To Define the Beginning of Human Life or Not, That Is the Question

Twice a month I meet with some of my students for a critical reading.  In our last January meeting, we decided to commemorate Roe by re-exploring Judith Jarvis Thomson’s  seminal article A Defense of Abortion. Thomson’s defense of induced abortion by exploring our moral duties in the unrealistic case one found oneself kidnapped and plugged in to a virtuous violinist who is sick and needs one’s kidneys for nine months in order to heal has been highly criticized. Nonetheless, every time I read it or discuss it, I find how enlightening her thought experiment still is, as it confronts us with our set of moral beliefs and its incongrueties with our policy stances. Moreover, it makes me always ponder about our lack of a well-thought and coherent abortion regulating scheme.  But that is a topic for a different post. Today, I would like to concentrate on a related matter that stemmed from my discussion of Thomson’s article with my students.

By the end of our conversation my students and I were inquiring whether it was possible to assert a defense of stem cell research/therapy even taking for granted the right of life of the embryos, as Thomson did in her paper. It seemed obvious for almost all of us that using embryos for those purposes would be considered a blatant deprivation of the embryo’s right to life and an impermissible use of another person’s body; and thus, could not be sustained under Thomson’s argument. So we decided to try to come up with a scenario similar to Thomson’s violinist that could aid us in exploring the moral adequacy of stem cell research/therapy.

An appropriate thought experiment eluded our not so brilliant minds. We did not want to come up with a fallacious and common place thought experiment such as the one of the burning building test  in which one is forced to decide who to rescue first: twenty 8-cell embryos kept in a freezer or a baby in peril. We were not looking to formulate an experiment tilted to one side like the burning building test, in which the “incomplete human character” of the embryo is made self-evident by the “inescapable instinct” to rescue the “actual” human being. However, the truth is that it is quite difficult to come up, in a couple of minutes, with a reasonable possible scenario in which all the circumstances of stem cell research/therapy are replicated in a way that could sensibly help us assess our moral agency.

First, we would need to come up with a scenario in which we have a “human being” in a permanent frozen state (e.g. a cryogenized virtuous violinist) in which the conditions necessary for a successful life require a willing human host that is either related to the cryogenized violinist or has the authorization of his guardian to serve as a host for nine months.  Second, we must come up with a particular circumstance (e.g. a military operation) that would force the guardian of the cryogenized violinist to choose between using the frozen body to help in the recovery of a sick non-cryogenized human being (e.g. a  young Science Nobel laureate) whose only real, feasible and cost efficient chance to a healthy life is using that frozen body at the expense of eliminating all possible chances of an uncertain future life for the cryogenized violinist or leaving the cryogenized violinist frozen for an indefinite period of time and allowing for the sick non-cryogenized Nobel laureate to die. Finally, we would need to come up with the circumstances that led the cryogenized violinist to be treated as a surplus human being and at the same time be treated as the raw materials for the creation of future equally virtuous violinists (e.g. the practice of cloning virtuous musicians).  Furthermore, the example would need to consider the possibility of making the cryogenized violinist for the sole purpose of healing the sick non-cryogenized laureate (e.g. the possibility of the world coming to an end if the Nobel laureate does not find a solution to the problem before he dies from her sickness).

The end result is a very absurd, unrealistic and perhaps too intricate thought experiment.  Yet, exploring the limits of such an experiment may be a possible way to coming up with a defense of stem cell research/therapy even when one grants the right of life of the embryos.  Nonetheless, I would like to pose that the absurdity and illusory nature of these thought experiments suggest that we should face the inevitable: we must delimit when human life begins if we truly would like to come up with a moral/ethical regulation of stem cell research/therapy. This inescapable moral question is more evident when we contrast our legal stances and nation’s practices on issues like torture, war, death penalty, abortion, euthanasia and justification and necessity defenses.  The system is manifestly incoherent.

I do believe that a sensible answer will only come when we legally embrace the fact that life – and by extension human life – exists in a continuum. Law should echo that reality. A coherent and ethical sound system can only arise after we legally recognize that there is a point in that continuum in which life becomes human and that there are different stages before that point in which life is a subject of certain rights but not the same rights a human life is a subject thereof. Laws should define that moment and those stages. There is no moral reason to avoid doing so. As there is no ethical rationale either to treat totipotent, pluripotent, multipotent, oligopotent, unipotent cells, fully developed human beings not capable of living on their own, and born human beings in the same way.  Furthermore, our history and legal system have always made distinctions on how we treat the right to life of human beings based on particular deontological assumptions.

Our inquiry into how to regulate stem cell research/therapy should not be made under the assumption that embryos are in fact human beings and subjects of the same rights. A valid answer to this recent human reality must be based on a rigorous analysis of moral questions such as: 1. When does a life become a human life?; 2. Which type of rights is a non-human life entitled to?; 3. Are there different stages of a non-human life?; 4. Are those stages deserving of a differentiated right treatment?; 5. What are our moral duties to a human life?; 6.  What are our moral duties to a non-human life and it corresponding stages?; and 7. Under which circumstances are we relieved from those duties to human and non-human lives? These questions should be guiding our legislative process regarding scientific inquiries and not biased assumptions as to what constitutes human life.

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