Tuesday, September 27, 2005

My take on... the morality of stem cell research

This question came up in a comment. These ideas have been percolating in my head for a while. Here they are. I invite opposing views from responsible citizens.

I don't know the BYU policy on stem cell research. I don't think any of our labs are set up to do stell cell research but I think that's because we don't have a medical school. To my knowledge, the LDS church doesn't have a stand on stem cell research. Some LDS people strongly oppose it others support it. Orrin Hatch, one of Utah's senators, supports stem cell research and is openly, actively LDS. Steve Urquhart, who is running against Hatch in the next election cycle, opposes stem cell research and if I had to guess, I'd say he's LDS too.

Personally, I support it. I think you avoid the "stem cell research is destroying a human life" issue when you restate the arguement against abortion. The typical arguement (as I understand it) is that abortion is immoral soley because it is the murder of a human. And abortion isn't immoral when the fetus isn't a human yet. In that case, it is something like clipping of a hangnail. But if the fetus passes the "is a human" test, then abortion is murder. Using this arguement against abortion, stem cell is a research because (a) the embryo is a human and must not be murdered (this is, I think, where the Snowflake people come from.) or (b) conceding that the embryo is not human begins the process of saying that later and later term fetuses are not human and thus abortion becomes OK later and later in the pregnancy. I think people who hold this arguement don't like conceding (b), even though its perfectly rational, because deep down inside they know abortion is wrong even if they can't be rational about it. I am ok with that, but I rind that must faith and moral beliefs can be given a rational foundation (given the right set of axioms and inference rules, of course).

So I have a different arguement against abortion in which the morality of stem cell research is different. That arguement is based on a great article in the Enisgn (the official LDS church magazine, published monthly, anyone can subscribe) about abortion in which the author explained that abortion is immoral when it "undoes" the consequences of choosing to create a life. And in this definition of "immorality" abortion is immoral even if the fetus isn't officialy a human yet. Also, abortion is moral (but not required) when the woman did not choose to create the fetus or when the life of the mother or fetus is in serious jeopardy and the choice to create the fetus must be undone. In this framework, the morality of abortion is based on the principles of choice and consequence and stem cell research does not pose a dangereous threat to the theory of morality of aboration. And, stem cell research is OK when the person who decides to create the embryo decides that using the embryo for research is an acceptable use for the embryo (sharp readers will note that this is the weakest part of my thinking, we'll have more to say on that at the end). Thus we see that a correct understanding of why abortion is wrong avoids potentially irrational arguements against stell cell research and may explain why otherwise "normal" LDS people (like Senator Hatch) can support stem cell research and still be respectable in the LDS church.

So, I, personally, at the end of the day, give great great deference to the embryo parents that created the embryos. And it kills me to see good people like Steve Urquhart almost tell in vitro parents what is and is not moral in their decisions about the disposition of their unused embryos.


Anonymous said...

Since your morality barometer on abortion is based on the "choice" parameter and not related to when the fetus becomes human. How do in vitro couples escape unscathed from the criticism in your line of reasoning based on choice? Does not being able to have children exempt them from this scrutiny? How do you differentiate between in vitro embryos from fetuses? The law doesn't make this distinction. In vitro couple have full rights over their embryos the same as pregnant woman does over her fetus

Mike Jones said...

Congratulations! you have correctly (yet anonymously) pointed out the weakest link in my arguement. I don't really have a good answer and I am not entirely sure that I agree with my own opinion. Most blog posts are sort of "thinking out loud" rather than making definitive statements and I am no exception. I like your point becaues it makes me rethink mine.

Could you point me to the laws that do not distinguish between embryos and fetuses?

However, if I follow my line of reasoning, I would say that the difference is that part of the in vitro process is the decision to allow for the posibility that you will create more embryos than will turn into fetuses. Slightly different than creating an embryo in utero because an embryo in vitro won't turn into a viable fetus on its own.

I think the choice that in vitro parents make is: I will cause the creation of n embryos with the expectation that m of them will turn into embryos and the other n-m will never make it past the embryo stage. So if in vitro parents go into the process with a (well-founded) concern for the moral implications of the decision to create embryos that won't be used to create fetuses then they probably shouldn't initaite the in vitro process.

Good question.

Anonymous said...

I am pleasantly surprized by your open ended attitude to this debate. I was expecting quite the opposite reading your original post. It seemed you derived a lot of your strong opinions from your religious beliefs.

Coming to your question, I am not sure what laws really apply to the embryos but did think an article on cnn a while back about
frozen embryos
brought out some
nice points. The judgement stated
that by discarding the embryos the
clinic ended the "lives" of the
embryos. Please note the word choice, it did not say "potential lives". Now the interesting question
becomes what would have the court ruled if it the clinic would have discared some sperm or ovaries they harvested?

I do see the logic behind your reasoning on what you consider the difference between an embryo and fetus. This is where "you" have decided to draw the line between what is life and what could be life one day. The pro-choice people draw this line somewhere else. But I think the biggest thing for a person is to realize where that line exists
for them.

We Americans tend to take a stand on moral issues in myopic manner. I have travelled around the world and realized how totally wrong we are. Morality and ethics are also based on history, culture, sociological , and economic circumstance. Hence I respect people who are open to asking questions.

Another question for you to ponder about : would you consider stoning a woman to death for adultery immoral? I am making an assumption that you consider adultery immoral. This question bring about a lot of dimensions on measuring morality. I still struggle with it.

Mike Jones said...

Ditto. It is also unusal for me to hear someone speak rationally and humbly about these issues.

Wow. That was a fascinating article from CNN. A lot of what I am thinking parallels the issues in the article. I need some time to digest it all but it almost makes me wish that I went into law instead of computer science. I don't think the Illinois judge got it right, by the way. If he did, then all fertility clinics must be immediately closed because they are parties in wrongful deaths everyday.

I do think that there is absolute moral truth that transcends cultural, political and social backgrounds. There are moral laws that apply to all people and if any person lives the moral laws then they will find lasting happiness. But...

I am not convinced that I know or undstand the universal moral law and that feeling of uncertainty on some issues should lead to humility. This should be most apparent on issues like stem cell research and disposition of embryos for which there are more questions than answers.

Adultery. I do think adultery is immoral. Immoral is mostly used in a pejorative sense, but I guess I use it in the sense that it will always lead to sadness and regret. Other people don't need to enforce these consequences by doing things like stoning, pinning on scarlet A's etc, but the immorality is just a law universe and sadness is a natural consequence. I think the obligation of another moral person to an adulterer is to be compassionate and stoning isn't that compassionate.