Stem Cell Research: The Libertarian Compromise
by Walter Block
With regard to the recent brou-ha-ha about stem cell research, libertarian theory is in a position to offer the combatants in this debate something unique: a compromise, a principled one which does not consist of adding up both positions, somehow dividing by half, and giving each side part of the loaf.
Actually, the debate concerns not only the propriety of using embryos as laboratory animals, but also of government funding for this enterprise. About that, there is no libertarian compromise possible: this is entirely incompatible with our philosophy, and must be rejected out of hand as an illegitimate function of government.
But what about the research itself, privately financed?
To anticipate matters somewhat, I shall — under certain condition to be specified below — be coming down on the side of those who support the laboratory use of fertilized eggs. Therefore, it behooves me to assume that human life begins not at birth, but at the two celled stage. When the sperm enters the egg, that is it! There is a now a (very young) human being in existence.
I make this assumption for two reasons. One is in order to obviate the charge of creating a straw man argument. Given my conclusion, logical rigor requires me to make the assumption that least helps my case. Two, I happen to believe, independently of this consideration, that this is the only appropriate assumption. With the advent of modern technology, birth is becoming merely a matter of a change of address. Whether the baby lives on the inside of the womb, or in a test tube, or in a host mother, is quickly becoming almost (if not quite) a matter of indifference as far as its health, well being and survival is concerned. The real change is not eviction from the placenta, but rather the move from separated sperm and egg, which will not grow into a human being in that state, to one where the sperm enters the egg, which will result in the creation of a new member of our species.
With this as background, we now move on to a consideration of the libertarian theory of child possession. Please have patience with what follows: it will sound at first glance somewhat cavalier, even cruel and cold. But this is because cool dispassionate language is sometimes required to address exceedingly vexing problems.
Youngsters occupy a middle ground, homesteading wise, between ownership of property, such as a cow, and that concerning other people, which does not exist. The way to demonstrate ownership in an hitherto un-owned bovine is to domesticate it; once the homesteading period is over, you are the proper and complete owner.
Precisely the same logic applies to the child. The arch-typical way to homestead an infant is to engage in sexual intercourse, and then provide a "home" for it for nine months, and thereafter. But if a male and female scientist inserted a sperm belonging to one of them into an egg belonging to the other, and then grew the resulting embryo in a test tube, or in a willing host mother, and then cared for the baby after the nine month gestation period, they, too, would be considered the proper parents. The only difference between the cow and the child is that in the former case outright ownership is possible, while in the latter all that is "owned" is the right to continue to homestead (e.g., care for) the child. Doing so establishes the right to keep doing so, until the youngster reaches adulthood.
Are there any positive obligations to bring up a child? No, in the libertarian philosophy, there are only the negative requirements that one keep ones mitts off the persons and legitimately owned property of another. If a parent wishes to abandon a baby he has been raising in the past, and notifies the proper authorities (e.g., a church, a hospital, an adoption agency, etc.) he violates no libertarian law. (However, no positive obligations notwithstanding, if he abandons the child without notification, e.g., starves it in his own home, he is guilty of murder. This would be akin to forestalling; refusing to homestead unowned land, but putting a fence around it so that no one else can homestead it either; this would be a violation of the libertarian code. When done to a human child, this rises to the level of a capital crime.)
Suppose a parent wishes to abandon a child, makes this wish publicly known, but finds no one else willing to take on this responsibility. Then and only then may this child be killed. This does indeed sound cruel and heartless, but it is the only way to consistently apply the libertarian stricture against positive obligations. The only time a child can be legitimately consigned to death is if there is no one, absolutely no one in the entire world, willing to take care of it. If a parent wants to stop homesteading his child, e.g., caring for it, then he loses all rights to it; the rights of any other would be adoptive parent supercedes his own, even if he is the "natural" parent. "Use it or lose it," would be the libertarian motto for child abandonment.
There was a case in Canada where a father "mercy" killed his severely handicapped daughter. Under libertarian law, he would be treated as a murderer. His mistake was not first offering his child up for adoption. Were there anyone else willing to care for her, he would not have been entitled to kill her. It is only if no one else were to step forward in this regard that his action would then be considered legitimate.
Now to the compromise position on stem cell research.
Allow all those who wish to do research on embryos to create as many of them as they wish. (To do so is not to contravene the one libertarian legal axiom of non aggression against non aggressors). It matters not one whit whether these embryos are unneeded frozen left overs from in vitro fertility clinics, or are created de novo for the express purpose of medical research. It is also a matter of complete indifference, as far as libertarian law is concerned, whether the "activated egg" has a sperm cell in it, or a transferred nuclei from a non somatic area of the body. As long as the egg fertilized in either manner will eventuate in a child when properly housed, it is a human being at that point, by stipulation.
The medical experimenters can treat these fetuses as laboratory animals, as is their desire, contingent on one and only one stipulation: that no one else in the world wishes to raise these very young infants on their own. If there are adoptive parents forthcoming (presumably from the pro-life community, but not at all necessarily limited to it) then their rights trump those of the creators of the fertilized egg, since the latter do not wish to homestead them, e.g., protect them from harm, while the former do. The people who want to homestead (care for and raise) these fetuses get first crack at them. (Ant this goes for those in the womb too, when, if and to the degree that medical science makes such transfers possible.) It is only if there are no takers that those who wish to use fertilized eggs for research purposes can do so.
If allowed, this scenario will constitute a true compromise between the contending forces on the stem cell research debate. It will be an empirical issue as to which side will win the fertilized egg "race." Will the demand on the part of potential adoptive parents outstrip the supply of fetuses that can be created in the laboratory? If so, then not a single one of them will be killed, and no research will take place. Or, will the ability of the medical technicians to create fetuses in this way overwhelm the willingness of adoptive parents to bring them up? If so, then some fetuses will be saved, those who are adopted, and others will be destroyed in medical research, the ones which exceed the demand of adoptive parents.
But in neither eventuality will the libertarian legal code be contravened. In our presently lawless society, that is not a benefit that should be overlooked.
September 3, 2001
Copyright © 2001 LewRockwell.com