, has behaved unethically. If it turns out he was mistaken, and the gun was loaded with blanks, his behavior doesn’t retroactively become ethical.

The people doing embryonic stem cell research are deliberately starting a human life in order to "harvest" that life for medical purposes. When I shower and wash skin cells down the drain, this is not the case. The fact that I could have flipped a few genetic switches and started these skins cells toward independent life is irrelevant. Only if I deliberately did so start them would the case of the skin cells and that of the stem cells be ethically analogous. It is the intention of the human actors involved that is of ethical interest, not the biological nature of what is in their petri dish or septic tank.

In arguing that all human cells could be used to begin a human life and therefore should be considered in the same category as embryos, Bailey is taking on a position that no one (that I know of, anyway) holds. Does anyone hold the position that every sperm cell and egg cell produced by any human body anywhere must be used to try to create a human life? If, one day, nanotechnology can create embryos out of pond water, is there someone who is going to argue that pond water deserves human rights?

Perhaps there is an ethical case that could be made for stem cell research. But Bailey’s article does not make it, and no compendium of biological facts possibly could do so.

Gene Callahan [send him mail] has just finished a book, Economics for Real People, to be published this year by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

2001, Gene Callahan and Stu Morgenstern

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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