Thursday, March 12, 2009

More on Stem Cells

Third, Levin describes the moral question this way:

If (as modern biology informs us) conception initiates a human life, and if (as the Declaration of Independence asserts) every human life is equally deserving of some minimal protections, government support for the destruction of human embryos for research raises profound moral problems.

I cringe at this interpretation of the Declaration. Levin believes that equality means a five-day-old embryo has the same right to life as a 5-year-old girl. I just can't buy that. I'm a gradualist. I value the five-day-old embryo because it's on its way to becoming the 5-year-old girl. But it's not there yet. It hasn't acquired the sentience and cognition that characterize a full-fledged human being.

The Declaration says we're created with an unalienable right to liberty as well as life. But that hasn't stopped us from regulating liberties in proportion to maturity, as we do, for example, with curfews and driving. Why can't we exercise the same discretion with respect to life? Yes, life is a more basic right. But maybe that just means that instead of drawing lines after birth, as we do with liberty, we should confine our line-drawing about life to the period before birth.

Slippery slopes run both ways. Let's call that Human Nature's second law. If we don't draw moral lines against the exploitation of embryos, we may end up obliterating respect for human life generally. But if we're so afraid of that prospect that we refuse to draw lines permitting the use of any embryos under any conditions, we may end up obliterating the moral difference between embryos and full-grown people. Liberals should think seriously about the first scenario. Conservatives should think just as seriously about the second."

Will Saleton

I've made a similar argument here. William Saleton refers to the human embryos as "the beginnings of people." Yes. They are, but I would go further by suggesting that they are only the "beginnings of people." We are talking about the research and destruction done to human blastulas, or, at most blastocyists - collections of non-differentiated cells - and as collections of non-differentiated cells homo sapiens at this stage of development lack a central nervous system and anything which suggests they are sentient:

"A blastocyst is an embryo with a ball of 40-50 undifferentiated cells and cavity arranged into the inner cells that will later develop into fetal tissue and the outer cells which will form the placenta. The blastocyst is an embryo at its earliest stages - usually 4 to 12 days old. It lacks the nervous system that would allow it to react and respond to their surroundings through taste, touch, sight, or sound (the neural growth process starts two weeks after ovulation), or a respiratory system.

Like the quasi-living "virus" (or some chemical reactions) but unlike an embryo at an older stage of development, fetus, or a human being after childbirth, the blastocyst's growth process can be shut on or off. Remove the embryo from the uterus and growth stops. It's growth can be frozen at will. Re-implant it within a woman's uterus and the growth process will continue as it had before (though I guess the environment which allows it to grow can be re-created in the petri dish).

It could split in two and provide the pregnant woman with twins but the two could reunite into one embryo before its fate is determined through further cell division and differentiation. If the two were to reunite would either one of the twins have died? No. The blastocyst's growth process could be turned on or off as noted above. The behavior more closely resembles that of two chemicals that are combined and react to their new surroundings, are then separated from one another, and then brought back together."

Doing violence to living organisms which feel and fear nothing is like doing violence to paper. No one is hurt (for how can non-sentient organisms be hurt?). Their potential is denied but that, for something which lacks the ability to expect or desire it, is no loss.

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