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Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Resisting stem cell utopianism.

I get the Christian Century in the mail at least a week before it goes on-line, and I've been waiting for the chance to alert you to the excellent editorial in the September 7 issue responding to Ron Reagan's address at the Democratic National Convention.

(The editorial is on-line now, but the magazine doesn't seem to generate permalinks, so the next issue's editorial will replace this one soon. If you read this post after the article vanishes from the Web, head to your library and read "Stem Cell Rhetoric," Sept. 7, 2004, Vol. 121 No. 18, page 5.)

The editors of the liberal Protestant magazine say Reagan's speech was a "textbook example" of how to "marginalize religion and trivialize moral argument," which may account for the discontent I felt watching Reagan. The editors write:

He granted that some people have moral objections to cloning human embryos for the sake of extracting stem cells (which leads to the destruction of the embryos). He allowed that such people are “well-meaning and sincere,” and are “entitled” to their belief that human embryos have moral value and should not be created and destroyed for others’ use. “But it does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of the many,” he contended. To proceed with research is to be on the side of “reason” as opposed to “ignorance,” he went on, and such pursuit of knowledge is part of an inevitable movement toward human enlightenment: “The tide of history is with us.”

Reagan deftly makes several familiar moves. First, he relegates strong moral beliefs to the private sphere—one is “entitled” to have such beliefs, but to argue for them in public is to force them on “the many” who don’t share them. At the same time, he labels the moral claim that he disagrees with a “theology,” thereby both eliminating the need to argue with it (since presumably it is beyond rational discussion) and insinuating that those who press such a claim are guilty of religious coercion. He then aligns his position with “reason” and “progress”—opponents, naturally, of theology.

To see what is wrong with this argument, try substituting “infanticide” or “slavery” for “stem cell research.” As in: “Those who believe infanticide is wrong are entitled to their belief, but their theology should not forestall the well-being of the larger society or the movement of history toward enlightenment.” Or: “Those calling for the abolition of slavery are no doubt sincere, but they shouldn’t impose that belief on the rest of us.” The logic of the argument is the same.

The editorial concludes that we can't simply skip past the moral dilemmas of this new branch of medical technology: "Scientists’ ability to create and destroy embryos for research and therapeutic purposes presents a specific moral challenge to the valuing of human life. To deliberately create, use and discard embryos for the sake of curing disease is to adopt, in an unprecedented way, a utilitarian view of human life."

How do Unitarian Universalists, who "covenant to affirm and promote the inherent dignity and worth of every person," respond to the moral issues in stem cell research? Do they — do we, in our embrace of science — simply adopt a utilitarian view of human life?

I find some tension between two basic argments in UUA President Bill Sinkford's statement on stem cell research, which he issued back in November 2001. On the one hand, he argues that "no human embryos should be created specifically for stem cell experimentation, thus turning human life and human reproduction into a commodity — surely a clear affront to our first principle affirming the inherent dignity of human beings," a statement I emphatically endorse and which steps back from a strictly utilitarian approach. On the other hand, Sinkford also says: "Because I do not consider human embryos to be people, and because Unitarian Universalists insist that reproduction is a personal and private matter, I believe that there should be no ban on embryonic stem cell research."

The two sentences don't completely contradict each other: As long as embryonic stem cell research does not involve embryos created for research purposes, one can argue that they weren't created as commodities. But the moral issue, as Sinkford notes, is that we do regard embryos in human terms, even if we do not regard them "as people." But I don't think Unitarian Universalists — or many other people, for that matter — have a clear or simple way to proceed here. How do we assess the human dignity of the nascently human?

I've attended a funeral for a still-born child and know how deeply people can grieve a miscarriage, so I don't buy the idea that a fetus is "just a fetus." But I also reject what I see as the false clarity of those who would make all abortions illegal on the grounds that a zygote is a human being. Most people do behave as if they recognize gradations of humanity, as it were, between the very first stages of a pregnancy — when we might think it was a bit strange to hold a funeral for a zygote that didn't survive — and the late stages — when most of us clearly do respond to a fetus as a child and regard it as having its own health and even its own personality, and immediately sympathize with a mother's grief for a miscarriage. But few of us could easily say when a pregnancy moves from one stage to the next. It seems to me that's what makes the issue morally difficult and inevitably political.

I'm not entirely sure how to approach the ethics of embyonic stem cell research — other forms of stem cell research seem less morally problematic — but I do strongly suspect that a combination of biomedical dollars and utopian wishfulness will put a lot of pressure on the utilitarian lever of our public ethics. The commodification of human life will intensify. Could some good come of stem cell research? Way down the road, probably. Having watched one grandfather suffer intensely from Parkinson's Disease and another fade into the strange fog of Alzheimer's, I can appreciate the perfected world Ron Reagan wants to usher us into, but I can't shake off my reservations. For me, affirming the inherent dignity and worth of each individual can't simply serve as a moral principle once the umbilical cord is cut; some version of the principle should inform our moral thinking about nascent human life, too, even if one also recognizes (as I do) the tragic necessity of legal abortion.

Anyway, Ron Reagan's speech didn't convince me — and I appreciated the Christian Century's editorial. Maybe you can help me refine my thinking on the subject.

Copyright © 2004 by Philocrites | Posted 14 September 2004 at 6:39 PM

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pam de:

November 12, 2004 10:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

how would a utilitarian feel about stem cell research

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