Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Moral Status of the Human Embryo

Readers in my neighborhood of the blogosphere might be familiar with the discussion over the last several weeks at Mirror of Justice regarding the moral status of the human embryo (you can go to September's archive page and scroll up from the bottom -- beginning with this post on embryonic stem cells -- and continue into October's page, where it really gets going).

The issue has more recently surfaced in the media, in the aftermath of Michael J. Fox's unintentional support of a proposed amendment in Missouri that would establish the right to clone [sic] as part of the Show Me state's constitution (Fox and others think the amendment would just strengthen the legality of embryonic stem cell research [ESCR]).

Trying to make a dispassionate case in recognition of the inherent dignity of the human embryo, I offered the following comment at a liberal blog:

    One of the things that amazes me about the discussion of embryonic stem cell research is the inability to find any common ground whatsoever, as well as the inability to agree on certain basic facts.

    The anti-ESCR position is fairly simple.

    It begins by recognizing that embryos are human organisms. Now, if there is going to be any rational and civil debate on ESCR, this has to be acknowledged from the get-go. This is neither philosophy nor religion: it’s a fact of embryology.

    The anti-ESCR position goes on to assert that every human organism possesses inherent dignity, and hence cannot be killed and its cells harvested for ESCR. NB: the key term is “organism”: we’re not talking about oocytes or any other simply human cell (which, in some sense at least, has human life); we’re talking about a human organism, which—again, according to science—an embryo is.

    The only coherent way, then, to argue in favor of ESCR is to posit that not some human organisms do not possess inherent dignity. This argument, however, presents a new difficulty, in that that ESCR proponent must now develop a criterion by which to determine which human organisms possess human dignity and which do not. And presumably (Peter Singer et al. excepted), most ESCR proponents are going to try to tailor this criterion in a manner that does not exclude other classes from that which possess inherent dignity. But doing so in a non-arbitrary fashion is difficult as well.

    What I find appealing about the anti-ESCR position is that it simply identifies dignity with being a human organism. It doesn’t tread down that well-worn path which seeks to grant dignity to some but not others; rather, it is all-inclusive: if you are a human organism, you possess dignity, not because I grant it to you, but simply because you are a human being.

    My $.04.

If you go to the link to my comment and scroll down, you'll find replies made by those who (apparently) deny that embryos have the same dignity as other human beings.

I've decided to reply to a number of these comments in a series of posts. I do this not so much with the expectation that I'll convince my interlocutors at that blog, but with the hope that undecided parties might weigh my arguments and either find them convincing or help me see my erroneous argumentation. But I welcome and encourage thoughtful interaction with anyone, be they my interlocutors, those who agree with them, or anyone else.

NB: I've published these posts in opposite order of when they were written... while normally, the newest post is at the top of the page, for this series of posts, the newer ones are the lower ones, so the first post below responds to the first comment made to me, the second post below responds to the second comment made to me, and so on. There is a "bookend" post at the end to indicate the final post in this series.

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