The Point of a Ban: Or, How to Think about Stem Cell Research

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Or, How to Think about Stem Cell Research

We might be convinced that the goal of relieving suffering offers a straightforward justification of sacrificing embryos in research. Or we might hold that although embryos merit our respect, the greater the good to be achieved by destroying them, the more respect must give way to research. Or, if we take the notion of respect seriously, we might find that relieving suffering is a real but not supreme imperative.

In its report Ethical Issues in Human Stem Cell Research, the National Bioethics Advisory Commission says the following of the congressional ban on federally funded embryo research: "In our view, the ban conflicts with several of the ethical goals of medicine, especially healing, prevention, and research.[1] So inured have we become to such language that we fail to notice its oddity. Is it surprising that a ban should conflict with desirable goals? Or isn't that, in fact, why we sometimes need a ban--precisely to prohibit an unacceptable means to otherwise desirable ends? Taking note of this point--the oddity of NBAC's statement--should help us think about the issue of stem cell research. To explore the logic and make sense of a ban on stem cell research is my aim here. To be sure, such a ban may be persuasive chiefly for those who are concerned to affirm the dignity of the embryo, but the public debate need not be restricted to a seemingly endless argument about the embryo's status. Since many parties to the debate claim, at least, to agree that the embryo should be treated with "respect," it may be fruitful to explore other issues--in particular, the nature of moral reasoning and the background beliefs that underlie such reasoning.

I propose to take a very long way round. Our understanding of what is at stake can be sharpened if we begin not with stem cell research but with a quite different moral question.

In the memoir of his service as a Marine in the Pacific theater of World War II, historian William Manchester writes at one point:

   Biak was a key battle, because Kuzumi had made the most murderous discovery
   of the war. Until then the Japs had defended each island at the beach. When
   the beach was lost, the island was lost; surviving Nips formed for a banzai
   charge, dying for the emperor at the muzzles of our guns while few, if any,
   Americans were lost. After Biak the enemy withdrew to deep caverns. Rooting
   them out became a bloody business which reached its ultimate horrors in the
   last months of the war. You think of the lives which would have been lost
   in an invasion of Japan's home islands--a staggering number of American
   lives but millions more of Japanese--and you thank God for the atomic

Yet, one might argue--many have--that it would always be wrong to drop atomic bombs on cities, that doing so violates the rights of noncombatants. One might argue for a ban on that approach to waging war, even though in the instance cited by Manchester one can reasonably claim that such a ban would have conflicted with some of the ethical goals of statecraft: to minimize loss of life, and to seek peace and pursue it.

Utilitarianism of Extremity

How do we reason about such a ban in the ethics of warfare? There are, of course, different views about what is permitted in war, as there are different views on all important moral questions. But if we contemplate briefly the logic of one very widely read treatment--Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars[3]--we will discover that it provides a helpful window into our consideration of banning federal support for stem cell research.

Following a well-trodden path, Walzer notes that there is a kind of dualism in just war theory. It requires two different sorts of moral judgments: about when it is permissible to go to war (what Walzer calls "the theory of aggression") and about what it is permissible to do in war (which he terms "the war convention"). …