Stemming from Confusion

As a former embryo with ambiguous moral status in the United States, I welcomed the recent halting of research involving embryonic stem cells.  But the key to understanding why my own response was not shared by President Obama is to realize that embryonic stem cell research is inseparably bound to a larger societal confusion about what to do with human organisms before birth.

When the president spoke in support of embryonic stem cell research on Mar. 9, 2009, he was very explicit that other uses of embryos were off limits.  “And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction.  It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society,” he said.  The president’s comments defending embryonic stem cell research but condemning cloning are an illogical but effective doorstop.  Specifically, the president keeps the door to research ajar by claiming that the destruction of human embryos for science is defensible, but the manufacture of the same exact life forms for cloning is not.  President Obama’s executive order permitting the use of mostly discarded embryos provides some political cover, but already in New York, for example, stem cells can come from any source, including live embryos not yet discarded.

It’s important to realize that using the embryo as a guinea pig as Obama supports here is a subset of the characterization of embryo as problem.  Under this portrayal, the destruction of a fetus on an elective basis, that is, for reasons other than the threat of death to its mother, is permitted under a viability-centered rationale.  But as surgeon and author Atul Gawande points out, viability is the wrong issue on which to focus, since modern medicine’s ability to preserve the life of a fetus is irrelevant to the human fetus’ personhood.  As a thought experiment, the use of perfect artificial wombs for gestation allowing fetuses to survive outside the womb at any point shows that viability and personhood are distinct issues.  Here’s another thought experiment that’s less theoretical: If viability was the organizing principle in Roe v. Wade, consider that a pre-2003 United States permitted post-viable fetuses to be killed mostly on an elective basis apart from health concerns.

President Obama, perpetuating the current approach that refuses to address whether human beings are persons before birth, really has no objection to cloning outside of strongly moralistic but unfounded protestations.  Cloning would produce human organisms with no claim to personhood, at least for a while.  This would only leave the state with more non-persons on which to regulate experimentation.  Just to clarify, this isn’t an argument that depends upon vagueness, or how many planks compose Theseus’ ship, in an attempt to split hairs over when personhood would be acquired rather than inhered.  Instead, the claim here is that the rationale allowing for embryo destruction in stem cell research, via its willful ignoring of this debate of personhood, permits agents to do whatever they want with human organisms before viabilityPolicymakers’ inability to realize that the question “Will it survive?” is not at all the same as “Is it a person?”, and refusal to engage this last question creates the inconsistencies seen in abortion law today.

The President’s remarks demonstrate no consistency in moving from cloning to research on pre-fetal humans because our legal framework has none.  The Court “need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins”, as Roe v. Wade puts it, and in the meantime, it’s made the prudent choice to assume that an answer of “maybe” is license for experimentation and removal of these perhaps-persons.  As ethicist Jacob Appel explains, even the exploitation of fetuses for organ harvesting is a logical corollary of current rationales.  If a mother has a claim against a fetus’ infringement of her liberty sufficient for destruction, there’s no reason why economic profit should be precluded from this exercise of her liberty.  Appel argues that a robust market could develop around the production of fetuses solely for their organs, blood, and whatever else carries an “economic incentive.”

Obama’s attempt to make cloning immoral but embryonic destruction acceptable is not convincing to those like Appel, myself, or anyone on either side of the abortion debate seeking consistency.  The philosophical premises on which artificially producing an item of indeterminate or no moral value leads to a “profound wrongness” would be interesting.  But, neither you nor I will ever get to see these arguments, even under this reputedly intellectual president. The cost of this refusal to address when a human organism no longer qualifies as an appropriate subject for exploitative research is any sort of logical consistency at all.

Put another way, the “profound wrongness” that the president sees in cloning has to come from somewhere, and it has to be grounded in some normative source.  But the president never tells us what that is. The logic permitting the creation and abortion of a human embryo for research also allows cloning for any purpose whatsoever, so long as the resultant fetus is not killed after its emergence from the womb. But even here, Obama’s refusal to endorse “born alive” legislation makes this last point a shade of gray, since he permits a type of infanticide, insofar as allowing fetal protections would challenge Roe v. Wade by giving infants protection during the birthing process.

By centering on viability, current abortion law obscures the issue of personhood.  President Obama, by opposing cloning yet supporting destruction of embryos in and outside the lab, invites the American public to deepen their inconsistency in the pre-birth ethical arena.

Gregory A. DiBella ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a government & philosophy concentrator in Mather House.