PBS recently aired a debate on whether Congress should authorize funding for embryonic stem cell research. Though the arguments against funding were enlightening, I think viewers will remember a rhetorical question the speaker supporting funding asked: Whether a spare embryo is the moral equivalent of a Parkinson’s patient.
Perhaps the speaker meant embryos are only potential humans and, thus, like animals, can be sacrificed for medical research. If they are human only potentially, it is legitimate to ask what embryos are actually. Surely not plants or tadpoles, as the ancients may have thought; nor even rabbits, chimpanzees, or the other usual subjects of scientific experimentation. Their genetic make-up is human; and it is a mystery why we classify other organisms based on their genetic make-up but not human embryos, except perhaps because it would be inconvenient. But, inconvenient or not, if embryos are genetically human organisms, it follows they are members of the human race.
Possibly, the speaker meant instead to say embryos, though human, are only marginally so, since they obviously lack the ability to exercise moral choice. Of course, the same could be said of toddlers or of elders with dementia. Like embryos, and unlike Parkinson’s patients, they also cannot make such choices. Unfortunately, calculating the moral worth of human beings based on their perceived capabilities is the kind of thinking that once justified distinguishing natural freemen from natural slaves.
The speaker further maintained no promising research should be off-limits in the search for the cure of disabling conditions, even if destroying human embryos is the price. The problem with such “end justifies the means” thinking is not hard to see: If you lie or kill even for a noble end, you become a liar or killer; repeated over time, lying and killing become easier to do, even a kind of second nature. Thus, today we kill embryos to cure disabling conditions; tomorrow we may be tempted to kill other “marginal” humans, like those in a persistent vegetative state, to spare their families or free funds for those thought more deserving.
Perhaps anticipating this claim, the speaker asked what is the harm in funding research on “spare” embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. In fact, very few embryos created in fertility clinics are discarded. Nearly all parents (88.2 percent in one recent study) say their “spare” frozen embryos should not be used for any purpose except their own reproductive efforts. A few parents even offer their embryonic offspring for adoption; they come to term in foster mothers’ wombs and are born. There is no telling what effect an expanded campaign promoting use of embryos in stem cell research might have on such choices in the future.
More fundamentally, as President Bush has said, such a campaign would constitute “the first time in our history [American taxpayers] would be compelled to fund the deliberate destruction of human embryos”— and it would undoubtedly not be the last. Every principle tends, Justice Benjamin Cardozo observed, “to expand itself to the limit of its logic.” If we fund killing unwanted embryos to find a cure for Parkinson’s patients, can we then refuse to fund terminating unwanted pregnancies, for example, to relieve low-income families of further distress or to serve others who may want more developed fetal tissue?
I mention one last harm. We have dedicated our nation to the proposition that all men are created equal. Not that we are equal in all respects; but that, as humans, we are each of moral worth. That means government must respect our rights — especially the right to have rights, the right to life. That proposition is easy to state, but difficult to live; and each generation has what it believes are pressing reasons to make exceptions. We are no different in that respect today.
Embryos are humans, and thus have moral worth. Despite whether they will die in any case — as we all will die in any case — they are entitled to respect from government. At the least, they have a right not to have the government kill them or pay for their death. When we deny that right, we harm ourselves as well.
STEPHEN L. MIKOCHIK
Mr. Mikochik, a professor of constitutional law at Temple University, is blind and was formerly an expert on disability law in the Civil Rights Division, U.S. Department of Justice.