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8 Bad Arguments for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research
By Josh Brahm

Several years ago I had the opportunity to attend a lecture (7/17/06) by Dr. George Daley, a Harvard researcher who has researched embryonic stem cells in mice for the past ten years. As part of his lecture, he spent 15 minutes talking about the morality of Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. (HESCR)

I commend him for his scientific expertise and his honesty. He admitted that it will probably be decades before cures are created with HESCR. He is a researcher, interested in pursuing the science of stem cell research rather than justifying it on the basis of possible cures. However, I disagree with the underlying principles of HESCR. Just because we can pursue a particular scientific course, does not mean that we should.

I noticed throughout Dr. Daley’s entire lecture that he was very careful about what he called the human blastocysts his team destroys in their research. Dr. Daley called them “embroid bodies” and even “clusters of stem cells.” This is how scientists talk. However, language means something. Human beings, at any stage of development, should not be dehumanized through language. If history teaches us anything it is that calling fetuses "blobs of tissue," or a "cluster of cells" helps a woman justify having an abortion. Promoters of euthanasia call the sick and disabled “vegetables.” Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood called the poor and ‘unfit’ names like “human weeds,” and “human grasshoppers.” Dehumanizing words and phrases helped to lead to slavery and the Holocaust.

Dr. Daley occasionally made comments contradictory to things that pro-lifers know to be true. Scientifically, we know that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. Leading embryology textbooks confirm this. Experts, including Dr. Landrum Shettles, the first scientist to successfully achieve conception in a test-tube and Dr. Alan Guttmacher, the former president of Planned Parenthood all agree on this without hesitation. So these embryos that are being destroyed in HESCR are human. The “H” in HESCR stands for human. Not fish, not frogs, and not “potential humans.”

I appreciated that Dr. Daley was open to discussing his ethical justifications for HESCR. Dr. Daley offered 8 arguments from the pro-HESCR side. A few of them were thoughtful, however most were shallow and were not backed up to my satisfaction. Every assertion seemed to have one purpose: to erode the principle that life is valuable from fertilization.

#1. “Conception is a process of 12 hours, not just a single moment.”
Yes it is. It is a common misnomer that conception is a process that only takes a "moment" to complete. Fertilization is an amazing 12-24 hour process that scientists are still studying. There is a debate about when exactly during that process human life begins, but what ALL scientists agree is that by the end of the process, human life has begun.
Respond by asking "Why does this matter?" HESCR kills human embryos after they’re several days to a few weeks old. No matter how long the entire process of fertilization takes, it still results in a unique human being whose body parts are being exploited.
#2. “At conception, a new genome is formed. We don’t think of ourselves as a bunch of genomes walking around, so why should we put so much value in these?”
Well, it's true that we don't think of ourselves as a bunch of genomes walking around.

Once again, the correct question is, "So what?" Sure, we don’t think of ourselves as a bunch of genomes or zygotes walking around. We also don’t think of ourselves as a bunch of fetuses or toddlers either. Zygote, embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, teenager, and adult are all levels of development. I believe humans are valuable at EVERY level. I don't discriminate against people, deciding their value is determined by how developed their body or mind is. I think ALL should be given the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

#3. “The embryo is the size of the tip of George Washington’s nose on a quarter.”
"So what?" Size doesn’t equal value. Otherwise teenagers would be more valuable than toddlers, simply because they are bigger. Men are generally larger than women, but that doesn’t mean they deserve more rights. Killing human embryos for science is size discrimination, pure and simple.
#4. “All cells are living.”
Of course.

Dr. Daley is wrong if his point is that it doesn’t really matter that the embryo is alive from fertilization, because all of our cells are living. I'm actually shocked that a scientist of his stature would confuse parts with wholes. As noted pro-life apologist Scott Klusendorf says:

“Unlike bodily cells and sperm cells, which are merely part of a larger human organism, the human embryo is already a distinct whole and self-integrating human being. It is not merely part of another organism. In fact it is not a part of any organism. It is its own distinct entity. That is how it differs from the cells in our body, which are merely part of a larger human organism, in other words, you and I.”

Dr. Maureen Condic, Assistant Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah, explains the important distinction between individual body parts and whole human embryos:

“The critical difference between a collection of cells and a living organism is the ability of an organism to act in a coordinated manner for the continued health and maintenance of the body as a whole. It is precisely this ability that breaks down at the moment of death, however death might occur. Dead bodies may have plenty of live cells, but their cells no longer function together in a coordinated manner.”

From conception forward, human embryos clearly function as whole organisms.

“Embryos are not merely collections of human cells, but living creatures with all the properties that define any organism as distinct from a group of cells; embryos are capable of growing, maturing, maintaining a physiologic balance between various organ systems, adapting to changing circumstances, and repairing injury. Mere groups of human cells do nothing like this under any circumstances.”

#5. “When does life begin for the embryo created through nuclear transfer?” (no conception, no sperm)
If the question is whether Dr. Daley buy into his own question or not, my answer is no.

Whether a person is conceived through natural or unnatural means, the result is a living, human being. It will exhibit the four signs of life: metabolism, growth, reaction to stimuli and cell reproduction. At this point, the embryo is alive, just like every embryo that dies in Dr. Daley’s lab.

Dr. Daley offered two examples that test our instincts about the value of early human embryos. To his credit, he admitted that these may not be very solid philosophically. His first example was “the acorn vs. the oak tree.” He asserts that thinking people feel worse about an oak tree falling over than an acorn being carried off by a squirrel. His second example is called “the fireman’s dilemma.” In this hypothetical situation, a fireman is in a burning IVF clinic, and has the choice of saving a baby, or 1,000 frozen embryos. Who should he save? Most of us would instinctively save the baby.

Fortunately our instincts about something’s value have nothing to do with its intrinsic value. Hitler’s instincts told him that Jews were less valuable than blond-haired, blue-eyed men. Were they? Click here for a little more depth on "the fireman's dilemma."

#6. “Individuality is conferred later.” (Twinning and recombination.)
Yup. Up until the 14th day of development, human embryos have the potential of splitting into twins, and in rare cases, even recombining back into one! Many pro-abortion-choice philosophers conclude from this that your individuality isn’t set until your 14th day, thus you’re less valuable before then.

As Scott Klusendorf noted,

“Just because an entity may divide or recombine, it doesn’t follow that it wasn’t fully human prior to the split. If we take a flatworm and cut it in half, we get two flatworms, but it doesn’t follow from that that there was no single flatworm prior to the split. The fact that a human organism may split or recombine doesn’t mean it wasn’t fully human before that split.”

Exactly. The question is not whether the embryo in question may become twins before it is killed for research, the question is whether this embryo is human. As I defended above, biolgists aren't arguing on that point. So the twinning argument just doesn't work in defending HESCR.

#7. “Religions like Catholics and Muslims disagree on the status of early embryos.”
While you wouldn't want to cast everyone from a single religion as believing one thing, it IS true that different religions teach different things about when life has value and is worth protecting. For example, Catholicism, Judaisim and most Evangelical Protestant denominations teach that life begins at conception, and that abortion is wrong if the mother's life is not in danger. Buddhism and Sikhism don't have a specific teaching on the subject, but they generally have negative views about it. Some Hindu theologians believe that personhood begins at 3 months and develops until the 5th month. Some Islam scholars have said that live begins at conception, but some argue that fetuses become fully human at 4 months.
So what? Religions teach a lot of things. Some people believe that Americans are evil and should be killed if they don’t convert to their own religion. The absence of consensus does not mean the absence of truth. Consensus or not, it is still possible to objectively weigh evidence and test arguments according to the dictates of sound reason. I don't have to use religion to argue that HESCR is morally wrong. I can use science, metaphysics and ethics to make my argument. Don't let yourself get intellectually "shoved aside" by someone saying, "Well you just believe that because of your religion."
#8. “People used to think that dissection of human bodies was wrong. People will eventually grow to accept this (HESR) too.”
The first part is.

This is a very poor analogy. There is a huge difference between autopsies of dead people, and taking a living human being that just needs a proper environment and adequate nutrition to live, and killing him or her for body parts. It doesn’t matter how much good could come from Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research. The ends don't justify the means and the assertion that our culture will eventually grow to accept this research is pretty scary.

To be fair to Dr. Daley, he very well might be right in his prediction. Our culture may grow to accept this form of killing to benefit ourselves. That's why the discussion about stem cell research is an important one to have, and we should educate ourselves about the subject so that when the oppurtunity presents itself, we'll be ready to step up to the plate and hold our own.

Dr. Daley attempted to show that early human embryos do not have the moral significance of more developed humans. I think he failed to do so. After hearing the best arguments a Harvard researcher had to offer, I became even more confident in my belief that Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research is wrong. Dead wrong.


If you liked this article, you might also like "Stem Cell Research - What You Need to Know" or "The 3 Biggest Hurdles for Pro-Lifers Under a "Pro-Choice" President." Check back soon for more articles!




© 2008 Right to Life of Central California