Moral Equivalence of Embryonic Stem Cell Research and In Vitro Fertilization?

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Last week, columnist Michael Kinsley argued that people who oppose human embryonic stem cell research should apply their moral logic to current in vitro fertilization practices as well. To wit:

"[I]f embryos are human beings with full human rights, fertility clinics are death camps—with a side order of cold-blooded eugenics. No one who truly believes in the humanity of embryos could possibly think otherwise."

However, Kinsley points out that most Americans find IVF to be morally laudatory. (Kinsley fails to acknowledge that the Roman Catholic Church is indeed doctrinally consistent in opposing both embryonic stem cell research and in vitro fertilization. However, in a 2001 poll, 50 percent of Catholic laity said IVF was not wrong.)

Kinsley also mentions a point that I've made many times before that Nature, or Nature's God, is remarkably profligate in destroying human embryos.

Whole Kinsley column here.

Hat tip to frequent poster biologist.

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  1. Interesting point. In all fairness, rape and murder are common in nature as well.

  2. Yawn. Another attempted ad hominem attack against Bailey’s opponents. Of course, it doesn’t even succeed as an ad hominem, since:

    1. The poll is of the population at large, not ESC research opponents, so it hardly proves that such people are inconsistent.

    2. Most people don’t know that IVF involves destroying embryos.

  3. Nature, or Nature’s God, is remarkably profligate in destroying human embryos.

    Nature or Nature’s God is also 100% efficient in destroying all organisms.

    This fact casts absolutely no light on the moral/ethical/legal questions raised in vitro fertilization or abortion.

  4. “Most people don’t know that IVF involves destroying embryos.”

    Really? Even with all the news stories of multiple births that resulted from IVF? Every story I saw or read at least mentioned IVF.

  5. Correction:

    There wasn’t even a poll cited to support Kinsley’s and Bailey’s assertion that “most Americans find IVF to be morally laudatory,” which weakens their case even further. However, even if there are poll results to back up that statement, it still doesn’t show that ESC research opponents are inconsistent.

  6. Actually, since a majority Americans don’t have a problem with embyronic stem cell research, most Americans aren’t hypocritical when it comes to the matter.

    http://www.pollingreport.com/science.htm

  7. “Nature, or Nature’s God, is remarkably profligate in destroying human embryos.

    Nature or Nature’s God is also 100% efficient in destroying all organisms.

    This fact casts absolutely no light on the moral/ethical/legal questions raised in vitro fertilization or abortion.”

    Many stem-cell opponents say that either it’s unnatural of against some god’s law to destroy embryos. That statement simply asserts that in nature whether controlled by a god or not embryos are destroyed in large numbers. How can it cast no light when it speaks to the underlying motivation for many opponents stance.

  8. Heh, it’s hilarious that Kinsley accuses ESC research opponents of “willfull ignorance and indifference to logic” right after he ignores the Catholic Church in saying that no one opposes IVF.

    Also, given his choice of title for the column, he doesn’t seem to know what a “false dilemma” is.

  9. From now on:
    1: All non-existant children are considered “pre born”
    2: Life will legally begin at conception. Not the fertilization of the egg, but when the person actually concieves the idea to have a child.
    3: The legal standard of “implied consent,” curremtly used when infants need operations, will now apply to the wishes of children who do not yet exist.

  10. StupendousMan,

    Because their God works in “mysterious ways.” 🙂

  11. Many stem-cell opponents say that either it’s unnatural of against some god’s law to destroy embryos.

    From a non-religious standpoint, I’d argue it’s a violation of human rights. And nature clearly doesn’t give a shit about the human rights of adults, adolescents, toddlers, etc, so why should we think it would respect the rights of embryos?

  12. crimethink,

    That begs the question: is an embryo a human being?

  13. “From a non-religious standpoint, I’d argue it’s a violation of human rights.”

    OK, I don’t think the statment was aimed at you.

    “That begs the question: is an embryo a human being?”

    Exactly.

  14. That begs the question: is an embryo a human being?

    Actually not; Mainstream Man is arguing that since Nature allows embryos to die, they have no right to life. I pointed out that Nature allows all humans to die, so by his logic no one has a right to life, which is absurd, thus his logic is flawed.

  15. crimethink,

    Just answer the question implied by my statement. Why is an embryo an embryo a human being?

  16. Oops, it was Stupendous Man who made that argument, not Mainstream Man.

  17. PhilLip,

    Nope, not going to take that bait. I’ve shown that Bailey’s and Stupendous Man’s argument is fallacious, and I’ll stop there.

  18. crimethink,

    Bait? I think that it is a reasonable question in light of your claim above.

  19. Perhaps it is a reasonable question, but it is not one that I wish to answer at this time. In any case, if you read my post carefully, you will note that I did not make the claim that an embryo has human rights.

  20. crimethink,

    Perhaps it is a reasonable question, but it is not one that I wish to answer at this time.

    Fine. But it was hardly “bait.” Unless asking someone to explicate their position is “bait.”

    In any case, if you read my post carefully, you will note that I did not make the claim that an embryo has human rights.

    Then how do you explain this statement?

    From a non-religious standpoint, I’d argue it’s a violation of human rights.

    What is the violation you are talking here?

  21. crimethink,

    Anyway, am I now to assume that you don’t think that embryos have human rights? Which would mean that they aren’t human?

  22. PhilLip,

    I thought you were talking about the last half of the post. You’re right though, I did mention human rights in the first half. However, my point was that the “Nature doesn’t care” argument would not undermine a (hypothetical) argument based on human rights.

    To be honest, I really have neither the time nor the energy to get into yet another beginning of life debate here. I do plan on releasing the “Best of Crimethink” CD in August though, so mark your calendar. 😉

  23. Anyway, am I now to assume that you don’t think that embryos have human rights?

    You are to assume that I’m not making any claim on that subject at this time.

  24. crimethink,

    What, you can’t give me your argument in a nutshell?

    I don’t really care about the whether nature cares or not argument, etc.

  25. crimethink,

    I do plan on releasing the “Best of Crimethink” CD in August though, so mark your calendar.

    I’m not a fan of dead air and static. 😉

  26. “Nature, or Nature’s God, is remarkably profligate in destroying human embryos.

    Nature or Nature’s God is also 100% efficient in destroying all organisms.

    This fact casts absolutely no light on the moral/ethical/legal questions raised in vitro fertilization or abortion.”

    Many stem-cell opponents say that either it’s unnatural of against some god’s law to destroy embryos. That statement simply asserts that in nature whether controlled by a god or not embryos are destroyed in large numbers. How can it cast no light when it speaks to the underlying motivation for many opponents stance.

    Though I am pro-choice and pro-ESCR, I will agree that crimethink is in the right on this fallacy. Just because nature destroy 66% of embryos does not mean that premeditated destruction is moral*. If 66% of 80 year olds die within a year, we would consider it criminally ludicrous if someone killed an 80 year old man to use his liver in a 25 year old.

    * That depends on your view of the moral stance of an embryo. Which I believe occurs with the differentiation into the nervous system.

  27. There is a lot of noise and not a lot of signal in this thread.

    The only argument that matters is the personhood or lack thereof of an embryo. It is either a wart that can be removed with a complete lack of moral implications or a person who can be killed.

    The implications to research if we don’t permit embryonic research are completely moot until we address the personhood issue. Clearly, we can’t kill children to advance research, no matter how beneficial the results may be.

    The first line I’d draw would be cartesian self awareness. I’m very comfortable saying that experimentation on a being that has a sense of “ouch, that hurts ME” is really out of the question. That may be a bit too far in development. On the other side, I’m comfortable saying that a critter with no brain function has similar moral standing at time T as the salad I ate for lunch. With those endpoints, we’d have to reach consensus somewhere in the middle, draw a line that allows law to function (perhaps like the ‘age of majority’ works) and be done with it.

    There is no right answer.

  28. Jason Ligon,

    I’m very comfortable saying that experimentation on a being that has a sense of “ouch, that hurts ME” is really out of the question. That may be a bit too far in development.

    That includes mice and primates.

  29. Jason Ligon,

    I’m very comfortable saying that experimentation on a being that has a sense of “ouch, that hurts ME” is really out of the question. That may be a bit too far in development.

    That may include mice and primates.

  30. Actually not; Mainstream Man is arguing that since Nature allows embryos to die, they have no right to life. I pointed out that Nature allows all humans to die, so by his logic no one has a right to life, which is absurd, thus his logic is flawed.

    I think that his point was more along the lines of “nature allows embryos to die for nothing, and we don’t care, so why should be care when they can be sacrificed for the improvment of health.”

  31. “Though I am pro-choice and pro-ESCR, I will agree that crimethink is in the right on this fallacy”

    It isn’t an argument for morality it’s an statment saying that either a god or nature have little respect for embryos so move on to the next debating point.

  32. Clarification…

    The statment is saying this to those who use the nature/god argument. I’m not saying it to the posters here.

  33. How can it cast no light when it speaks to the underlying motivation for many opponents stance.

    I’m not sure if it does cast light on anyone’s motivation for opposing IVF.

    I am sure that claiming that someone’s motivation for advancing an argument somehow undermines the argument itself is an instance of the ad hominem fallacy.

  34. It speaks to a set of specific motivations: Ex. if these are your motivations examine this statment.

    If someones argument rests on non-falsifiable beliefs how are you supposed to debate an issue. In This case by saying that the observed reality is that embryos have little value in nature or to god(s). It doesn’t say anything about the belief it just says that in this case reality doesn’t support it so it’s not a good basis for the argument.

  35. “That may include mice and primates.”

    I know. That is tough. I think I would be in a very tough place with confirmed knowledge that animals had concomittant self awareness – that awareness of self attending action and sensation.

    I don’t really know of a good basis for a system of ethics, but I’ve always thought it started with empathy for others slugging similarly through a self aware state and having a (false?) sense of continuous identity. Imposing harm on a critter in that state is a very disturbing concept. I don’t really have a problem with food, mind you. Meh. I dunno. Ethics makes my head hurt.

  36. I’ve kinda just skimmed the thread, but it’s already kind of a tangled fuckmess. I actually disagree with very few of the statements made here, but as usual some people are just talking past each other.

    Maybe I can offer clarification on one point: On this thread, crimethink has been attacking the logic of the arguments put forth by Ron (indirectly) and Kinsley, rather than arguing the hugely more complicated question.
    whether an embryo is human or not — a related topic, but tangential to crimethink’s actual point.

    It is possible to make a critique in the form of, “Dude, your argument in support of Position A is logically flawed” independen of whether one agrees with Position A.

  37. Two obvious points.

    IVF creates embryos for the purpose of creating people. These new embryos have a chance to become human. The leftovers, if any, are frozen for future use. In other words, the embryo is created for its own benefit. ES cell research destroys embryos for the benefit of another person. Approval of IVF need not require approval of ES cell research.

    Second, the real, professional opponents of stem cell research also oppose IVF. These guys aren’t hypocritical. They just know enough about politics to keep their IVF opposition off the front page. To link IVF and ES Cell research too strongly would undermine their argument.

  38. bubba– So the morality of mankind’s manipulation of blastocysts depends on whether the little suckers have a gambler’s chance at the jackpot of full-on humanity? This seems like a dubious distinction, but apart from that, I don’t know if what you are saying is factually accurate. Most of the fertilized eggs in an IVF clinic are not there for their own benefit at all– they are all there to increase the chances that ONE of them might make it. It is actually a desired part of the process that the vast majority of them die or remain forever unused. The fact that this is the case, and yet most people don’t have a problem with IVF, is the paradox at the heart of Kinsley’s argument.

  39. I’m not sure I support crimethink’s assertion that Bailey is engaged in ad hominem criticism. I’d say they’re pointing out a political weakness, that being that the position of opposing ESCR leads logically (although not inexorably, as some posters have pointed out valid differences between the two stances) to opposition to IVF.

    Indeed, many posters have pointed out that many anti-ESCR activists also oppose IVF, and it is also true that IVF is broadly popular – more so than ESCR. Thus pointing out anti-ESCR activists opposition to IVF may be a good way to garner some sympathy to ESCR.

    Of course, if you support IVF but oppose ESCR, and your reason for opposing ESCR is that you oppose the destruction of embryos, you’ve got a contradiction, because IVF does produce far more embryos than can ever be implanted, so many of them will be destroyed. So why not allow ESCR on those discarded embryos?

    Those who have other reasons for opposing ESCR are off the hook for IVF-related critique, although I’ve got to admit that I can’t think of any reason to oppose E-SCR except for the embryo part.

    Note: I fall into the logically consistent pro-choice bandwagon: I oppose abortion restrictions, stem cell research restrictions, restrictions on end-of-life management (at least for the terminally ill)

  40. Kinsley’s reasoning is sound and so his quoted paragraph is essentially correct. If, as I believe to be the case, human embryos simply are human beings at the earliest stage of their development and life cycle, and if they are thus entitled at least to the benefit of the doubt regarding the moral status of personhood, then IVF techniques are a moral abomination. Being a person in this context doesn’t necessarily mean that others have any particular moral obligation to save those human lives but it does entail certain moral obligations including not creating such human lives intending that the majority of them be expendable, not using their bodies (such as they are) for medical research or as involuntary donors for the health of others and not intentionally ending their lives for reasons that typically amount to little more than the convenience of others.

    The above quoted paragraph, however, has less to do with sound reasoning than with rhetorical effect. (I assert this of Kinsley, by the way, regardless of whatever work Mr. Bailey may believe the paragraph accomplishes.) The intent is for the reader not already convinced of the conclusion to be repulsed by the notion that anything so seemingly good and generally accepted as IVF could possibly be, in fact, a morally repugnant practice and that therefore the notion that human embryos have moral standing must be incorrect. It’s a nice device and Kinsley is especially good at using it.

    Others have already responded to Kinsley’s (and Bailey’s) silly point about the natural death rate of human embryos, another almost entirely rhetorical irrelevance. There are arguments why present sentient capacity is not a sufficient condition for acknowledging or refusing to acknowledge personhood among living human beings, but they don’t lend themselves to blog thread discussions or, at least, not this one. Finally, while the moral beliefs or intuitions of people generally are useful and important data in addressing ethical issues, it would be absurd to take the position of the majority on this or any other ethical question as conclusive.

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