Thursday, December 28, 2006

On why getting your PhD doesn't preserve you from being sophomoric

Selections from an article entitled "Embryo Ethics--the Moral Logic of Stem Cell Research" in the New England Journal of Medicine. The author, Michael Sandel, teaches government at Harvard University. For the full text click here. Dr. Sandel is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics.

"At first glance, the case for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research seems too obvious to need defending. Why should the government refuse to support research that holds promise for the treatment and cure of devastating conditions such as Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and spinal cord injury?"

This is a rather presumptive, biased beginning. Clearly there are many people who don't think the case is "too obvious to need defending" or it wouldn't be a controversial issue, now would it?

"Critics of stem-cell research offer two main objections: some hold that despite its worthy ends, stem-cell research is wrong because it involves the destruction of human embryos; others worry that even if research on embryos is not wrong in itself, it will open the way to a slippery slope of dehumanizing practices, such as embryo farms, cloned babies, the use of fetuses for spare parts, and the commodification of human life. Neither objection is ultimately persuasive, though each raises questions that proponents of stem-cell research should take seriously."

Seriously in what sense? By dismissing them with flippant, flimsy arguments and condescension?

"The notion that an embryo in a petri dish has the same moral status as a person can be challenged on further grounds. Perhaps the best way to see its implausibility is to play out its full implications. First, if harvesting stem cells from a blastocyst were truly on a par with harvesting organs from a baby, then the morally responsible policy would be to ban it, not merely deny it federal funding. If some doctors made a practice of killing children to get organs for transplantation, no one would take the position that the infanticide should be ineligible for federal funding but allowed to continue in the private sector. If we were persuaded that embryonic stem-cell research were tantamount to infanticide, we would not only ban it but treat it as a grisly form of murder and subject scientists who performed it to criminal punishment. Second, viewing the embryo as a person rules out not only stem-cell research, but all fertility treatments that involve the creation and discarding of excess embryos. In order to increase pregnancy rates and spare women the ordeal of repeated attempts, most in vitro fertilization clinics create more fertilized eggs than are ultimately implanted. Excess embryos are typically frozen indefinitely or discarded. (A small number are donated for stem-cell research.) But if it is immoral to sacrifice embryos for the sake of curing or treating devastating diseases, it is also immoral to sacrifice them for the sake of treating infertility."

Oh, really? I hadn't realized what my position meant. Perhaps that is why the opposition gets so fired up about these issues, Mr. Philosopher. Because we truly do believe that human life is being destroyed.

" Third, defenders of in vitro fertilization point out that embryo loss in assisted reproduction is less frequent than in natural pregnancy, in which more than half of all fertilized eggs either fail to implant or are otherwise lost. This fact highlights a further difficulty with the view that equates embryos and persons. If natural procreation entails the loss of some embryos for every successful birth, perhaps we should worry less about the loss of embryos that occurs in in vitro fertilization and stem-cell research. Those who view embryos as persons might reply that high infant mortality would not justify infanticide. But the way we respond to the natural loss of embryos suggests that we do not regard this event as the moral or religious equivalent of the death of infants. Even those religious traditions that are the most solicitous of nascent human life do not mandate the same burial rituals and mourning rites for the loss of an embryo as for the death of a child. "

I can see that you would be a wonderful person to comfort a woman who has lost a pregnancy. I'm sure with your superior knowledge that you would help her to understand that she hasn't lost a child and she has no reason to grieve. What a wonderful comforter you would be, Mr. Ph.D. Any woman who has had a miscarriage could tell you that the grief is just as real as any death whether it is recognized by anyone else or not. In fact, that is often part of the pain-- feeling that others don't recognize the loss.

"Moreover, if the embryo loss that accompanies natural procreation were the moral equivalent of infant death, then pregnancy would have to be regarded as a public health crisis of epidemic proportions; alleviating natural embryo loss would be a more urgent moral cause than abortion, in vitro fertilization, and stem-cell research combined."

Pregnancy and childbirth are natural, wonderful processes that I (being in the opposition) certainly do support. It is tragic when something goes wrong, and I think it would be wonderful if doctors were more interested in sustaining early pregnancies. In my experience, there is almost an attitude that babies in the first trimester of pregnancy are disposable. While I do think that we should be concerned with preserving these lives from the earliest days, it does not follow that I have to regard pregnancy as a "public health crisis". People dying from natural causes is quite different than people being killed through acts of commission or omission.

When I read this article I was not surprised by the agruments, but rather by who made them. I was surprised that a professional scholar would write such weak crap for a medical journal. I'm used to reading poorly reasoned and overtly biased articles on blogs and in newspapers, but this man is writing for doctors and helping form Presidential policy! You would think that he would at least try to be even-handed. I don't expect him to agree with me, but he needn't characterize my position as that of a blind religious ignoramus. I've been doing research on this topic all week without incident but this guy came off so dissmissive and smug that I just had to vent my steam somewhere. That's what blogs are for, right?


heidi jo said...



Anonymous said...

As someone who grieves after several miscarriages, who suffers while watching loved ones go through difficult infertility circumstances, and who has lost a niece or nephew through abortion, I have personally experienced what the author is so carelessly expounding upon.

I'm with you in your reaction to this article, and I agree that this "learned" man would be of no comfort to me or to my loved ones in the realities we face each day!