Friday, May 27, 2005

Stem Cell Block

Some points deserve to made repeatedly. Here are three such points with regard to stem-cell research, and the related question of whether an undifferentiated mass of cells possesses moral agency. First, Don Boudreaux:
In an ironic encomium to pure materialism, many folks on the right conclude that each human embryo is a moral agent merely because each one contains the genetic and chemical materials necessary for growth into a human being. But because moral agency is created by far more than mere chemical compounds, there’s nothing obviously immoral about stem-cell research.
In other words, why do the spiritualists suddenly become materialists when it comes to defining moral agency? A sequence of nucleotides does not a moral agent make. Second, Steven Landsburg, quoted by Don Boudreaux in the same post:
The embryo contains all the information necessary to create a moral agent. True. It's also true that I could, in principle, write down on a piece of paper all the information that's in the embryo, hence enough information to create a moral agent. Does it follow that the piece of paper is a moral agent?
Well put. But a defender of embryo-rights might respond, “An embryo is more than just information – it’s information embedded in a biological process. Given the right conditions, an embryo will grow into a moral agent, while a piece of paper will not.” True, though there’s at least a hint of question-begging in this line of argument, since the whole question is whether the embryo has a right to the provision of those “right conditions.”

And hence my own meager contribution (which I don’t claim is original – remember, this post is about points that deserve repetition). Suppose, despite all the Religious Right’s efforts, that scientists found a way to clone a human being using just a skin cell. The skin cell contains all the information needed to create a moral agent, just like Landsburg’s piece of paper. But unlike the piece of paper, the skin cell would indeed grow into a moral agent with the right care and feeding. In this sense, the skin cell would be no different from an embryo, since information + the right conditions = moral agent. Given the existence of this technology, wouldn’t the embryo-rights crowd have to champion skin-cell-rights as well?

3 comments:

David said...

I agree with your first point. I've always thought it was interesting that the life-begins-at-conception arguement concedes an element of materialism. The flip-side is also worth noting. The liberal camp has to concede an element of moral agency than eludes scientific investigation.

You're other two arguments are weak, though. A piece of paper is not a life, regardless of what you write on it. An embryo, though, is a life as far as biology is concerned. The question of moral agency, I think, has to do with whether or not it has the status of a human life.

A skin cell is just as alive as any other life but it lacks the condition for becoming a human being. Intervention is required to clone a person via a skin cell. Whereas an embryo, if left alone, can realistically became a human life.

I don't think it follows from this that stem-cell research constitutes "destroying a life". I just think it means that the issues are in fact more complicated than most want to admit.

Glen Whitman said...

"A piece of paper is not a life, regardless of what you write on it." No one claimed it was. But the anti-stem-cell-research crowd likes to harp on the embryo's possession of 46 chromosomes' worth of genetic information. The point of the Landsburg's story was to demonstrate that information is not enough.

"Intervention is required to clone a person via a skin cell. Whereas an embryo, if left alone, can realistically became a human life." Remember that with regard to stem cell research, we're usually talking about embryos currently frozen in test tubes. These embryos *cannot* become human life (in the morally relevant sense) without intervention, any more than skin cells can. So I stand by my skin-cell analogy.

Also, even an embryo currently inside the womb requires "intervention" of some kind. A pregnant woman who does not take specific steps -- eating enough, avoiding drugs and alcohol, etc. -- has a higher likelihood of miscarriage. Consider also the many women who require special medical attention to avoid miscarriage. There's a difference of degree between the skin cell (in my hypothetical) and the embryo, but not, I think, a difference in kind.

Anonymous said...

I think ultimately that it will boil down to information on a piece of paper or in a computer data bank. Now that scientists are unraveling all this DNA sequencing stuff, they're on the verge of knowing a living thing's exact genetic make-up. As Glen suggests with his skin cell take, one day we may be able to create a new (human) life from just the 1's and 0's on a disc. Look what Glen can already do with 1's and 0's on his new IPod - listen to thousands of cool songs!

In fact Beethoven works still live on thanks to the fact that people long ago learned how to make a record of music by writing down notes on a piece of paper. (First they had to invent paper!) I for one, wish we could clone Beethoven in the flesh so he could create new works. The same goes for cloning Glen and Tom.