Dignified arguments

The human embryo is very small, far smaller than the head of a pin. It cannot
feel. It cannot think. It has no autonomous existence. And products derived from
it are potentially both profit-making and wonder-working. No wonder scientists
in the United States and Britain are exasperated by government restrictions.
They see no ethical problem whatsoever with dicing embryos up on a laboratory

But anyone who doubts the immense moral seriousness of the debate over the
use of human embryos in stem cell research need only read a
recent issue of Nature
. Nature is the world’s leading scientific
journal and its crisp editorials express the views of the world scientific
establishment. For years it has been a fervent supporter of therapeutic cloning
and embryo research, a harsh critic of President Bush’s restrictive stem cell
policy and a cheerleader for the Labour government’s push to make the UK the
world’s stem cell capital.

So it was dismaying to discover that Nature has discarded the concept
of "human dignity" as unworthy of mature, intelligent argument. According to an
editorial published earlier this month, it is a contradictory, "notoriously
subjective" and "slippery" concept. In four glib paragraphs, it jettisons 2,500
years of Western civilisation, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, and the
constitutions of numerous countries.

The trigger for this was the ludicrous news that Swiss scientists cannot
experiment on chimpanzees because it is offensive to their dignity. According to
their new constitution, the Swiss are required to take into account "the dignity
of creation". This is being interpreted so broadly that research on animals and
even on plants is at risk. This was certainly enough to question the sanity of
Swiss bureaucrats.

However, underlying Nature’s rejection of human dignity
is something else. Human dignity is a mainstay of arguments against research on
embryos. As it is commonly understood, human dignity is indivisible. You cannot
affirm that a black African is a human being and then pass laws to make him a
slave. You cannot affirm that the elderly are fully human and pass laws to
euthanase everyone over 85.

The problem for stem cell scientists and their boosters, is that the embryo
is clearly human. It has the full human genome and barring any mishaps, it will
someday become successively a foetus, a baby, a child, and an adult. It is a
human being in an embryonic stage of development. In the words of Diana
, a member of the President's Council on Bioethics, "It is
recognizably one of us — recognizable not to the naked eye, but to the
scientifically trained eye."

So what has the scientifically trained eye of Nature done? It has
followed Groucho Marx’s precept: "Those are my principles. If you don't like
them I have others." Since human dignity leads inescapably to the conclusion
that embryo experimentation is inadmissable, it has ditched human dignity.
"Dignity as a concept cannot be a director of moral judgement," it insists.

What is cringingly embarrassing about this argument is that it was cribbed
from a controversial article by the Harvard neuroscientist Stephen Pinker in The New Republic. Nature has taken seriously Pinker’s bad-tempered
and abusive attack on a report from the
President’s Council on Bioethics
. This strongly supported human dignity
against a growing number of bioethicists and scientists who claim that it is too
squishy to serve as a rationale for bioethical decisions. "[W]hat it reveals
should alarm anyone concerned with American biomedicine and its promise to
improve human welfare," sneered Pinker. "For this government-sponsored bioethics
does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers
that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing."

What was Pinker’s alternative to human dignity? The harder-edged concept of
"autonomy", or a person's capacity for self-determination. This, he says, is
safeguard enough for all the elements of what we normally regard as human
dignity. "So, even when breaches of dignity lead to an identifiable harm, it's
ultimately autonomy and respect for persons that gives us the grounds for
condemning it."

But has the editor of Nature never considered the consequences which
accompany Pinker’s theory? Persons in permanent vegetative states are not
autonomous; the unconscious elderly are not autonomous. What will be their fate
if scientists, doctors and hospitals reject human dignity? Embryos are not
autonomous either. Hence, they need only be treated only with whatever degree of
respect that a stem cell scientist deems appropriate. Which is not much: the
privilege of being diced up to further his quest for a Nobel Prize.

Autonomy is a very dangerous foundation for ethics. As Peter Singer argues in
his influential book Practical Ethics (don’t tell me that the editors of Nature are unfamiliar with it!), "a newborn baby is not an autonomous
being, capable of making choices, and so to kill a newborn baby cannot violate
the principle of respect for autonomy".

Blinded by its obsession with justifying embryo research, Nature cannot see
another obvious consequence of embracing autonomy. This helpfully shunts
non-autonomous embryos into Petri dishes. But it also opens wide the cages of
laboratory animals. Chimpanzees, monkeys, pigs and dogs all have more autonomy
than embryos, newborn babies and comatose patients. Therefore, argue animal
rights activists, they should not be used as fodder for scientists’ wicked
experiments. There are few causes which Nature supports with more vigour
than animal experimentation – but embracing autonomy as the foundation of ethics
undermines their campaign.

Pinker describes "human dignity" as "squishy" and hard to define. Of course
he does. Sniffing at lack of logical rigour is the opening gambit in most
academic debates in the humanities. In fact, human dignity can easily be
defended, as the excellent essays in the report from the President’s Council on
Bioethics readily demonstrate. In any case, it is naïve to assume that "autonomy" is
beyond criticism as "squishy". In a recent issue of the Journal of Medical
for instance, a bioethicist complains that "The notion of personal
autonomy is notoriously blurry and is used in many different ways."

It’s hard to understand how the world’s leading science journal could ever
have taken Pinker’s hissy-fit seriously. The consequences of rejecting centuries
of human dignity and replacing it with a self-serving, gimcrack theory are
momentous. Embryos may be small but upon them rests our dignity, too.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


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