The New Bioethics

It doesn’t make sense to me that members of the Religious Right are opposed to human embryonic stem cell research (“The New Bioethics,” FI, Winter 2002/03). Christians should embrace this practice wholeheartedly. As soon as the embryo is sacrificed for his cells, his soul, being sinless, goes straight to heaven, with no possible chance of going to hell. Whereas an embryo that is carried to maturity and born could grow up to become an atheist and thereby end up in hell. So it makes good Christian sense to create as many souls as possible for this sure trip to heaven. This goes for the souls of aborted babies as well.

Robert A. Bloomer
Bonnieville, Kentucky

I was happy to see all the recent attention to bioengineering addressed in your latest edition, especially the trendy obsession over human cloning. I can’t see what the fuss is all about. May I be the dissident in the trendy fray and suggest that human cloning will never be anything more than a silly parlor trick used by a few well-connected but happily ephemeral fools.

Julius Wroblewski, M.D.
Vancouver, British Columbia Canada

I congratulate Free Inquiry and your contributors to the Winter 2002/03 issue, particularly Don Marquis (“Stem Cell Research—The Failure of Bio ethics”) and Berit Brogaard (“The Moral Status of the Human Embryo”). In discussing “moral status,” you have developed an unlikely concept: the secular equivalent of the soul.

Consider the parallels. Like the soul, moral status cannot be measured, quantified, or charted. Like the soul, its presence eludes all scientific tests, relying upon authorities—academics instead of priests—to proclaim its presence. Like the soul, discussions of moral status are intended to influence another, more concrete concept: legal status.

The soul/moral status is a wonderfully fluid concept, perfectly fitted to serve as a warrior in whatever embryonic develop-mental position one wants to take. Does the thought of destroying human embryos make you queasy? Simply declare that the soul/moral status is acquired at the instant of conception. Do you support stem cell research but view abortion with distaste? Then find some rationale that the soul/moral status is acquired after conception but before the zygote/blastocyst/embryo develops to the point that the woman is aware there’s anything there to abort. Do you support a woman’s right to choose, but only up to a certain point? Then identify some specific stage in development between “Yes, yes, yes” and “It’s a (girl, boy)” that precedes the onset of your discomfort and concoct an argument that that’s when the soul/moral status is conferred.

Parenthetically, one argument against stem cell research is that the zygote pos-sess a soul/moral status because, given the right conditions, it will develop into a person. However, this is also true of the unfertilized egg, one of the “conditions” being the availability of a functioning sperm. Yet curiously, nobody seems to be fulminating against menstruation or tampons.

Once again, thank you for providing secularists with a tool that enables us to engage in debates that are as woolly minded as those of our theological counterparts.

Jolyon Hallows
Burnaby, British Columbia Canada

It was interesting to read the articles in the Winter 2002/03 Free InquIry exposing the religious basis of almost all opposition to embryonic stem cell research. However it was disheartening to read the nonexistent (“Stem Cell Research—The Failure of Bioethics”) and irrelevant (“The Twinning Argument”) secular defenses of stem cell research.

Author Don Marquis came closest to the truth by asking whether pre-gastrular embryos qualify as human research subjects, and especially close by raising the issue of consciousness. Unfortunately, he then fell off track by failing to see a moral distinction between unconscious matter that triggers development of consciousness and conscious beings in states of sleep. A painting, even while covered, is much more valuable than pigments and canvas!

The object of medicine is the preservation and care of the human mind. This is most clearly evident in the modern practice of organ procurement, in which biologically living humans maintained on life support are pronounced “brain dead” when it is established that their minds are irretrievably lost. Once a mind is no longer deemed present, a legal and moral transition from human being to human tissue occurs, and tissue is used for the benefit of others.

The above paradigm of organ and tissue donation is widely practiced and endorsed by most religions. It’s ironic, if not outright hypocritical, that if the same standards for personhood that theologians apply to embryos (a complete genome and potential to become an adult) were applied to brain dead patients on life support, then the moral imperative would not be organ donation, but reproductive cloning to save the cadaver’s life!

One reason why so many people hate cloning may be that it underscores the non-uniqueness of embryos as potential persons. Cloning demonstrates that perhaps every cell nucleus in our body, when provided a suitable environment (an enucleated ovum in a uterus), is a potential person.Yet there is no moral imperative to raise to adulthood every piece of tissue that was once (or could become) a human being. For where there is no mind there is no human being. This is why the ethics of embryonic stem cell research are a no-brainer. Literally.

Brian Wowk
Corona, California

I would like to take exception to the arguments made by Don Marquis in his article “Stem Cell Research—The Failure of Bioethics.” Let me say at the outset that I have no background in philosophy or biology, nor did I do any research in preparation for this letter. This is a “knee-jerk” response, and should be taken with the proportionate grain of salt.

1. Mr. Marquis states that the essay was taking no position, but criticizing the arguments of all camps in the human embryo stem cell (HESC) research debate. In fact, he spends only one paragraph criticizing the anti-HESC-research arguments, and only those arguments with a religious basis. The bulk of his article is spent criticizing the pro-HESC-research argument. Doesn’t this, in fact, betray a bias that gives the lie to his contention that “Academics have the proper interests and education to think clearly about bioethics controversies”?

2. Mr. Marquis builds all of his criticisms of pro-HESC-research arguments on one sentence—“Conformity with the respect for human subjects (RHS) principle is a necessary condition of morally permissible research, whatever its benefits.” I submit that this is not a secular argument, as Mr. Marquis contends, but a religious argument. It presupposes that human life is somehow superior to, more important than, and more sacred than any other life. And to say that morality and ethics are based on this debatable proposition has no secular validity that I can determine.

3. Mr. Marquis’s article also betrays a belief that morality and ethics are absolutes. The history of human existence shows that this is not the case. One needs only study the “laws” of any so-called sacred text to realize that what is right for one time is wrong for another, and vice versa.

The HESC-research debate (as well as the abortion debate) is centered in the “humanness” of the embryo, and later, the fetus. Is the embryo alive? Yes, it is. It is even alive after it is “destroyed” to harvest its cells—the cells live on and grow and change and become part of another human life. Is it human, with a soul? That, I’m afraid, can only be answered by adopting a religious viewpoint (or a philosophical one that is really “religion in secular clothes”).

It is my contention that the embryo deserves consideration as a human being only insofar as every cell of our body receives the same consideration. With cloning becoming more of a reality, any of our cells can become another poten-tial person. Will it then become morally indefensible to donate our organs or even blood?

Brad Rudy
Marietta, Georgia

Don Marquis replies:

If human life is not superior to any other life, then killing six million Jews in the Holocaust was no worse than killing six million mosquitoes. If what is right at one time is wrong at another, then there were times in human history, and recent times at that, when slavery, the oppression of women, and anti-Semitism were not wrong. Surely some doctrine or other of universal human rights is correct. If so, then there are some moral absolutes. That humans—or some class of things including most humans—have some very special moral status is one such absolute.

Embryos and the brain dead differ in important ways. The brain dead have lost the potentiality for consciousness. Embryos (unless Bro gaard is correct) do have the potentiality for conscious-ness. As our treatment of the temporari-ly unconscious shows, what counts from a moral point of view is not the present capacity to exhibit mental activity, but the potential to exhibit mental activity. If a human embryo has moral status, then does any unfertilized ovum or the nucleus of any cell that could be cloned also have moral status? I think not, but that’s a huge issue. Even a “Yes” answer does not give us a principled exception to the respect for human sub-jects principle, and therefore, a defense of human embryonic stem cell research.

Fine Thinking About Fine-Tuning

I hate to see an ally cede defensible ground, but I fear Jeremy Patrick may have done just that in declaring the hypothesis of multiple universes “undoubtedly” ad hoc (“Second Thoughts on Fine-Tuning,” FI, Winter 2002/03). Was this hypothesis actually “crafted solely to respond to the fine-tuning argument”? Surely not, it first arose as a response to the oddities of quantum mechanics, which has spawned several “many worlds” or “multiple histories” interpretations quite independently of the fine-tuning question. In The Universe in a Nutshell, Stephen Hawking writes, “The idea that the universe has multiple histories may sound like science fiction, but it is now accepted as science fact.” He includes among these histories many in which stars and galaxies never form.

Recently, theorists Paul J. Steinhardt and Neil Turok suggested the further possibility that ours is one of an infinite sequence of universes created by the repeated collision of oscillating 3D “branes” (Science online, April 2002). Their work purports to explain certain features of our universe not accounted for by standard inflationary models. Significantly, Science reports that the infinite nature of the process came as a surprise to the theorists themselves, who had clearly not set out to provide a multiple-universes scenario for fine- tuning debaters.

Even ignoring these considerations, it’s not obvious that multiple universes are on an equal footing with a supernatural creator vis-á-vis Ockham’s razor. Big Bang theories provide no reason to expect that there will be only one universe; given one initial singularity, why not many? Each of the “extra” entities posited would at least be of the same general kind as the universe we know. On the other hand, theistic models require an unprecedented type of entity with characteristics of an entirely different order from anything we encounter in the natural science.

Grant E. Hicks
Acton, Massachusetts

Jeremy Patrick brought up some interesting points. However, he has under-estimated the multiple-universes response. The burden of proof is indeed on the shoulders of those advocating the existence of multiple universes. However, an equal burden of proof is on the shoulders of the intelligent design advocate, who must show that the multiple-universes hypothesis is unreasonable or far-fetched in order to establish his claim. Hence, mere plausibility for the multiple-universes hypothesis is deadly for the fine-tuning argument.

If the multiple-universes hypothesis is something more than far-fetched speculation, having some plausibility as it were, then it takes the wind out of the sails of the fine-tuning argument. If there are endless universes at hand, any argument appealing to the improbability of a finite number of unlikely, chance factors defining a universe (as might define one supporting us) clearly fails. If the lottery is run enough times, the magic number will come up, however improbable. No intelligent designer is required.

How plausible is the multiple-universes hypothesis? At least two Nobel-Prize winners have speculated as much, based on their understanding and application of natural principles. Consequently, we are dealing with something that goes beyond a simple, worthless ad hoc argument. It is based on natural principles, advanced by serious thinkers with expertise in those areas, and it was not formulated as a response to the fine-tuning argument. That is, it meets any reasonable definition of a plausible argument.

Until he closes that door, the intelligent design advocate has no claim in this kind of fine-tuning argument. He has not finished the job, and we are not required to accept a half-baked loaf of bread.

Dave E. Matson
Pasadena, California



I thank Jeremy Patrick for his article on the debate over “fine-tuning” for life in the universe. Simply put, proponents claim that life requires certain features found in our universe (and, more specifically, on Earth); therefore, the universe was designed for life. This is commonly offered in support of “intelligent design creationist” (IDC) fancies. While Mr. Patrick’s discussion is valuable for background, there is a more succinct response to the fine-tuning” argument that may be useful when responding to IDCs.

Those who claim the universe is uniquely designed for life are illegitimate-ly extrapolating to cosmic dimensions from the single data point of life on Earth. They overlook the adaptability of life to wide-ranging conditions and the possibility that compensating changes in the environment, or physical properties, of the universe could render an alternative system equally conducive to life. Thus, the claims of fine-tuning (and IDC) are mere speculation.

As Mr. Patrick observes in his final paragraph, such speculation pushes us to be more rigorous in science. Unfortunately, even some scientists give it more weight. For example, the cover story of Scientific American in October 2001 concerned the “hostile environment towards life” in most regions of the universe. In running the article the editors tacitly accepted this IDC belief as a scientific conclusion rather than as a philosophical notion. (See: “Was the ‘Rare Earth’ Hypothesis Influenced by a Creationist?” Skeptical Inquirer Nov./Dec. 2001, 25:6, p. 7). Mr. Patrick’s article should be required reading for scientists in this field.

Joe Magrath
Montague, Massachusetts


Overdue and Undue Credit

“Where Credit Is Due” by Steven Devries (FI, Winter 2002/03) is a masterpiece! The power of wit to clarify thinking offers joyful education—as well as healthy uncontrollable laughter. Simply, thank you!

Alice Whatley
Palestine, Texas

Within an hour of receiving the current edition of FI and noting the article by Steven Devries on “Where Credit Is Due,” I happened to watch a local TV newscast. In it, there was an item about two babies from Guatemala who had been born joined at the head and were later successfully separated by surgeons in the United States. They were about to go home.

A spokesperson asserted that the successful outcome of the operation was nothing less than a “miracle,” and earlier the parents were heard to give thanks to their particular god. The surgical skills of the doctors who performed the operation, the advanced medical technology involved and the financial and travel arrangements that had made it all possible were hardly mentioned. There was no comment on the obvious and serious dereliction of duty demonstrated by that god (or any other, if such exist) in permitting such a near-tragedy to occur in that family (or any other, for that matter).

Glenn M. Hardie
Vancouver, British Columbia

The New Bioethics It doesn’t make sense to me that members of the Religious Right are opposed to human embryonic stem cell research (“The New Bioethics,” FI, Winter 2002/03). Christians should embrace this practice wholeheartedly. As soon as the embryo is sacrificed for his cells, his soul, being sinless, goes straight to heaven, with no …

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