Wednesday, July 26, 2006


Some lingering thoughts.

If it's all a matter of comparing costs to benefits, have I, in the posts below, given my support to medical experiments on unwilling human subjects? If torturing one human being can save the lives of ten, is that ok by me? When I was typing the previous two posts, I hadn't really thought through all the implications of my position. Now I wonder if I can support embryonic stem cell research and still oppose the government's secret experiments on impovershed Americans in the 50's and 60's or the Nazi experiments on concentration camp prisoners. Does this whole argument have to fall back on whether we consider an embryo a human, or can we support stem cell research even if we assume Brownback's position that they are living humans (or the equivalent)?


Blogger Arfanser said...

I got finished reading your first two posts and had two comments. You pretty much covered the first one with the last post, but I just want to point out that the life of a soldier that is lost, while not less valuable by any means, at least had the opportunity to choose to become a soldier and take that risk while an embyo (if you accept it as a person as you have done in this post) has not had the opportunity to choose whether to sacrifice itself for the greater good as a soldier does.

Second, the other problem I see with your analogy is that the embryo is real while the people that could be saved are hypothetical for most people. A lot of us don't personally know and have a harder time relating to people who are suffering from parkinsons and other diseases that stem cell research hopes to cure. On the other hand, an embryo if classified as a human life, is a little baby. I think a lot fewer of us would be willing to throw the train switch committing an affirmative act to kill a baby that we saw in order to save a a group of ten adults that would die anyway if we didnt happen to be there. So while I appreciate your analogy, I think there a a few more important variables that need to be considered, specifically the cuddly baby issue and the affirmative act issue.

11:08 AM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

I think the affirmative act point is very interesting and seems to be a pretty major factor. There are actually two affirmative acts, the pulling the switch (an affirmative act by me) and the standing on the wrong tracks (an affirmative act by the people about to be killed). In terms of a soldier overseas, the distinction seems pretty important. As you say, they voluntarily chose to enlist and were aware at the time of a possibility of dying in a foreign war. An embryo, if considered a human, does seem more analogous to, say, a gypsy, interned by the Nazis and killed for the purpose of a medical experiment.

But what about our willingness to accept a certain (and very high) number of civilian casualties in a war. Certainly in a city like Baghdad with a fairly large class of impovershed residents, many will die without having the opportunity to leave and without having made an affirmative choice to stay, knowing the risks. Aren't they kind of like the embryo? And if we're willing to sacrifice them for whatever we're hoping to accomplish, shouldn't we be willing to sacrifice a few potential humans (or even real humans) in order to cure some widespread diseases?

11:48 AM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

Also, do people really view an embryo as a cuddly baby? At best I see it as a gross slimy newborn.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

In the train switching situation, you know for sure that x people will die if you do one thing and that y people will die if you do the other.

With stem cell research, it's by no means that clear. One can allow/fund or not allow/fund the research.

If one funds, then you have the embryos used up with some potential for saving lives, but no guarantees. Simultaneously, though, resources are diverted from other research endeavors, and maybe some people die.

If you don't fund, then those embryos are (in all likelihood) still destroyed, and the treatments that could have been created from those embryos are lost and maybe some people die. But then there's still the other research that people do which will have the non-diverted funding.

Which is to say that of course we should allow and fund stem cell research, because 1-it's so promising, 2-the embryos are going to be used up another way if it doesn't happen, 3-an embryo is not the moral equivalent of an adult human.

1:41 PM  
Blogger Nell said...

I think that its much easier to relate to people with deadly diseases than to the idea of an embryo as a post-natal baby. I know at least three people with cancer and one person with Alzeimers. To me the idea of one or a few cells as a baby is far more abstract, even if I didn't know these people.

We also need to remember that the embryos that would be researched have a 100% of being destroyed anyway, thats why they are available in the first place. Why was it okay before to get rid of the embryos, but now that some good can come out of them its a big deal? Should fertility clinics forever keep every frozen embyo they have even if it will never be used? If the embryos are babies, then do we have a moral obligation to attempt to grow all of them into babies so they don't die?

I say flip the switch and do the research.

6:14 PM  
Blogger Arfanser said...

I thought that for this discussion we were supposed to assume that an embryo was the equivalent of a human life. If we make that assumption, then we could have a discussion that could possibly lead to an understanding and ability to relate to and convince people who believe an embryo is a human life to our point of view. If we are all just going to give our opinion on the subject again then this becomes a very tired discussion.

7:30 PM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

The question I was posing, at least by the time I got to my last post, was whether it would be right to support stem cell research if we accept the premise that an embryo is equivalent to a human being. As Arfanser points out, the debate of whether an embryo is a human is a bit tired. Neither side is giving way. If those of us who support embryonic stem cell research can make a convincing argument in favor of the research using the anti-researchers's assumptions, then we've won.

So, assuming that a human life, say a 24 year old law student interning at a public service corporation, and an embryo, say a microscopic fertilized ovum, are given the same value, say $1, is there a compelling argument to be made for stem cell research that does not also support conducting medical research on unwilling and perhaps unknowing human subjects? That, I think, is a slightly more difficult question.

7:55 PM  
Blogger warm fuzzy said...

Nell said it perfectly.

To your other question, Fishfrog: I don't think you can do medical research on unwilling or unknowing humans. Still, plenty of people elect to be a part of experimental research. Maybe some ebryos would too.

10:05 PM  
Blogger Matt said...

Don't we justify the life trade-off in something like wars, where we sacrifice some for the good of (hopefully) greater numbers?

1:17 PM  
Blogger scarlet panda said...


Ok: killing adult humans for the sake of a war, when the adult humans did not voluntarily* get involved in the war, to reach a possible greater good (like less suffering and death over the long term).

*they could be civilians or draftees--not all soldiers enlist voluntarily

Not ok: killing adult humans for the sake of medical research, when the adult humans did not voluntarily get involved in the medical research, to reach a possible greater good (like less suffering and death over time).

Does that make sense? Should we have a medical draft?

5:47 AM  
Blogger Fishfrog said...

Maybe embryonic stem cell research is a medical draft. An ovum is fertilized, thus giving it a soul and making it a person, and then a percentage of those embryos are selected for research. It just so happens that if the embryo is fertilized while inside another human, it's chances of being drafted medically decrease and its chances of being drafted militarily increase.

10:24 AM  
Blogger Xeno said...

I have problems making the leap to considering an embyo as a human bieng. They lack everything that I think of when I think of a human. At best I look at them as a potential human.

Also, these embyos wouldn't even exist if not for massive years of embyonic reasearch destroying countless cells. What makes destroying them for stem cells any different from previous research projects?

11:54 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

I was trying to think what could constitute a medical draft. Medical experimentation usually takes a different tack - there's usually no compulsion or lack of say in the matter, like in a draft or in the case where a country bombs you to death. The closest analogies, I guess, come in two situations:

1-prisoner experimentation. The debate often goes like this: is it wrong to offer people time off for participation in medical experiments. In this case there's a high level of persuasion (if not compulsion) and low respect for the life involved.

2-poverty as the compulsion to medical experimentation. Blood donors are paid for donation, experiment subjects are provided remuneration. The pressure of needing money is real. It frequently gets people, for example, to join the army. Here, though, the persuasion is not as strong as with prisoners and the respect for life is at least marginally higher. There's no real debate about this kind of experimentation, so I suppose it's the persuasion/compulsion angle that gives people the jitters.

Incidentally, I've heard this line from stem cell opponents: that stem cell research is just a stepping stone to full on cloning of human beings. Also marginally relevant to the discussion is this website, which is titled "Women's Voices against Cloning" and features prominently the slogan "Exploiting women in the name of science." Which site came to me emailed by a family member.

10:34 AM  

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