Bad premises


If you’re truly against embryonic stem cell research, because you believe the embryo is a human being with all the dignity and rights thereof, then stop doing these comparisons. Stop them right now. If that “score” above becomes 72-1, we will lose. And it will be; trust me, scientists are more than industrious enough to find a way around the technical difficulties surrounding embryonic stem cell-based treatments. And as I step back and think about it, we’re losing now even though the score is 72-0, even though new adult stem cell breakthroughs seem to be happening almost weekly.

We’re losing because we’re granting a bad premise. We’re using the same utilitarian arguments to justify adult stem cell research as they’re using to justify embryonic research. It works. I’m afraid that we’re publicizing this adult stem research as a way of hoping to win embryonic research proponents to our side, by showing that our treatments work too.

All this publicity of adult stem cell therapies should be secondary to our primary message, which should be to sound the alarm, loud and clear, that the embryo is a person. Whether salvaged from in vitro fertilization leftovers or cloned using somatic cell nuclear transfer to an unfertilized egg, the embryo is ontologically the same as you and me. That message is not popular, but it is true and defensible. The minute the first viable embryonic cell treatment comes on the market, the few folks we’ve lured over by our little scoreboards will jump ship. Utilitarians, which is what the vast majority of Westerners are, and which we are in danger of becoming ourselves, don’t look at the means, but only at the ends. And a cure is a cure.

One objection to my words is that in taking the tack of personhood in defending the embryo, we are going to be pushed into irrelevancy by a society that doesn’t acknowledge religious arguments. I think that’s a valid concern, but should we even be worried about irrelevancy when truth is at stake? And, furthermore, our stance on the personhood of the embryo is the most logical and scientific conclusion about the state of the embryo. Any other dividing line before which an embryo is not a person fails: implantation, heart beating, brain activity, sensing of pain, ‘quickening’, birth–they are all arbitrary. Conception is not. We can make this case without recourse to our faith, though we should readily acknowledge that faith informs our reasoning.

So, let’s stop keeping score about adult stem cell successes, and stop gloating that there have been zero embryonic therapies to date. There will be embyronic stem cell therapies, regardless of how much we promote alternatives, unless we convince people of the dignity of the embryo. I grant you that that is a nearly hopeless cause. But even so, we mustn’t compromise what we know to be true.


13 Responses to “Bad premises”

  1. 1 Bekah January 16, 2007 at 1:52 pm


    I am sad to say that we are exactly in this position right now because our parents and grandparents refused to lay it on the line and declare the truth back in the 60s and 70s, during the “sexual revolution”, advent of hormonal contraception, Roe v. Wade, and then IVF. We’ve let the utilitarians control the form of the dialog for far too long. At this point, it may be impossible to reawaken society to the truth. It’s too horrific. Nobody really wants to acknowledge that people want to use real people as spare parts. So in addition to the utilitarian arguments, we’re battling against our human defense mechanisms that we put up to clean up the truth of what is being done in the name of ‘compassion’.

  2. 2 Edmund C. January 16, 2007 at 1:57 pm

    Bekah, you’re onto something. Reminds me of when I volunteered for the Genocide Awareness Project when it came to campus. The reaction of people to the images of aborted fetuses was not “you’re wrong,” but “you’re ill.”

  3. 3 Bekah January 16, 2007 at 2:10 pm

    Did they have any suggestions about how to create a “safe space” if you will to be able to pass through that innate revulsion that makes us want to deny what is true?

    We as pro-lifers need to realize, if we don’t already, that we are asking people to embrace a burden. It is more than a truth, it is a truth that we may be powerless to change, yet which destroys life, taints souls, and injures those who are still living. This is not an attractive truth we are trying to promote.

    It is simply easier to be pro-choice, pro-ESC. It is easy to sweep the ugliness under the rug, especially when you have no direct contact to it. It asks nothing of you.

  4. 4 Edmund C. January 16, 2007 at 2:16 pm

    Not sure what you mean by creating a “safe space”.

    We as pro-lifers need to realize, if we don’t already, that we are asking people to embrace a burden. It is more than a truth, it is a truth that we may be powerless to change, yet which destroys life, taints souls, and injures those who are still living. This is not an attractive truth we are trying to promote.

    It is simply easier to be pro-choice, pro-ESC. It is easy to sweep the ugliness under the rug, especially when you have no direct contact to it. It asks nothing of you.

    I’m reminded of J.R.R. Tolkien’s comment:

    Actually, I am a Christian, and indeed a Roman Catholic; so that I do not expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’ – though it contains some samples of final victory.

    Regardless of our prospects for winning this earthly battle, we have won the war. But for our own souls’ sake, we can’t compromise on the truth even though we may not win.

  5. 5 Bekah January 16, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    I guess what I mean, is engaging the conversation in such a way that allows the mind to proceed past it’s revulsion, to be able to accept the truth. I’m not sure confronting people with the horror is the way to defeat the mental defenses. Seems to me it is more likely to shore them up. Especially when we are discussing embryonic stem cells, in which you cannot really illustrate the affected child, but when therapies are produced you certainly will be able to hold up this person who was cured by the therapy and laud the “good” that’s been done.

  6. 6 Edmund C. January 16, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    I agree, somewhat. I suppose my rationale for supporting, with reservations of course, the graphic displays is that the vast majority of people have never even come close to being confronted with the true horror that is abortion. It may shore up some people’s mental defenses, but it probably will break down others’. I think in the long run, it may be a more profitable strategy than to simply argue reasonably with people for whom reason does not come into play.

    Perhaps the best alternative, though, is to enter into relationships with those who think differently and attempt to let the Holy Spirit convert them through our actions.

  7. 7 Bekah January 16, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    I’m not saying that this group is in the wrong. I didn’t mean to imply that. I am wondering if they have developed a way of addressing this, which brings people through the horror and able to deal with it on a level where they can really think about it, instead of reacting one way or another based on emotion.

  8. 8 Edmund C. January 16, 2007 at 2:56 pm

    No problem… I have no idea if the group has developed strategies to address that concern. It’s a very valid one.

  9. 9 cminor January 16, 2007 at 9:18 pm

    I’d been reflecting on this topic since your last post on it, and remembered something that I’m afraid is probably lost to public consciousness by now: there is precedent for the position you advocate. You may recall that during WWII both Mengele in Germany and scientists in Japan exploited prisoners in hideous ways to further their research. Some of these studies might actually have had some valuable data, yet after the war was over the decision was made to use none of it–it was considered “tainted,” having been gathered in ethically unacceptible ways.

    It’s easy to see why so few think of such examples. It’s been a long time, the most widely publicized of the research has tended to be the most outrageous. The research is “lost;” nothing is likely to ever come of it. Yet for all we know, some of that “lost” data may have made a difference to, say, some hypothermia victims today. Refusing to use it won’t resurrect the dead subjects. Still, we (hopefully, most of us, at least,) are repulsed by the thought of using it.

    The challenge is first to get people to think about issues like the Mengele data and why humanity has chosen not to use it, and then, to get them to link, in their minds, the living human embryo with the concentration camp prisoner. That second part is the tough one. It’s odd that we can now get ultrasounds of our unborn babies in mall boutiques just for the fun of it (not something I’d encourage, BTW) but there’s still this disconnect, this unwillingness to see, when it’s more convenient to treat our unborn as commodities.

  10. 10 cminor January 16, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    Thanx for the Tolkein quote, BTW.

  11. 11 Edmund C. January 16, 2007 at 9:29 pm

    I’m afraid I’ve become a bit of a broken record, haven’t I?

    That’s a very good point, cminor, about data obtained in Nazi concentration camps. I wish we could figure out how to get people to see the humanity in the embryo, but I’m just not all that hopeful that we’ll be able to. Heck, people in my neck of the woods thought that blacks were subhuman for a couple centuries. Some still do. Unfortunately, we’re all too easily able to dehumanize someone that we either want to use, or gets in our way.

  12. 12 Argent January 18, 2007 at 2:54 pm

    Thanks for helping me rethink my position. Last week in Catechumenate we started the section on Incarnation and actually discussed the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life. The timing of the bulletin inserts dovetailed nicely.

    PS….not to whine, but I miss the preview function.

  13. 13 Edmund C. January 18, 2007 at 3:12 pm

    I was playing around with different themes… I agree. I think this one’s better.

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