Wise Counsel

By Johnston, Joseph F., Jr. | The American Spectator, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Wise Counsel


Johnston, Joseph F., Jr., The American Spectator


Wise Counsel Embryo: A Defense of Human Life By Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen (DOUBLEDAY, 242 PAGES, $23.95)

Reviewed by Joseph F. Johnston, Jr.

THE ADVENT OF CLONING and other genetic techniques in recent years has given rise to vigorous public debate over the ethics of human cloning. The first successful attempt to clone a mammal (Dolly the sheep) took place in 1997. This startling event led to rampant speculation about the possibilities of human cloning, including the use of human embryos to produce "stem cells" for medical research.

These possibilities have created a heated ethical controversy. The scientific and moral issues are complex and difficult. In this splendid book, Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen provide us the guidance we need to understand and resolve the most important of these issues. (Professor George is director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University and is the author of a number of books on natural law, jurisprudence, and philosophy. Professor Tollefsen teaches philosophy at the University of South Carolina and has written on biomedical research.) They conclude that research that destroys or damages human embryos is morally wrong and a violation of human rights, and thus aver that government funding for such research should be prohibited.

There are two possible goals for human cloning: to produce children, or to use the embryo for biomedical research. In either case, the process involves removing the nuclear DNA from a female egg cell and inserting the nucleus of a donor cell to produce a reconstructed egg, which becomes a human embryo. In the case of reproductive cloning, the embryo would be transferred to a human uterus and would then develop in the ordinary course into a fetus, and eventually a baby.

The President's Council on Bioethics concluded in 2002 that cloning to produce human children would be unethical largely because of the likelihood of damage to the child. A majority of the Council expressed serious concern about the morality of cloning for biomedical research and recommended a moratorium. But the debate has continued.

In Embryo, George and Tollefsen present an absorbing and logically compelling account of the human reproductive process, leading ineluctably to the conclusion that a fertilized human embryo is a human being. Beginning at the point of fertilization, through its own internal functioning, given a normal environment and absent damaging accidents, the embryo will undergo a seamless and uninterrupted development through the fetal state to birth, childhood, and adulthood.

Since the embryo is a human being, it is a human person worthy of full moral respect. As such, it is the subject of human rights, including the right not to be intentionally killed for purposes of research. It follows from this analysis that, in the words of the authors, "scientific research conducted on embryonic humans, and destructive of their life or health, is wrong, immoral, unjust."

It is important to note that the authors purposely avoid using religious arguments. They rest their case entirely on science, technology, and ethics, Accordingly, they hope to avoid the controversial and ultimately unresolvable arguments over the issue of whether the dignity of the human person rests on the theological view that man is created in the image of God.

The authors, of course, are aware that those who favor experimentation on human embryos have made plausible arguments in defense of such research. Some of the arguments, e.g., that the embryo "does not look human," are clearly specious, and are swiftly refuted by the authors. Other arguments are more serious, such as those based on moral utilitarianism. …

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