The embryonic stem cell research debate is remarkable because neither side—pro-life nor pro-abortion—seems to fully understand the moral logic of its views.
Presumably, people who are pro-life hold their views for a reason and are not just emoting or idealogues. The same could be said of pro-choicers. I’ve long suspected that’s not always the case, though. The recent debate about embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) confirms my doubts.
ESCR is an amazing effort on the leading edge of medical science that some suggest offers promise of effective treatment for Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, and a host of other tragic and debilitating diseases. Human embryos in the first two weeks of gestation are comprised entirely of unique stem cells that have the remarkable ability of transforming into a wide variety of spare cellular parts.
There’s a limited supply of these embryos currently available that are destined for the trash can: the frozen remnants of over-ambitious in vitro fertilization (IVF) attempts. Though ESCR destroys these living human zygotes, in the minds of many this research is ethically permissible. “The embryos are going to die anyway. Why not make good use of them?”
Two questions in this debate need to be carefully considered and not dismissed with name calling, histrionics, or political posturing. First, is it reasonable to expect that the scientific community can fulfill its buoyant (and as yet thoroughly unsubstantiated) claims of future medical miracles from embryonic cells? Second, even if ESCR proponents’ wildest dreams were realized, is research on human embryos right?
I’m concerned here with the second question. Is it justified to take the life of some human beings to bring benefit to others?
The ESCR debate of the moral question is remarkable to me for two reasons. First, how could those who are pro-abortion feel the need to defend the act of cutting up a human embryo to farm it for its cells? Second, how could those who are pro-life countenance the thought? The answer to both is the same: To a large degree, neither side seems to understand the moral logic of its views.
An action is unethical when it violates a moral rule. Car theft is wrong because it violates a larger principle: It’s wrong to steal another’s property. That same rule has other applications, however. The moral principle covering car theft equally covers plagiarism. If someone objects to car theft, but condones her own theft of another’s ideas, it’s fair to question her commitment to the broader principle: Stealing is wrong. It begins to look like emotions and personal preferences are driving her choices, not moral thinking.
Gregory Koukl is founder and president of Stand to Reason, an organization devoted to a thoughtful and engaging defense of classical Christianity in the public square. He is also a radio talk show host and author of Relativism—Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air.
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