Thursday, July 20, 2006

Bush and stem-cells: why the decision is crap.

So, Bush vetoed the stem-cell bill. First veto he's exercised. Frankly, I'm surprised he didn't just tack on a "signing statement", as he's done with every other bill he hasn't liked. Let me dissect some of his bullshit:
The vetoed bill "would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others," the president said, as babies cooed and cried behind him.
Let's accept, for the moment, that an embryo is a human life (which is a metaphysical claim). Let us also accept the moral claim that it is wrong to take innocent life in order to benefit others, medically or otherwise (rejected famously by Judith Jarvis Thomson). In a previous post on euthanasia, I claimed that there is no metaphysical difference between acting and refraining from acting. So, the moral claim is equivalent to the claim that it is wrong to allow an innocent to die in order to benefit others. But, if that's true, then triage is grossly immoral: for it (potentially) allows innocents to die in order to provide medical benefits to others. Thus, either my metaphysical claim about acting and refraining is wrong or Bush's moral claim is wrong.

I tend to think that the moral claim is wrong, but not only on the basis of that example. Although taking innocent life is itself a great wrong, given sufficient greater wrong (such as the loss of significant benefit to others), it can be morally permissible to do so. For example, if a crazed philosopher takes three people hostage and offers you the choice between the death of one and the deaths of the other two, then, clearly, one should, ceteris paribus, either immediately choose the latter (if one can additively assess the worth of persons), or flip a coin (if one cannot). In either case, innocents die. So, does one do unforgiveable wrong?

There is something that Jonathan Dancy has called a "tragic dilemma": namely, a situation in which one must choose between two equally bad courses of action (distinguished from a standard moral dilemma in that the standard dilemma involves two situations that are equally morally good or neutral). Given the possibility of tragic dilemmas, any all or nothing principle such as Bush's will lead us inevitably to moral paralysis.

And, this is just blatant emotional manipulation:
Each child on the stage, he said, "began his or her life as a frozen embryo that was created for in vitro fertilization but remained unused after the fertility treatments were complete.
And what about all the embryos that were just disposed of? What proportion of those become viable offspring? Context always makes a moral difference. Fortunately, Senator Arlen Spector (of all people) provides it:
But others said there will be few such adoptions because most couples seeking a child through in vitro fertilization want a genetic connection to that child. "Even with federal funding available to encourage adoption, the number is 128, which makes it conclusive that these 400,000 embryos will either be used for scientific research or thrown away," Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), a proponent of the bill, said this week.
Here's another bit of bullshit:
"These boys and girls are not spare parts."
One wonders what Bush thinks of organ donation. In that case, one can literally be harvested for "spare parts". One might argue that in the case of organ donation, the donor is dead -- which ignores the fact of living donation, but let's put that aside as a complication. The point is, though, that frozen embryos aren't any more alive than a corpse. They could become alive, but they don't go through any of the notable biological, psychological or other processes by which we recognize life; thus, they are not in any recognizable sense "alive".

So, if it's acceptable to take organs from the dead, why can't we take frozen embryos and use them? The only other argument I can think of is that the embryos haven't consented to being so used. But, then again, the embryos are juveniles, and not adults, and we never give juvenile consent the same consideration as adult consent. Indeed, we very often compel juveniles to do things against their wills. And, furthermore, there's a real problem with whether embryos are even capable of willing (and thus of consenting). Thus, the lack of consent objection completely misfires.

For the same reason, this comparison fails:
Bush and his allies say that frozen embryos are tantamount to humans, and therefore are no more appropriate for medical research than are death row inmates.
Finally, we have this little gem:
"If this bill were to become law," Bush said yesterday, "American taxpayers would for the first time in our history be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos." Others reject that analysis, saying it would make killers of every couple that produces an unused embryo, and every employee and official who allows fertility clinics to produce and store such embryos. "If that's murder, how come the president allows that to continue?" asked Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). "Where is his outrage?" Harkin called the veto "a shameful display of cruelty, hypocrisy and ignorance."
And that, ultimately, is what Bush has done. He's pretending to take a consistent moral stand, but:
  1. his moral claim doesn't stand up to scrutiny
  2. most frozen embryos aren't used for anything
  3. we often harvest the dead (or non-living) for "spare parts"
  4. it's evidently inconsistent to claim it is murder to use frozen embryos for research, but claim (implicitly) that it is not murder to allow frozen embryos to be simply thrown away
Edit: Formatting.

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