Charles Krauthammer's Embryonic Nonsense

Jason Dulle

Charles Krauthammer, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, is just one more example of a host of prominent faces who are morally confused when it comes to embryonic stem cell research. In his article, "Stem Cell Research Without Limits is a Bad Idea", Krauthammer declared that "it is a good idea to expand federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It is a bad idea to do that without prohibiting research that uses embryos created specifically to be used in research and destroyed."

Krauthammer, like Bill Frist et al, believes it is morally acceptable to engage in destructive embryo research on excess embryos from IVF treatments, but not morally acceptable to engage in destructive embryo research on embryos created specifically for that purpose. His line of reasoning seems to be if they already exist, it is morally acceptable to kill them for their parts; if they don't yet exist, don't manufacture them solely to kill them for their parts.

He went on to say,

The moral problem for that majority of Americans who, like me, don't believe that a zygote or blastocyst has all the attributes and therefore merits all the rights of personhood, is this: Does that mean that everything is permissible with a human embryo?

Don't they understand the real threat? It is not so much the destruction of existing human embryos -- God knows, more than a million are already destroyed every year in abortions, thousands doomed to die in IVF clinics. A handful drawn from fertility clinics where they will be destroyed anyway alters no great moral balance.

The real threat to our humanity is the creation of new human life willfully for the sole purpose of making it the means to someone else's end -- dissecting it for its parts the way we would dissect something with no more moral standing than a mollusk or paramecium. The real Brave New World looming before us is the rise of the industry of human manufacture, where human embryos are created not to produce children -- the purpose of IVF clinics -- but for spare body parts.

It is this creation-for-the-purpose-of-destruction that needs to be stopped -- and it does not matter whether that creation occurs by joining sperm and egg (as the Jones Institute in Virginia has already done) or by cloning a cell from an adult, turning it into a human embryo, and then destroying it for its stem cells. (emphasis in original)

His argument could be condensed into the following three points:

1. Human embryos are not persons, and thus have no moral value
2. It is permissible to perform destructive research on leftover IVF embryos because they are going to die anyway
3. Creating new embryos for the purpose of destructive research is morally distinct than utilizing existing embryos that were not originally slated for research, for the same research because the former treats human embryos as a means to an end (a commodity), whereas the latter treats human embryos as an end in themselves.

Let me deal with each of these three points in turn:

Embryos are Morally Insignificant Non-Persons

His argument suggests that the morally relevant question is why the embryos were created, not what the embryos are. This is patently absurd. A third party's intention for creating something cannot change what that something is. It is what it is, and it either has value in itself or it does not. His reasoning makes as much sense as a 19th century ethicist arguing that it would be ok to enslave those with black skin who already exist, but wrong to create new people with black skin solely for the purpose of enslaving them! The moral issue is not when or why they exist, but their treatment in the first place. If it can be determined that those with black skin are valuable human beings, then there is no set of circumstances that can justify treating them as a means to someone else's end, rather than as an end in themselves; as objects rather than persons. The same goes for human embryos.

If, as Krauthammer argues, embryos lack the necessary attributes that give them personhood status, then why would it matter if they were specifically created for the sole purpose of being destroyed for research? How does why they came into being have anything to do with what kind of being they are? It doesn't. What kind of being the embryo is determines whether the act of killing it is moral or immoral, not the reason for which it was created. If the embryo is a human possessing intrinsic value in virtue of the kind of thing it is, then the circumstances under which, and the purpose for which it was created are irrelevant to the question of how we treat it. If, however, the embryo's value is determined by its acquisition of certain value-defining properties, and the embryo lacks such properties at the time of the destructive research, then Krauthammer cannot object to cloning embryos solely for the purposes of destructive research. If embryos are not persons of moral value, then why not use them for their spare parts? Krauthammer does not answer this question, and yet it is critical to his argument.

He Taketh, Then Giveth Back

Krauthammer's position is complicated by the fact that he seems to waffle at times on the moral value of an embryo. For example, Krauthammer seems to contradict himself when he argues that a "zygote" does not have "all the attributes [of personhood], and therefore [does not] merit all the rights of personhood," but then goes on to say that dissecting embryos created specifically to harvest their parts would treat them as though they had "no more moral standing than a mollusk or paramecium." Now either embryos have moral standing in themselves or they do not. If they do not have moral value in themselves-and that is why it is good to kill IVF embryos for their parts-then dissecting a biologically identical embryo who just so happened to be cloned for that very purpose is morally equivalent to dissecting a mollusk! Krauthammer can't have his cake and eat it too!

Evidence of waffling can also be detected in the last paragraph. Speaking of embryos created for destructive research, he noted that it "does not matter whether that creation occurs by joining sperm and egg…or by cloning a cell from an adult, turning it into a human embryo, and then destroying it for its stem cells." I agree! But if one's moral value cannot be altered by the way in which they came into existence, how in the world can their moral value be altered by the reason for which they came into existence? The fact of the matter is that it is the same kind of thing that is being killed.

They are Going to Die Anyway

Krauthammer, like Bill Frist et al, believes it is morally acceptable to perform destructive research on leftover embryos for IVF clinics because they "will be destroyed anyway." This is the typical "immanent death" argument. Apart from the fact that very few of the leftover embryos are actually going to be discarded, is this a good justification for killing these embryos? I think not. It is a utilitarian argument that does not stand up to sound reason.

The fact of the matter is that we are all going to die "anyway." Do those of us who are going to die later have the right to kill (and exploit) those who will die sooner? Is sooner rather than later morally relevant? Do embryos cease to have rights and dignity simply because their death may be more immanent than our own?

Robert George and Patrick Lee summed this point up well when they wrote, "From the moral viewpoint, the certainty of death-whether in ninety years or nine minutes-does not alter our inherent dignity or relieve others of the obligation to respect our lives. That someone will soon die, no matter what we do, is never a license for killing him. That the human being whose death is imminent happens to be at an earlier rather than later stage of development is morally irrelevant." (Patrick Lee and Robert George, “Acorns and Embryos”; Internet, accessed 12 May 2005.)

Even if an individual's death is imminent, we still do not have a license to use him for lethal experiments. We cannot, for example, conduct experiments on death-row prisoners, or harvest their organs without their consent. Nor can we extract body parts from mortally wounded soldiers while they are dying on the battlefield.

Cloning Embryos for ESCR Turns Them Into a Commodity

I agree with Krauthammer that the threat of cloning embryos for destructive research is that it will turn human beings into a commodity to be used for another's personal gain. "Therapeutic" cloning, as it has been improperly called, treats human beings as a means to and end, rather than as an end in themselves. This is a dangerous idea, and it must be stopped. But cloning embryos is not the only source of this abhorrent idea. The destructive research being performed on leftover IVF embryos turns them into a commodity as well. They are treated as a means to an end, not an end in themselves.

Embryos don't have to be created specifically for the purpose of harvesting their parts to turn them into commodities. All that's necessary is for us to use any human embryo for its parts, and the ESCR Krauthammer supports does just that. How embryos come into being, and for what purpose they were originally created does not change their moral significance. If it is immoral to dissect a cloned human embryo for its spare parts, then it is just as immoral to dissect a leftover IVF embryo for its spare parts, because in both cases the human embryo is biologically and morally identical.

The important question in the ESCR debate is not what benefits we can glean from ESCR, but what it is that we are killing. What we find the embryo to be determines what we believe is and is not acceptable to do with it, whether it be leftover from an IVF treatment, or whether it be a cloned.


Related Articles:

What's the Big Deal About Those Tiny Little Embryos?
Senate Leader Bill Frist's Pro-Life Confusion

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