« Policy toward Stem Cell Research-BECKER | Main | Response to Comments on Stem Cell Research--Posner »



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"Since the researchers are not tied to any particular country, the maximum effect of the U.S. ban would simply be to shift all stem cell research to other countries; it would not stop the research and save the embryos."

But wouldn't it raise the cost of research and save some embryos? If the goal is to save embryos, banning research in this country doesn't seem stupid.


Also, please clarify your moral skepticism. How many people must agree that something (like murder or therapeutic abortion) is bad before it rises above sectarian concern? That is, something you would use pragmatic tools to stamp out.

Are we counting hands evenly or do we consider how much racket and trouble a sect is going to make before we dismiss their social goals?


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"banning stem cell research does not ... constitute an establishment of religion. Many moral precepts embodied in laws that no one supposes unconstitutional are the product of sectarian beliefs"

but aren't bans that are based primarily, if not exclusively, on religious objections and that actually affect large numbers of people (eg, on nudity, contraception, fornication, adultery, abortion, homosexuality) either unenforced or being voided one-by-one as unconstitutional?

unlike some of these, opposition to SCR seems to be justified only on religious grounds, and from what little I've heard so far, not even coherently on those. there must be a line between opposing something because it conflicts with one's general "moral sense" (whatever that means) derived from religion and opposing it because it violates a specific tenet of a specific religion. it's pretty easy to understand how a secularist can object to aborting a six month fetus, but not how one could object to pursuing a prospective benefit to the unequivocally "living" from an embryo that will be destroyed otherwise in the absence of a doctrinaire concept of "sanctity of life".


The ban on all but the 66 lines of existing stem cell lines is much like the ban on the use of cadaevers and its criminilzation by the Church years ago. It fell by the wayside when it was discovered that there were tremendous medical benefits to be derived from the scientific use of cadaevers. So it will be with stem cells. It's only a matter of time.

As for the economics of it all, it's just a matter of who gets the patents first.

Peter Noteboom

Do you have any figures on the number of researchers moving abroad, or the global research money involved in SCR?

I agree that the US is losing its edge because the Federal ban, but I have yet to see hard numbers on the exact magnitude. It would help the argument if we knew the numbers, rather than just speculating qualitatively. We are economistis, after all.


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Are you missing one further argument? Some of us were relieved that Bush denied further federal spending because of our strong views regarding minimalist governments. It had nothing to do with our religious views, and I'm not sure the externalities regarding how the funding will shake out should sway my thinking.

If I feel strongly that governments should not be funding (taxing me) stadiums to entice sports teams, I may also disregard how the money will be spent elsewhere. At least I'm not paying and we now have the benefit of at least one example of a more sane government non-interventionist policy. The analogy is not perfect, but you can perhaps appreciate my reasoning.


A human being is a human being, whether newly formed or old. The question is whether all human beings have the same rights, not whether all human beings are human beings--there's no need to adopt misleading rhetoric to avoid the question. One may adopt the language of "personhood" if one wants to avoid suggesting that the mere fact of being human has any moral relevance.

Objections to the deliberate destruction of human beings, regardless of the stage of development, are based on nonreligious principles--essentially, the principle is the equality of all human beings. I imagine, if one were to examine the question empirically, that the principle has more support than the particular application.

The discussion of cloning is confused. It isn't that some people think stem cell research is equivalent to cloning, it's that some people want to do cloning--it's a subset of ESCR. Those who want to clone want to produce new embryos--not to use excess embryos otherwise to be destroyed.

No one believes, outside of science fiction novels, that parents would clone their children and use the fully grown clones as sources for spare parts. But some do believe that someone might clone a person and allow the clone to develop for 5 or 6 weeks in utero and then use the germ cells from the fetus (once aborted) for therapeutic purposes. Will Saletan at Slate had a multi-part series on that possibility last year, which I recommend. That possibility is left open on Posner's view, since fetuses are not "persons" for legal purposes.

Naples Florida Real Estate

This is a very interesting article and the point that you make is valid. If the United States does not allow stem cell research, other countries will. It will nullify the debate because those that need the treatments will simply travel to those countries where it is available.

I do not really have an opinion for or against stem cell research. However, other countries will have a collective opinion and we'll have to go with it.

Pearl Yonick

I am an atheist, a biologist by training, and I oppose all (intentional) abortions.

Faced with the question of when legal protection (against murder) of human life should begin, I concluded that conception is the best answer.

Reasonable secular people may differ in their views of development and the duty of society to protect vulnerable people against crimes, but I would be surprised if the preference of most secular people is for a fetus/baby to have no legal rights until he or she is born.


The only realistic concern with stem cell research is the source of the cells. I suspect most would object to conception then abortion just to bring about more stem cells. But that's not on the agenda, so far as I can see. As many are produced by in vitro fertilization, which stands no chance of being criminalised or otherwise stopped, there is a ready made source that is unobjectionable. If the US wants to bury its head in the sand, then it will suffer the consequences by being behind everyone else when major advances through stem cells are made.


Pearl, Under your definition/conception of the start of "life", it places God and nature in the category of "murderer". Just a bit odd from my point of view. ;)


Rights inure only to living, automonous human beings. To suggest that "rights" attach to something less is to misapprehend the concept. Since rights prescribe a person's freedom of action in a social context, there can be no right which extends to lesser (potential) life forms. Therefore, a cell cannot claim a prerogative against its host.

Ethan Sapperstein

A question of perception might be at issue here as well. A majority of people likely believe that the ban on federal funding equates to a total ban. This plays into a sub-issue of the Pro Life movement, and more generally Christian Conservative Platforms. Researchers might be more willing to leave the U.S. based on public (but poorly reasoned) opinion.


Ethical opposition to the destruction of embryos (or abortion more generally) is not necessarily a religious argument. Many non-religious people oppose abortion on reason-based arguments (as do many religious people).

More importantly, it does not seem very "mysterious" why people who oppose destruction of embryos would not want to pay for such destruction, even if it were inevitable. That would be even more true if there were some possibility that stem-cell research could lead to the intentional creation of embryos that would be destroyed for research purposes. Is that scenario inconceivable?


I am not sure that the "brain drain" is a serious threat, because America still holds more opportunities for scientists than almost any other country, including Eurpean countries. The universities and research facilities here are just too good. Only a very few of the best scientists will go elsewhere.

But Bush's veto was still very bad policy. Instead of studying stem cells, which hold great (but as yet unfulfilled) promise, scientists will study other matters for which they can obtain federal funding. Thus, stem cell research will stall for years, until the political climate in this country becomes more rational.

State and private funding will not solve the problem, because under federal rules, an entire lab cannot receive any federal money if any scientist in the lab is conducting any project involving stem cell research. Thus, labs in which stem cell research takes place must be funded entirely by private (or state) sources. Almost every lab in a reputable academic institution in this country pursues multiple projects at once. Thus, scientists from those labs would have to create entirely new labs, devoid of federal funding, to perform even one experiment using stem cells.

The public, I think, simply does not understand the importance of federal funding in all areas of scientific research. Without federal funding, we would have very few of the scientific and medical advances that we currently enjoy. To be sure, private companies and VC firms buy projects once they begin to show promise. But the truly groundbreaking work is done almost exclusively at the academic level, through reseach that is, at least in part, federally funded.

Of course, all this assumes that the "moral" objections to stem cell research are frivolous. It is hard to imagine that, under any rational analysis, it would be preferable to discard unused embryos (created for in vitro fertilization) than to use them to save lives. Indeed, these "embryos" are no more than collections of a few cells, barely visible to the naked eye. Only the most extreme ideologue would call them "persons."


James, the scenario you describe is not only contemplated, but it is being played out now across the country. Did you miss the debates over cloning? What do you think those debates are about but creating embryos solely for stem cells?

NE, your point is clever. By your logic we all are murdered, right?

Robert, I know the position you support has its proponents, but it doesn't seem obvious to me at all. An infant isn't autonomous in the sense you use, but most of us believe that infants have rights, including the right to life. Now, you certainly may reject that, but one would think you'd be offering a pretty powerful argument to undermine our ordinary intuitions on the matter. So far at least I haven't seen that.

David at least offers the beginnings of an argument. But it isn't clear why the number of cells or their visibility to the naked eye are morally relevant qualities.


Thomas, Logic is logic. Be it Theological, Moral, Legal, Scientific, Political, etc., etc.. Especially when carried to the extremes. That's the great advantage of common sense. At least it keeps us from trying God and Nature for crimes real and imagined. ;)


It is interesting that people have been mentioning their scientific backgrounds before stating their opinions. If someone really believes in science then they believe that fundamentally everything (including human behavior and the course of human history) happens because of the laws of physics and random chance. In particular, they recognize that life has no fundamental purpose and that free will is an illusion.That is not to say that believing in purpose and choice and free will is not evolutionarily advantageous. In fact, people have evolved to believe what is evolutionarily advantageous rather than what is true.When it comes to the whole stem cell debate, one thing that is often overlooked is that being a living human is neither a binary distinction or even a one dimensional distinction. Some things are more alive and some things are less alive. Some things are more human and some things are less human. However, just because some things are very human and very alive and other things are very un-human and very un-alive it can not be concluded that everything is either one or the other.If we decide that we should adopt happiness as a goal simply because we have evolved to like happiness then I would be much more concerned about animal research than stem cell research. Animal research causes much more unhappiness than stem cell research. Then again, if we only care about our own happiness, it may be that we have evolved to be more distressed by killing things that resemble babies so we should go with that.Of course, fundamentally notions of "decide" and "should" are irrelevent. Fundamentally, we will do whatever is dictated by random chance and the laws of physics.


"It is not easy to deal analytically with arguments that are based on religion or emotion rather than on pragmatic considerations. ... [I]t is a little mysterious what exactly is objectionable about using some of these excess embryos ... unless the objector opposes all nonspontaneous abortion. And that is an opposition founded on religious belief."

I don't think so--the standard opponent of elective abortion can state his or her opposition without saying "God" or "Jesus" or "Benedict" at all. The key term is instead "person," which is accessible to anyone who subscribes to a moral norm against homicide.

The key argument as I see it is the case of the sleeping person, who is obviously a person but is not now performing any of the behaviors that characterize people. And consider a replicated sleeping person, who never has performed any such behaviors. We can talk about the status of sleeping people, or replicated sleeping people, without talking about religion, can't we? My opposition to the deliberate destruction of embryos is based chiefly on the similarity of such beings to sleeping people. I don't see why religion shows up here any more than in, say, a discussion of the status of labor unions, or in any other discussion of the ethics of homicide, or in a discussion of the ethics of anything else.


The key argument as I see it is the case of the sleeping person, who is obviously a person but is not now performing any of the behaviors that characterize people.Well, by definition a "sleeping person" is a person. Aside from this error in logic, your point seems to be that behavior is not relevant to determining whether something is a person. You also imply that determining whether something a person is "obvious".Either there are properties that are relevant to determining whether something is a person that you have not specified or we may as well start considering grapefruits to be "persons" because, after all,
grapefruits don't perform "any of the behaviors that characterize people".If you want to prove that killing a 20 year old living human is just as bad as killing a fertilized human egg cell then you have to show that an egg cell has whatever properties a 20 year old living human has that are relevant to concluding that it is bad to kill a 20 year old living human.For example, if a desire to live is relevant then you have to show that an egg cell has a desire to live. On the other hand, if human DNA is relevant then any human cell death should be considered to be homicide.If you were actually to do the analysis I describe then you would find that a fertilized human egg cell has a few of the relevant properties to a small extent. As a result, killing a fertilized human egg cell isn't great but it isn't anywhere near as bad as killing a 20 year old living human.Incidentally, that's where religion comes in: the notion that there is an indivisible immortal human soul. This leads to the incorrect assumption that it is a binary distinction whether something is a "person". The reality is that different things have different "person" properties to different extents. Some things are more "person"-like in one way and other things are more "person"-like in other ways.



The embryo has the intrinsic potency for behavior typical of persons; I think this property is the one that makes a being a person. When I spoke of the "behaviors that characterize people," I meant reading the newspaper, using language, and the like. I took the sleeping person to be a counterexample to the Tooley-Warren sort of objection to fetal personhood. They say that present exercise of distinctively human powers is what counts--reasoning now, or using language now. But sleepers don't do that either. Of course, sleeping persons are persons--the argument is that Tooley & Warren's sort of approaches to personhood can't easily account for the existence of sleeping persons.

I'm not exactly sure what properties you think a being has to have to be a person; if you agree with Tooley & Warren, you have trouble with sleepers.


Ahh, the error of "spurious superficiality", i.e. embryonic stem cells are like "sleeping humans". ergo ..., but does the analogy really hold? That's logic and the difference between apples and oranges, although they are more similiar.


...the intrinsic potency for behavior typical or persons...makes a being a person.It is interesting that your criteria excludes the mentally (and physically) impaired.More fundamentally, it is not clear why prohibitions on killing should be based on whether an entity might in the future do something like read a newspaper.Even if we accept your criteria, there is vast difference between the process that a sleeping person would go through to read a newspaper and the process that a fertilized human egg cell would go through to read a newspaper. A sleeping person would wake up, pick up the newspaper and start reading. A fertilized human egg cell would have to undergo a dramatic transformation and then become self aware, learn language and reading and then finally pick up the newspaper and start reading.If we accept the absolutist reasoning that anything that can somehow transform into a functional person is also exactly the same a functional person then even something like naked DNA is exactly the same as a functional person.I'm not exactly sure what properties you think a being has to have to be a personAssuming that you mean "when is it OK to kill something?", my criteria would be based on whether that something has a desire to not be killed and also whether there are other somethings that have a desire for that something not to be killed.Note that this is not an absolute criteria. Some entities have a strong and immediate desire not be killed. Other entities have experienced a strong desire not be killed in the past. Some entities may, in the future, experience a desire not be killed. Some entities might, under the right circumstances, transform into vastly different entities that in the future would have a desire not be killed. Basically, there is no absolute binary distinction. It's more OK to kill some things and less OK to kill other things.Of course, as I've mentioned before, given my criteria, I am much more concerned about animal research than stem cell research.

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