The wager

“Yes, but you have to wager,” said Blaise Pascal in response to agnosticism. In the end, death intervenes, and not deciding on God’s existence is ultimately tantamount to choosing against Him. Choose for belief, and at best you gain salvation; choose against, and at best you gain nothing at all. Of course, if the probability of God’s existence is precisely zero, then all bets are off, but you’d have to be rather myopic to make that claim, which you cannot prove. No, when all is said and done, you have to wager.

The same goes for the current debate on embryonic stem cell research. A wild jump, you say, to go from discussing Pascal’s wager on belief to public policy? Not so, because at the core of our endless arguments on stem cells is a dilemma which requires a wager and has no definitive materialist answer. Is the human embryo a human life? If we were simply studying the embryo, observing its development, awestruck at the formation of a human being from one cell, then yes, contrary to Pascal’s conclusion about God, you could abstain from a wager. No action has been committed against the embryo; it is allowed to develop naturally.

But, we aren’t merely observing; we are destroying. Once that decisive step has been taken, then we must wager. Either that destruction is blameless, or it is murder. There is no question as to the embryo’s innocence; the best argument for abortion, the violinist argument, falls apart since we’re not destroying an embryo because it’s infringing upon the mother’s rights. The intentional killing of an innocent life is murder; therefore, unless my reasoning is terribly mistaken, the creation of stem cells by disaggregating a human embryo’s cells is one of two things: if a human being, then murder, if not, then no big deal.

But how do you decide between those two options? You cannot turn to science. Any embryology textbook shows what a seamless process embryonic development is from the moment of fertilization until birth. Unless impeded by faults determined by the interplay between its own genetics and the environment provided by its mother’s womb (otherwise known as miscarriage), it will be born 40 weeks or so after it was but a single cell. Markers such as the heart beginning to beat, or the first neuron firing, or development of a recognizably human face, are mere symbols devoid of any real meaning. Since at this moment, it would be terribly difficult to select an embryo that could not develop into a human being and would be intrinsically miscarried, then use its cells, we still must wager.

Science cannot tell you whether a human embryo is a human being at the stage in which it would be dismembered to create stem cells. If anything, the evidence points firmly toward its humanity. But, we deeply want to cure crippling, deadly diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinsonism. We would do almost anything if we could make the lame walk. However, if we were told tomorrow that the cure to Alzheimer’s disease was present within the brains of a family with a newly discovered genetic variant, but we would have to kill them to get it, we would all recoil in horror. Why do we not flinch at the production of stem cells? I suppose it’s because a “blob of cells” simply doesn’t look human. In the end, though, looks aren’t everything, and you have to wager. You cannot claim ignorance; what you may be supporting has the possibility of being murder. Is it worth the lebensraum?

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4 Responses to “The wager”


  1. 1 Yvonne Perry June 26, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    In regards to your statement, “Any embryology textbook shows what a seamless process embryonic development is from the moment of fertilization until birth. Unless impeded by faults determined by the interplay between its own genetics and the environment provided by its mother’s womb (otherwise known as miscarriage), it will be born 40 weeks or so after it was but a single cell,” I would like to add:

    There is a difference between fertilization and conception. While fertilization can occur either in a lab or inside a woman’s body, conception can only take place in the womb. Conception is the process in which a fertilized egg becomes implanted and attached to the lining of the uterus where it begins to receive nourishment for continued development. This process takes several days and can be confirmed by testing the levels of progesterone and hCG (human chorionic gonadotropin) present in the mother’s blood.

    Yvonne Perry
    Author of RIGHT TO RECOVER
    Winning the Political and Religious Wars over Stem Cell Research in America
    http://www.right2recover.com

  2. 2 E. Campion June 26, 2007 at 3:10 pm

    Yvonne, thank you for the clarification. You are correct, for now. I would imagine that artificial wombs are not all that far away. May I suggest, however, that fertilization of an egg outside the womb without subsequent implantation is gravely immoral because it deprives an embryo the chance to develop fully.

  3. 3 Yvonne Perry August 21, 2007 at 11:44 am

    It’s true that the blastocyst cannot advance into the next stages of development while in the lab; however, Mother Nature herself does not seem to mind that not all eggs fertilized inside a woman’s womb advance to the next stages. Not all eggs will implant properly and a woman can have a miscarriage without ever knowing she had a fertilized cell in her body.

    Scientist are not creating blastocysts for research use only. They are left over from the in-vitro process that helps many infertile couples have children. I think a cure for illness from stem cell research is much closer than the creation of an artificial womb.

    Yvonne Perry,
    Author of RIGHT TO RECOVER
    Winning the Political and Religious Wars over Stem Cell Research in America
    http://www.right2recover.com

  4. 4 E. Campion December 2, 2007 at 11:59 pm

    I realize it’s been over three months, but I meant to reply and forgot. Yvonne’s last statements are all factually correct; however, there is quite a difference between miscarriage and intentional destruction of blastocysts (or the usage of several embryos to achieve one pregnancy in IVF).

    Yes, not all eggs implant properly, and miscarriages happen an astounding percentage of the time. However, the reason for those is usally grave genetic errors, which happen due to random chance. In order to ensure the fidelity of reproduction, there is a low threshold for spontaneous abortion (miscarriage). Why our bodies reproduce in such a seemingly haphazard fashion I can only speculate on. I suspect it has to do with the balance between speed and fidelity of DNA replication, mitosis, and meiosis. It could be more accurate, I suppose, but at what cost? Would we have to replicate our cells at a rate that would preclude human life as we know it? Who knows?

    Anyway, the fact of the matter is that we can hardly tell which embryos are going to develop from fertilization to birth, and which ones are not. That’s why multiple embryos have to be injected into a potential mother’s womb for IVF to have a chance of working. Hence, there are leftover embryos. If we choose to destroy some, we could be destroying those that are able to develop. For that matter, it’s likely that those that are able to produce functional embryonic stem cells are the same ones that have developmental potential. Defective embryos may be more likely to produce defective stem cells…

    All this disjointed rambling is just to say that intentional disaggregation of blastocysts is tantamount to destroying a human being. It’s rather like playing Russian roulette where the bullet is the good blastocyst, and the blanks are the defective ones. You don’t know which one’s in the barrel when you shoot.


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