Cells and Skin Cells
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:
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.
see, Bailey informs us:
skin cell, each neuron, each liver cell is potentially
a person. All thatís 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).
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!
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?
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.
goes on to say:
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
lists several good things that could come from stem cell research:
"Östem cells derived from human embryos could possibly
cure a host of degenerative illnesses such as Parkinsonís disease,
arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and cirrhosis of the liver."
Such naÔve 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.
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:
what kind of world will the persons now cured by new medical
techniques live? Ö 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives