Stem Cell Research: The Failure of Bioethics. (the New Bioethics)

By Marquis, Don | Free Inquiry, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Stem Cell Research: The Failure of Bioethics. (the New Bioethics)


Marquis, Don, Free Inquiry


In recent years the issue of human embryonic stem cell (hereafter HESC) research has engendered fierce debate. Some object to HESC research because they say it involves taking a human life. Others argue that its prospective benefits are so huge that not to pursue it would be immoral. It is unreasonable to think that such a controversy will be resolved by journalists or politicians or, for that matter, by patients who hope for a cure from some dreadful disease.

However, it does seem reasonable that practitioners of academic bioetbics should be able to help us clarify this issue. Presumably academics have the proper interests and education to think clearly about bioethics controversies. Academic essays provide an opportunity for careful examination of relevant arguments. Since leading bioethics and medical journals have devoted whole recent issues or parts of recent issues to this controversy, (1) examining this literature should shed considerable light on the HESO controversy.

Such an expectation, in this reader's experience, will be disappointed. It is amazing how much of the HESC bioethics literature confines itself to describing the science underlying the dispute, or to giving historical accounts of the committees that have reported on this issue, or to surveying the dispute in general terms rather than closely analyzing the arguments that bear on the central ethical issues. (2) The arguments that are offered are typically presented in a cursory way Indeed, often they are more suggested than presented. Arguments that deserve critical scrutiny are quickly set out as if any rational reader would regard them as obviously sound.

No doubt there are many explanations for this. One, however, may have particular relevance to the HESC issue. Obtaining HESCs requires the destruction (or disaggregation, to use the sanitized term) of human embryos. (3) Whether such embryo destruction is morally permissible is (or should be) at the heart of the debate over the morality of HESC research. This has led many to expect that to a great extent, the stem cell controversy will mirror the abortion controversy If one believes there are good arguments for the moral permissibility of fetal destruction, then many of the same arguments can apply to embryo destruction. If one believes that destroying a fetus destroys a human life with full moral status, then presumably the same arguments can apply to embryos. When these considerations are combined with the fact that most partisans on both sides of the abortion dispute seem to consider their positions so obviously true that only cursory argument in defense of them is needed, we may have a plausible explanatio n for the superficial nature of the HESC discussion.

The purpose of this essay is to provide evidence for the claims made in the above two paragraphs. Consider first the major arguments for the view that HESC research should be banned, or at any rate not funded. Richard Doerflinger has defended this view on the grounds that it is incompatible with a Catholic viewpoint. (4) Gilbert Mellaender has defended the view on more general religious grounds. (5) There are obvious problems with such defenses. Religious views are essentially matters of faith, and it is widely thought that there are no objective grounds for preferring one variety of religious faith to others. The fact that there are so many varieties of Christianity and of Islam and, I suppose, of many other religions of which I know little, is evidence for this. Accordingly in the absence of a great deal of convincing argument that has not yet seen the light of day, particular religious considerations cannot establish the wrongness of HESO research. Such religious views count as no more than comforting opin ions, like preferences in furniture or food, and we are left with no reason whatsoever to accept them as binding on the rest of us, or for that matter, even binding on their proponents. …

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