Human Embryos, Bioethics and the "Devil's Bargain"

Robert George on the Dangers of Treating Tiny Human Lives as Material

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PRINCETON, New Jersey, JULY 25, 2002 ( The President’s Council on Bioethics on July 11 recommended that a four-year moratorium be placed on all human cloning in the United States.

One of the members of the panel, Princeton University jurisprudence professor Robert P. George, outlined for ZENIT some of the issues confronting the council and the country. He is also author of “The Clash of Orthodoxies: Law, Morality, and Religion in Crisis” (ISI Books).

Q: Many have called for cloning to be allowed in order to produce embryonic cells for medical research. The bioethics council itself was split on this subject. What are some of the dangers of adopting an “ends justifies the means” mentality in this field?

George: It is intrinsically unjust to treat human beings at any stage of development as mere “research material” to be exploited and destroyed in the hope of benefiting others.

That is why killing human beings in the blastocyst stage to harvest their stem cells would be morally wrong even if it did not lead to other horrors. No one should imagine, however, that it will not lead to other horrors. It certainly will.

As promising research possibilities come into view requiring the exploitation and destruction of developing human beings at later stages, pressure will mount to permit it. Having transgressed the basic principle of the inherent dignity and inviolability of the human being, no logically secure ground will be found to oppose destructive experimentation on later embryos, fetuses and eventually impaired newborns.

People who today support “research cloning” but recoil at the concept of “fetal farms” will find it increasingly difficult to explain to themselves and others what is wrong with “fetal farming” to produce “replacement parts” for people in need of organ transplants.

They will perceive, but find themselves unable to identify grounds for rejecting, the commodification of human life that began with cloning. My colleague on the President’s Council, Charles Krauthammer, has warned that if our nation accepts the cloning of human embryos to be destroyed in biomedical research, “we will regret it.” He is right. Principle and prudence alike demand the legal prohibition of all human cloning.

Q: Many people are not convinced of the human status of what they term as just a blob of cells in the first days of human life. What relation is there between these few cells and a mature person?

George: The adult human being who is now you or I is the same human being who was, at an earlier stage of his or her life, an adolescent, and before that a child, an infant, a fetus and an embryo.

The embryonic and fetal stages — no less than the infant, child and adolescent stages — are stages in the life of a whole living member of the species homo sapiens who, by directing his or her own integral organic functioning, matures from the embryonic into and through the fetal, infant, child and adolescent stages and into adulthood with his or her unity, determinateness and identity fully intact.

Although you and I were never sperm or ova, we were once embryos — just as we were fetuses, infants, children and adolescents. Sperm and ova are not human beings; they are genetically and functionally parts of the male and female human beings whose sperm and ova they are.

The combining of the chromosomes of the spermatozoon and of the oocyte generates what every authority in human embryology identifies as a new and distinct organism. Whether produced by fertilization or by somatic cell nuclear transfer or some other cloning technique, the human embryo possesses all of the genetic material needed to inform and organize its growth.

Unless deprived of a suitable environment or prevented by accident or disease, the embryo is actively developing itself to full maturity. The direction of its growth is not extrinsically determined, but is in accord with the genetic information within it. The human embryo is, then, a whole (though immature) and distinct human organism — a human being.

That is why it is wrong to say that the human embryo is “pre-human” or merely a “potential human being.” The human embryo is already and fully a human being.

It is true that in the embryonic stage of our development each of us had a great deal or maturing to do before he or she could perform higher human activities such as thinking, imagining and choosing; indeed, we lacked the immediately exercisable capacity to perform such acts until several months after birth.

But it is fallacious to infer from this that we were not human beings until months or years after we were born. Any material entity, including a healthy adult human being, can be described abstractly in terms of its chemical makeup or as a “blob of cells.”

But in the debate over the moral status of the human embryo, this is merely a technique of evading a biological fact that is attested to by every leading textbook in the field of human embryology: The human embryo is a human being in the earliest stage of his or her natural development.

Q: Religious leaders have been criticized for wanting to stop cloning because — critics say — in a pluralist society we cannot legislate a moral view based on religious beliefs. Is this a fair criticism?

George: The status of the developing embryo as a human being is an undeniable biological fact, not a contested religious dogma.

Nothing would please me or other opponents of cloning and all forms of destructive research on human embryos more than to resolve this issue purely on the basis of the scientific facts as to when a new human being comes into existence.

Of course, sophisticated proponents of embryo research don’t want to do that. Because they realize that there is no denying the fact that the human embryo is a human being, they find it necessary to claim that human beings in the earliest stages of their development lack some attribute or quality — for example, brain function, sentience, self-awareness — in virtue of which more mature human beings have a measure of dignity that is incompatible with subjecting them to destructive experimentation for the benefit of others.

Some claim that human beings in the embryonic stage occupy an “intermediate” moral category between “things” and “full persons.” Philosophically, there are many problems with such a view.

Above all, it necessarily denies that people have basic human dignity in virtue of what they are, not in virtue of talents, abilities, accomplishments, etc.; thus it undermines the principle of human equality. It is science, not religion, that tells us that human embryos are human beings; but today it falls mainly to religious people to defend the moral proposition that human beings are equal in worth and dignity.

When Martin Luther King and other clergymen courageously defended the principle of equality against those who denied human rights based on race, no one accused them of seeking to “legislate a moral view based on religious belief.” Reverend King’s true successors today are those people of good will of every faith who speak up for equality against those who would deny human rights based on age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency.

Q: What prospects do you see in the future for the struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death,” terms often used by John Paul II, in the area of bioethics?

George: We are at a crossroads. Things will not remain as they are. Either we will begin building the “culture of life” or we will descend into the “culture of death.”

Of course, no one in the debate seeks death for its own sake. On the contrary, it is the lifesaving potential of embryonic research that tempts people to authorize it. Its supporters ask, “Why not destroy a little cluster of cells if that is the way to cure juvenile diabetes and other horrible diseases?”

They don’t see t
hat it is truly a “devil’s bargain.” They perceive it as doing, at most, a little bit of evil to produce a great deal of good. What they fail to understand is that it transgresses and compromises our most fundamental moral and political principles — inherent dignity and human equality.

They do not — yet — see the abyss into which it leads. But if we can persuade our fellow citizens to heed Charles Krauthammer’s warning and hold back from authorizing the creating of human life to be destroyed in biomedical research, we will have planted the seeds for a transformation of our culture into one that truly respects the dignity of human life in all of its stages and conditions.

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