“That Thing in a Petri Dish”

Published Date: February 21, 2006 | Topics: Philosophy, Reviews and Commentaries

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Arguing about embryos.

[This article was co-authored by Gilbert Meilaender and Robert P. George.]

Writing on the New York Times’s op-ed pageMichael Gazzaniga, our colleague on the President’s Council on Bioethics, has castigated those of us who oppose killing human embryos, whether they are produced by cloning or by union of sperm and egg, in biomedical research. We are critical of Gazzaniga’s argument in favor of what is often, though misleadingly, labeled “therapeutic” cloning, though we would not characterize his view as “nonsensical”–a term he applies to the position of President Bush and, by implication, all who share the president’s view. That sort of characterization makes civil disagreement almost impossible and is unworthy of the ideal of democratic deliberation.

More important even than incivility are several disturbing aspects of the opinions Gazzaniga expresses, and it is these that concern us here. As a people we Americans are committed to the equal worth and dignity of every human being–and, hence, every member of our community. When we ask whose good counts in the common good, we seek to answer that question in ways which include the weak, the incapacitated, and the vulnerable–not in ways that narrow and constrict the number of those to whom we are obligated and for whom we should care.

If that is the political commitment of this country, several things follow. We will not casually suggest that becoming a human being depends on development of various capacities over time without attempting with rigor and seriousness to define and describe the point at which this actually happens–the point at which we have among us another one of us whose good should count in the common good. It will not do simply to opine blithely that “it is the journey that makes a human” without offering any serious description of when that journey begins or ends.

It will not do to opine that a living human embryo of the sort all of us once were (which Gazzaniga prefers to characterize as “that thing in a petri dish”) cannot be a member of our community, entitled to the same protections as the rest of us, unless and until it has acquired “the memories and loves and hopes that accumulate over the years” without offering any serious discussion of what this means for newborns, for those afflicted by retardation, and for those suffering from dementia.

It will not do to opine that the distinction between body and brain is decisive for determining whose life should be protected without even considering whether the living and developing human body ought not elicit from us a kind of reverence and respect that would keep us from simply using it in the service of our goals, even praiseworthy goals.

Gazzaniga is, of course, not alone in failing to engage in the kind of serious reflection we need right now (though as an informed scholar he does bear some special responsibilities that others may not). Others also want to rid our nation’s debates about embryonic-stem-cell research of any so-called “political” interference with the research agendas of scientists. But this effort badly misrepresents the nature of both science and politics.

Scientists also have their agendas; they do not work in a value-free vacuum as if they had no political commitments to pursue. Moreover, there can be little doubt that those who share Gazzaniga’s view about research that destroys embryos have committed themselves to placing science in service of their agenda. Thus, for example, The New England Journal of Medicine editorially committed itself to seeking out and publishing articles that would support the cause of embryonic-stem-cell research (a gross example of partisanship compromising the scholarly commitment to pursuing truth wherever it may lead).

Then, when the South Korean scandals, made public in recent months, have proved embarrassing for this political commitment of scientists, they have been forced to scramble frantically–as does Gazzaniga–to find a theory that blames not their own agendas or hubris but the policy of the Bush administration.

They also criticize, as does Gazzaniga, attempts to investigate alternative methods which might produce pluripotent stem cells without destroying embryos. Perhaps these attempts will indeed prove to be what Gazzaniga calls them: “wild goose chases.” We cannot say for certain. We do know, however, that creative thinking about new and different possibilities may be stimulated precisely by denying ourselves for ethical reasons of what might otherwise be the obvious approach. If, for example, we simply have recourse to war at the first sign of tension among nation-states, we are unlikely to develop creative diplomacy. If, war being necessary, we content ourselves with targeting centers of civilian populations, we are unlikely to develop new and more precise weapons that can limit damage to noncombatants. If, when our young children seem inattentive or uninterested in school, we immediately prescribe for them powerful drugs, we are unlikely to think creatively about how they might better be taught in ways that will capture their attention. Gazzaniga is far too confident that he knows in advance which paths will turn out to be fruitless. This is the sort of confidence that is produced not by scholarly caution but by political aims.

To be clear, we do not ourselves object to Gazzaniga or anyone else choosing to press their political aims in our debate about embryonic-stem-cell research–so long, of course, as they are honest about what they are doing and carry out the debate with civility. For we think that this debate is about a question that is not simply scientific but is unavoidably (and in the best sense of the word) political. Whose good counts in the common good we all share? Whose life may not simply be used as a means to improve the lives of the rest of us? These questions are not nonsensical. They are political questions that any democratic community must take seriously. Taking them seriously, and discussing them with civility, is one way that we show our respect for each other.

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