Science’s Stem-pede Part 1 : Utility vs. Moral Reality

by The Center for Bioethics and Culture on March 25, 2009

Read Part 2

I’m afraid it’s old news already. On March 9, President Obama overturned the existing restrictions on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. We at the CBC fully disagree with the order. At minimum, this is what we can expect from it:

  • Federal funds (lots more than the hundreds of millions already provided) will be doled out to researchers working on human embryos.
  • Embryo lines created at IVF fertility clinics or elsewhere after August 9, 2001 will now be available to scientists to “study” (funny how “studying” takes on a whole new meaning when it implies destruction).

Hopefully this hasn’t gotten too old, because in many ways, we’ve only seen the beginning. A major component of the executive order was Obama’s charge to the National Institute of Health (NIH) to develop guidelines for continuing this research. They’ll have until early July (120 days from March 9) to figure that out.

I’ve spent the past two weeks observing and commenting – thinking about some of the angles in this highly “politicized” (and now highly “scientificized”) debate. Well, this is not a scientific debate; it’s an ethical debate and I see the symptoms of moral confusion. Two culprits come to mind here: consequentialism (AKA, “utilitarianism”)i , and an ever-present struggle between science and ethics. For now, I’ll comment on the first.

Consequentialism as a Stem-Cell Policy

Now, I’m not much of a consequentialist. You won’t find Mill or Bentham on my list of Facebook friends. That’s not to say I don’t carefully weigh alternatives when I make moral decisions or take stances – far from it! To be honest, a litany of consequences spring up into consciousness. And these certainly do help in deciphering the ethical rightness or wrongness of a particular moral issue.

Yet before my mind wanders through the slew of hypotheticals and possibilities, measuring utility and benefits for all parties, each alternative faces a morally prior criterion: objective moral reality. That is, apart from the consequences, does a particular action respect fundamental ethical values, rules, duties or commands? If yes, I may then weigh consequences to further evaluate the morality of each action. If no, well, you’ve got your answer.ii

What does this have to do with stem cells? Let’s apply it to the issues.

Weighing the Consequences: Adult vs. Embryonic

A consequentialist weighs the outcomes of a given alternative in evaluating its morality. And in the wake of the executive order, we’ve all been disappointed that Obama failed to acknowledge the truly wonderful consequences of advances in non-embryonic stem cell research.

Adult stem cell therapy (e.g. via umbilical cord blood) has been in safe, successful human trials for years and doesn’t involve the creation or destruction of a human embryo. Good outcomes. From a consequentialist-utilitarian perspective: morally acceptable.

Now to compare this with hESC research: we don’t have much to compare it to since hESC research hasn’t made it to clinical trials yet; so we’re left with talk of “potential consequences.” But there seems to be great political-scientific faith based on surprisingly little empirical data.

Why the Confusion?

This overemphasis on embryonic stem cells’ potential is the opening for moral confusion. We’ve placed a bet based on a promise. On possibilities. On hypotheses. And the “potential consequences” could be greater than adult stem cell treatment, they could pale in comparison, or they could be disastrous. We just don’t know yet.

But the promise is great – that within the tiny stem cells of the human embryo (and only in the embryo) lies the portent of ultimate healing; a long list of human diseases, illnesses and ailments stand to be obliterated, at the meager expense of leftover embryos. And so the consequentialist in each of us takes control. Just think of the possibilities!

Clearing the Confusion

I want to call us back to the morally prior criterion: objective moral reality. Is using human life as a means ever acceptable? What about when the result is its destruction? As pertains to embryos, we’re shamefully far from consensus on this, aren’t we? And our moral confusion has led us to be satisfied with the answers of scientists and politicians.

While signing the March 9 order, Obama spoke out against an existing “false choice between sound science and moral values,” arguing that in the case of embryonic stem cell research, “the two are not inconsistent.” The “moral values” he’s referring to here must be fundamentally consequentialist, in that he values the (potential!) healing of many as justification for the destruction of some.

We’ve been caught weighing the consequences of actions that destroy early human life: the embryo, a life stage through which all of us once passed. Why didn’t the filter of our foremost moral criterion kick in?!? Or maybe it did kick in, and we rashly answered, “Yes, humanity as a means – even in its destruction – is acceptable.”

I’m not suggesting that we forget consequences. Rather, we must consider the utility of consequences in their proper place: second to the unwavering primacy of obligations, values and duties that favor humanity as an end in and of itself.

That would bring us back to what I see as the fundamental question at the bottom of all this confusion: What is the moral status of the human embryo? If it doesn’t pass the test, let the slippery slope away from human dignity begin – or, maybe more appropriately – continue.

And so ultimately, our stem cell policy should depend on the answers to these questions, as well as on the belief that “caring for each other and easing human suffering” (Obama, March 9) demands that no human should ever be abused as a means to such care or ease of suffering in others. And if embryos count as human life, then we obliged also to care for them, easing their suffering.

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iConsequentialism, or utilitarianism, is an ethical theory that determines the moral nature of a given action by weighing the net benefits (its “utility”) of its consequences.

iiI certainly don’t mean to over-simplify matters. For instance, I disagree with Kant that honesty is an unflinching moral duty – a “categorical imperative.” That is, I’d hide a Jew from a Nazi and flat-out lie about it to the Gestapo. But here we’re talking about more than honesty. The ultimate value is at play here: the value of a human life.

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Evan Rosa is a CBC Staff Writer, a freelance editor, and an aspiring man of philosophy. Follow his personal blog, Cultural Velocity.

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