28 November 2007

Science, stem cells, and (pro-life) scruples

I don't think this news will really "quell" the stem cell debate. Even if this puts an end to the quest for embryonic stem cells, it really constitutes only an "armistice" , not a true end to the debate. "We're not going to do it this way after all because we found another way," is not the same as "We're not going to do it this way because doing so is unethical."

In reality, I don't think it will be a long-lived armistice, either.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

If the researchers are wrong and cannot perfect the method; if they are wrong and the drawbacks prove not to be temporary -- then the debate will prove not to have been quelled.

Then there is a certain prejudice here. You know how you know people whom you so dislike that if they are for something you are just positive you need to be against it? There are some people who, in addition to scientific curiosity, just cannot stand the idea that the pro-life movement might "win" something.

Much of this goes back to Galileo's conflict with the Church over heliocentrism, from which the Church still has a black eye. (Of course, the problem is that the Church had made Aristotelianism synonymous with Christian orthodoxy. But any Church which makes that sort of move deserves the black eye it gets as a result.) If anyone associated with any religious perspective objects to a research program, then it is another "Galileo" moment, with affected scientists in the role of persecuted scholar, in the second-oldest conflict in human history: academic freedom versus religious orthodoxy. (The oldest conflict is good versus evil.) Then, of course, there is the conflict between evolutionism and its opponents. "Which scientific breakthrough have these people not opposed?", one might well ask.

So, if "these people" are against it, then we must be on the right track.

I wonder, though, if our pro-life scruples are really understood. Because of the religious connection (most pro-lifers are Christians, Jews and Muslims) those scruples are summarily dismissed as primarily religious in nature. Being summarily dismissed, those scruples may not be understood, not because opponents of pro-life positions are stupid, but because those scruples really haven't been contemplated.

Our scruples are rooted in the fact that we think the human embryo is, well, human. Some believe that the humanity of the fetus, though not explicitly asserted, is implicitly asserted by the way Scripture talks about the life in the womb. Others of us believe that the embryo is human because this proposition seems to follow from the proposition that like begets like. The proposition is at least arguable. It is also a philosophical proposition, not a religious one.

That the embryo is human is an important idea for us, with specific regard to scientific research, because most people recognize that scientific research involving human subjects, at least in the U. S., must be guided by four principles:

1. Respect for autonomy of humans
2. Beneficence
3. Justice
4. Non-maleficence

Right there is where we get into difficulty. Respondents usually talk as if we mean by human with respect to the embryo what we mean by human with respect to, say, a neophyte, a toddler or even an adult. Since, on their view, embryos are not human, the principles of bioethics do not guide research involving them. And, of course, they usually do not fail to ridicule our contention about the humanity of the embryo.

The fact is we don't mean that an embryo is human in terms of consciousness, especially as respects the ability to feel pain. We simply mean that, as the offspring of two humans, the result of the union of two gametes, it is human offspring. And, whether conscious or not, humans are entitled to protections.

No, unlike a fetus (arguably) an embryo doesn't feel anything, isn't conscious -- probably. So more than likely it has no awareness of what is happening to it. But to stress this is to make consciousness the essence -- or close thereto -- of being human. Is it? Certainly consciousness is an attribute of being human. But it's only one attribute. How important an attribute is it? Is consciousness the essence of what it is to be human, the most important (or simply just the most relevant) attribute of a human? Perhaps it is, but that is not a scientific question; it is a philosophical one. And people who argue in the negative (i.e., against the proposition that consciousness is the essence, or most important attribute of being human, etc) are not offering a religious answer. (Indeed, I doubt that we shall find in Scripture an assertion -- explicit or tacit -- of the most important attribute of being human.)

And as a philosophical question it's problematic. It may be that of all the attributes which humans possess, consciousness is the most important one. So important that the fact that an embryo is not conscious (right?) means that it may be used for purposes of scientific research. On the other hand, it may be that simply being the offspring (at any stage of development!) of human parents is the most important attribute, perhaps even the essence of what it is to be human. Regardless which of the many attributes humans possess is the most important (for purposes of bio-ethical matters), it is problematic for a member of the human race to say which of all the attributes possessed by members of the race is essential, or at the very least the most important attribute when it comes to legal protections.

We can concede that this probably is not conscious:

Neither, very likely, is this:

For Jewish and Christian pro-lifers, it is irrelevant that an embryo (or even a fetus) is not conscious or pain-capable. It is wrong on our view to harm people even if they are not aware of the harm done to them. It is wrong to curse a deaf man; and it is wrong to flip off a blind man. Of course, this is one of the reasons the issue gets labelled as a conflict between religion and science.

But even aside from the religious element, there is still the problem of the decision that what separates those with a right to legal protections from those without is consciousness or pain-capability. Whether that decision is right or wrong, it is not a scientific question. It is, again, a philosophical one. And with specific respect to the debate over embryonic stem cells, any benefits to we the conscious simply go no where in answering the bio-ethical question. In other words, that there are a great many benefits to be obtained by embryonic stem cells doesn't tell us that (and certainly not how) consciousness and pain-capability constitute the difference between being subject to protection and not being subject to protection. My father is diabetic. The fact that fetal, or embryonic, stem cells could perhaps benefit him is irrelevant to the philosophical question. How could it be?

Here's what the argument would look like:

If anyone will benefit from fetal stem cells, then consciousness is the most important human attribute.
C will benefit from fetal stem cells
Therefore, consciousness is them most important human attribute.

In addition to the fact that it's a non sequitur, no one is really arguing that. My point is simply to show the irrelevance of any putative benefits to the question of whether consciousness is the essence, or most important attribute, of being human.

In support of embryonic and fetal stem cell research, we are informed of all the benefits possibly to be derived from this research. Just knowing that, apparently, is supposed to convince us. But are putative benefits relevant to the bio-ethical question? I think this is the form that an affirmative argument would take:

If anyone will benefit from fetal stem cells, then their use is ethical.
C will benefit from fetal stem cells.
Therefore their use is ethical.

I doubt that anyone would argue that consciousness, or pain-awareness, is irrelevant, so the argument (or a similar one) really assumes that consciousness (whether the essential human attribute or not) is relevant and that embryos and fetuses are not conscious. Here's an argument:

Assuming (1) that consciousness is a relevant consideration in distinguishing those with legal protections from those without, and (2) that embryos and fetuses are not conscious,

If anyone will benefit from R and R is not conscious then R's use is ethical.
C will benefit from R.
Therefore use of R is ethical.

But we still have the question whether consciousness is a relevant consideration in distinguishing those with legal protections from those without. For those of us who believe that human life, whether conscious or not, begins at conception (and this is a philosophical position, not a religious one), conception ought to be the point at which legal protections begin.

Our argument, then, runs something like this:

It is wrong to kill a human being, whether conscious or not.
A human fetus (whether conscious or not) is a human being.
Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

Having it some other way involves a certain amount of arbitrariness. For example, Peter Singer holds that the right to life is grounded in a being's person-hood; that is, rationality and self-consciousness. He thinks the central pro-life argument is equivalent to this:

It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
A human fetus is an innocent human being.
Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

He will grant that a fetus is a member of the human species. However it is not a person because it is not a self conscious being that sees itself over time.

And this -- not religion versus science -- is where the disagreement lies: To us, species membership is morally relevant, while person-hood (manifested by consciousness) is not. To our opponents species membership is morally irrelevant, and person-hood is morally relevant. (This was the same issue in the Terri Schiavo case.) The two positions are primitive (or axiomatic, if you prefer): I can't think of a way to derive either of them from more primitive assertions. So the two positions are discreet and probably don't share much in the way of significant common ground, and therefore the switch from one position to another really does amount to something like a religious conversion. Both positions are ultimately fairly religious in nature.

The religious nature of the two positions makes debate difficult: each side accuses the other of not being rational in approach. Resolution is impossible. Each side thinks it is being rational. But the more obvious religious connection among the pro-life makes it easier for pro-life opponents to charge us with being irrational, easier for them to characterize the debate as one between "religion" and "science".

It is awfully convenient, however, for those who are conscious to decide that this is the attribute separating those with legal protections from those without. Awfully convenient.

No. I don't think the debate has been quelled. Why should scientists not seek after another method of utilizing stem cells just because this one has been discovered. If there are more roads than one to a panacea, why should we be limited to this one? Just because religious nutters object?


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James Frank Solís
Former soldier (USA). Graduate-level educated. Married 26 years. Texas ex-patriate. Ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church in America.
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