Veritas? Harvard's Stem Cell Initiative

Last night I read a press release announcing Harvard University's launch of a privately funded program that will create cloned embryos for the purpose of embryonic stem cell research. I wondered how the institution would handle the ethical controversy surrounding the procedure so I read an article in the Harvard Gazette.1 Doing so left me thinking how ironic it is that the school's seal bears the Latin word for "truth."

To Harvard’s credit, their announcement clearly states that researchers will be experimenting on blastocyst-staged human embryos that will be destroyed in the process (though they could make it more clear that somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) is cloning). Ultimately, however, the rationale offered in defense of this new enterprise is fallacious on a number of counts.

Consider the following quote from Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president:

While we understand and respect the sincerely held beliefs of those who oppose this research, we are equally sincere in our belief that the life-and-death medical needs of countless suffering children and adults justifies moving forward with this research.

Notice, Summers didn't identify the beliefs he claims to understand and respect. Nor did he attempt to offer any reasons why those beliefs are false. He, like many other backers of embryonic stem cell research, simply evaded the issue of greatest importance—the moral status of the human embryo.

What's more troubling, however, is that a leader of a renowned intellectual center would suggest that the sincerity with which one holds a belief is sufficient warrant for holding it. Instead of offering a rational justification for Harvard's actions, Summers essentially says, "We're as convinced that we are right as our opponents are that we're wrong." So much for debate and moral discourse. What kind of example is Summers giving Harvard's young scholars when he engages in this kind of rhetoric?

Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, didn't fare any better in his attempt to address the ethical issue:

All human cells, even individual sperm and eggs, are 'living.' The relevant question is 'when does personhood begin?' That's a valid theological or philosophical question, but from the scientific perspective, this work holds enormous potential to save lives, cure diseases, and improve the health of millions of people. The reality of the suffering of those individuals far outweighs the potential of blastocysts that would never be implanted and allowed to come to term even if we did not do this research.

Melton tries to blunt the force of the fact that harvesting an embryo's stem cells inevitably results in its death by likening the embryo to any other somatic cell. But this is misleading. Yes, it's true that human cells are alive but the crucial difference between an embryo and a sperm or egg cell is that the embryo is a complete human being—not simply a part. In order to escape this, Melton evokes the artificial distinction between a human being and a person, saying that this is the relevant question. The inescapable conclusion of reasoning like Melton's is that human life has no inherent value. Whatever qualities he thinks a human being must possess in order to qualify as a person are the proper objects of respect. Thinking like this has the potential of having disturbing consequences for more members of our species than the youngest. Past attempts to make personhood a subset of humanness have resulted in discrimination, oppression, and exploitation of one segment of the human community by another with greater power. I fail to understand how creating human embryos for the express purpose of destroying them in order to benefit others is not more of the same.

Finally, if you pay careful attention to Melton's comments, you'll also note the frequently observed attempt to trump philosophy and theology with science. Sure, philosophy and theology may ask some valid questions but they don't deal with reality like science does. Melton contrasts the philosophical/theological issue of when personhood begins with the scientific fact (?) that embryonic stem cell research holds great potential for finding cures for millions. Improving the lives of this number outweighs the cost of destroying nascent individuals. But note that this is not a scientific but an ethical (and thus, philosophical) assertion.

I'm thinking Harvard needs a new seal.

References

1 B. D. Colen, "Harvard Stem Cell Institute Researchers Granted Approval" Harvard Gazette June 6, 2006 Accessed at: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2006/06/harvard-stem-cell-institut....

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