Answering the Missouri Cures Ethics Trainwreck

Or, why the Missouri Cures Initiative needs to be repealed

(Note: I’ve had this on the back burner for a very long time.  Now that I have a blog, I suppose it’ll work, so I dusted it up, added a few notes, and here it is.  And I’m also really thinking about renaming this blog to Dave’s Ethics Emporium.)

So the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures has a page entitled “Myths and Facts” (http://mclc.convio.net/site/PageNavigator/Learn/learn_mythsandfacts) about stem cell research.  I decided to go through and answer the little questionnaire to see what would happen.  I was rather surprised to see the responses to those who oppose embryonic stem cell research–hereafter ESCR.

Let’s see if their defenses hold water, shall we?  For that matter, let’s see if they can even ask or answer the right questions.

Is embryonic stem cell research unnecessary due to recent advances in adult stem cell research?

YES

Actually, this is incorrect. Most credible scientists, including adult-stem-cell researchers, say both types of research must continue.

The answer would be ‘yes’—IF the unborn are not fully human.  However, a close examination of the ethical case for ESCR does not stand up to scrutiny.  Second, who determines what scientists are ‘credible?’  This is simply the logical fallacy of ‘poisoning the well’ against ESCR opponents.

Simply put: if ESCR destroys live human embryos for research, it is immoral and should not be allowed, because to be human means to have certain rights that no one can legitimately withhold.  No matter how many scientists say that it must be continued, this totally ignores the ethical questions surrounding the procedure. Human embryos have intrinsic worth—value—because of the kind of being they are.  If that were not the case, ESCR would not be ethically objectionable.  Ultimately, what made the infamous Tuskegee experiments wrong makes ESCR wrong: the weak cannot be justifiably used to benefit the strong.

Addendum: the above was written in 2010, and the ESCR frontier has grown decidedly less appealing than it was when this was originally written.  Geron has gotten out of the business entirely, Michael J. Fox has come out against it, and the number of cures brought forth by ESCR is still exactly zero—while the number of cures from adult stem cells is still growing.  That ‘credible’ list has gotten very slim in the last year or so.

Does embryonic stem cell research involve abortion?

NO

CORRECT! Like adult stem cell research, embryonic stem cell research does not involve abortion in any way.
The cells used in both types of research are handled in labs and are never implanted in a womb.

Again, this is a complete refusal to acknowledge the subject of abortion—the preborn human.  The cells used in research from embryos require the death of the embryo, be it from IVF or cloned.  The wrongness of the destruction of the embryo does not change depending on the location of that embryo.

Most embryonic stem cells come from leftover embryos at fertility clinics that otherwise would be discarded and destroyed. Couples that have successfully conceived donate the embryos to medical researchers. They, like us, think it’s unfortunate to throw away stem cells that might help people suffering from Parkinson’s, diabetes, spinal cord injuries or other afflictions.

Is human life valuable insofar as those lives are wanted by others?  It’s not just that ‘stem cells’ are being thrown away—so is the rest of the embryo.  And that’s the problem.  Italy has laws in place that limit the number of IVF conceptions to three per couple, all of which must be implanted, because of the sheer number of embryos currently in cryopreservation.  Such a scheme would be reasonable here.

Is life really only valuable insofar as it can help us?  Are the unborn valuable insofar as someone else recognizes them?  Or are those lives valuable in and of themselves because of their essential nature?  These are the questions that the opposition to ESCR are based upon—and are completely ignored by its proponents.

The problem with the “they would just die anyway” line of reasoning is that it shifts the value of the embryo from what it is to what it can do for someone else.  When that line is crossed, a fundamental ethical and philosophical shift takes place that affects not only the rights of embryos to not be destroyed for research, but the lives of everybody else.  This is no mere fear mongering—it has happened, repeatedly, and in living memory.

To demonstrate the weakness of such a justification for ESCR, let’s ask a simple question: at what age does the “they would just die anyway” reason not work?  And when it doesn’t work, why doesn’t it work?

In reality it assumes the major flaw of pro-abortion reasoning: that we are not fully human until some point in our development, and that before that demarcation, it’s acceptable to treat them however we desire.  And this is a philosophy that simply cannot be held by a pro-lifer; it would be self-contradictory.

Embryonic stem cells can also be produced with Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT), a process that uses a patient’s own cells and an unfertilized human egg. SCNT has the added advantage of producing stem cells that will automatically match the patient’s genetic makeup and avoid the problem of immune system rejection.

It’s also the process that gave us Dolly the Sheep.

It’s cloning.  Dressing the process up in flowery language that highlights the benefits does not change the fact of what it is—and that it is unethical by the nature of the thing that is created.

Scientists are also working on creating a new type of cell, the induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell, from patients’ own cells that also match individual patient’s genetic makeup.

Which happens to be ethically justifiable because it does not require the death of one human being to benefit another.  Nor does it require the flawed reasoning required by ESCR.

YES

Actually, this is incorrect. Embryonic stem cell research does not involve abortion. The cells used in both adult stem cell research and embryonic stem cell research are handled in labs and are never implanted in a womb.

There is no denying it: this is either deliberate deception or woeful ignorance, and there is no middle ground.  This ‘reasoning’ gets crushed under the weight of its own presuppositions.

First, embryos used in ESCR aren’t just ‘cells.’  They’re organized, growing, self-directed human beings at that particular stage of development that share an identity with the mature persons they would become.  Second, this definition of abortion presupposes that abortion only ‘terminates a pregnancy’—which is misleading in and of itself.  The definition of abortion is the termination of the fetus or embryo, not of ‘pregnancy.’ Embryos and fetuses are the subject of abortions, plain and simple.  Discussing abortion while leaving out the demise of the embryo—or fetus—is absurd.  This is a total failure on the part of ESCR proponents to engage the arguments that its opponents are actually making.

Again, because embryos are by nature human beings, and therefore subjects of human dignity and human rights, any intentional harm done to them is impossible to justify.

In fact the language used in the SCI mandates that the embryos be destroyed, thus ending every human life involved.

“Handled in labs?”  Really?  Is that all the justification ESCR proponents can muster?  That the embryos used in ESCR are destroyed in labs makes no difference if they are human beings with certain inalienable rights.  Embryo technology cannot tell us what is right and wrong in actually doing things to and with embryos—that requires ethics.  This is a foundational failure of ESCR.  Just because we know something about the embryo, or can do things to the embryo, does not inform us as to whether or not those actions are right or wrong.  Something else is needed: embryo ethics informed by the facts of embryology and sound philosophy, available to all by virtue of common reason.

Can pro-life Missourians support embryonic stem cell research?

YES

CORRECT! You might be surprised to learn that some of the most vocal pro-life advocates in our state and nation support embryonic stem cell research.

They include Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and former Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican who is also a medical doctor. Sen. Hatch has said it is precisely his pro-life values that require him to support research aimed at ending the suffering of men, women and children.

In Missouri, supporters of embryonic stem cell research include former U.S. Sen. John Danforth and former Gov. Matt Blunt, both Republicans and both strongly pro-life.

All of these public officials are people of faith. Former Sen. Danforth is an ordained Episcopal priest; former Gov. Blunt attends a Baptist church in Springfield. Sen. Hatch is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and former Sen. Frist is a Presbyterian.

The problem with these endorsements is that some of them have gone on record to say some really dumb things about opposition to ESCR.  Hatch, for instance, has said “It would be terrible to say because of an ethical concept, we can’t do anything for patients.”

In case Hatch has forgotten, it was an ethical concept that made the Tuskegee experiments on black men wrong.  It is an ethical concept that informs every last law we have on the books.  But he begs a far greater question: what’s wrong with the ethic?  What about it makes it wrong?

As stated earlier, the reasoning required to permit destructive research on embryos requires the denial, in one form or another, of their essential human nature and moral status based on that nature.  A pro-lifer cannot consistently defend that human nature against abortion and sell it for destructive research—the reasoning and result of both are the same.

NO

Actually, this is incorrect. Pro-life Missourians can support embryonic stem cell research.

Again, they can—IF the unborn are not human.  If they are, there is no moral vindication possible for killing them for research even if every cure promised were brought to fruition.  This also ignores the failure to accurately describe abortion above and the complete omitting of the human rights objections raised by pro-lifers.  Because if there’s any time to address them, it would be here.

Are stem cell opponents looking out for Missouri taxpayers by promoting a ban on public funds for cloning?

YES

Actually, this is incorrect. Stem cell opponents aren’t looking out for Missouri taxpayers by promoting a ban on public funds for cloning. State law already prohibits public funding for human cloning.

This begs one very big question: what do they mean by the term ‘cloning?’  Which just happens to be what is discussed last in their list.

 Is human cloning legal in Missouri?

YES

Actually, this is incorrect. Human cloning is currently illegal in Missouri. The Missouri Stem Cell Amendment, often called Amendment 2 during the 2006 campaign, bans the cloning of human beings.

Would this not logically depend on what the definitions of the terms ‘human’ and ‘cloning’ are?

If the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures wanted to convince its opponents that their cause actually has ethical scruples, this would be the first objection they should engage, not the last—because everything hinges on this.  Nowhere more than here is the hypocrisy of ESCR proponents more clear.  This is a bold statement, and here’s why it’s accurate.

On the Missouricures.com website, there is this statement: “The process of trying to create a cloned human being, or a human version of Dolly the Sheep, is strictly banned in Missouri. […]

What’s the problem with this defense of ESCR?

It all hinges on the process used to make Dolly the Sheep.

Which happens to be Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer.  Dolly was a clone—and a sheep– from the very first cell.

Question: Is an embryo a human being?  By all rights and definition, the embryo is a distinct, fully functioning human being at that particular stage of development.  The MO Coalition could have avoided this entire problem with this very question if they can show that embryos aren’t living human beings deserving of rights and dignity afforded to the rest of humanity.

What role does intent play in a process?  What rights does a human being gain from implantation?  Because it does not matter whether an embryo contrived from ESCR is destroyed while an embryo or as a fetus, or is allowed to be born—all begin as a living human embryo.  What makes the destruction of one for research less morally wrong than allowing another to be implanted and allowed to live?  What human rights are conferred through implantation (and by intention of those who have power over the embryos)?

Indeed, this question cannot be understated.

All cloning—whether “therapeutic” or “reproductive”—is in reality reproductive.  That’s just what cloning is—a form of reproduction.  Ultimately the only thing the Missouri Cures Initiative bans is the birth of clones, not their very creation, maintenance, and destruction for research.

And their phrasing—“bans the cloning of human beings” begs the question of what embryos are, if they can legally be cloned.

Attempts to clone a human being should not be confused with legitimate types of replicating, or cloning, cells to cure disease.

 The Missouri Constitution draws a distinction between attempts to “clone a human being,” which is banned, and a procedure for medical research or for treating disease that involves replicating (or “cloning”) of a patient’s own skin cell in a lab dish in order to create healthy new cells to help treat his or her disease. This process is referred to as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or SCNT. It is also sometimes referred to as “therapeutic cloning” because the cells are copied for the purpose of providing or developing a therapy for a patient’s disease or injury.

The problem is that the vast majority of stem cell research is currently carried out on embryos—and cloned embryo lines–derived from in-vitro fertilization, under the rationale that they would die anyway.  But as has been stated, SCNT is what gave us Dolly the Sheep, so it’s hypocritical for them to frown upon it in one instance and make it noble in another.  The process is the same regardless of intention, and the subject of the cloning is still human.

And most importantly, the ‘cells to cure disease’ most frequently come from embryonic stem cell research—and those cells require that a human at a particular stage of development be destroyed, which once again begs the very foundational question of “what, and who, are we as human beings?”  In its barest form, ESCR is state-sanctioned discrimination against a particular class of human beings that are denied the rights that they have based on what they are.

Thus ends all the answers to the “incorrect” choices.  When the reasons for the “correct” answers are given, it becomes apparent that this material isn’t organized very well—some of the ‘reasoning’ here would better serve to defend against their opponents, yet shows up in a way that has a serious impact on how the reasoning is marshaled.

Does this other line of reasoning stand up?  Let’s see.

Don’t be fooled by their tactics — learn the facts.

And right off the bat we have a case of poisoning the well.  Why not explore the reasoning and facts that can be rightly presented by those who oppose ESCR?  By attempting to seize the word ‘facts’ for only one side of the issue is disingenuous at best, especially when the case against ESCR is so scientifically and philosophically robust.  And the problem with the facts is that facts can’t tell us how to treat embryos.

Are stem cell opponents looking out for Missouri taxpayers by promoting a ban on public funds for cloning?

NO

CORRECT! State law already prohibits public funding for human cloning.

Specifically, state statute 1.217, RSMo. prohibits the use of public funds for human cloning.

So why ban what’s already banned? Since 2006, when voters approved the Missouri Cell Amendment, opponents of stem cell research have suggested that their true intent is to limit or repeal the rights and guarantees established by the amendment:

Missouri patients now have the right to have their diseases and injuries treated with any stem cell cures that are allowed by federal law and available to other Americans.

Missouri medical institutions have the right to provide and help find new stem cell cures.

And thus, the question becomes: what happens when a government perpetuates a lie about human nature?

And the ‘true intent’ is not quite as nefarious as suggested by the Missouri Cures website.  The true intent of ESCR opponents is to ensure that the primal right, the right to life, which is based on the essential nature of human beings, is not withheld from any of our family.  Anything else is discrimination.  And because ESCR discriminates against those who have a fundamentally human nature and should thus be guaranteed the right to life, it is wrong.  That is clear ethics.

Furthermore, this ‘right’ is one that is entirely manufactured by the state, created by fiat, which begs all sorts of questions about the nature of rights.

Clear ethical boundaries and oversight requirements are now in place for stem cell research conducted in Missouri, including a strict ban on any attempt to clone a human being.

“Clear ethical boundaries?”  Seriously?  Ethics based on what?  For all the talk of ‘clear ethics,’ not a shred of reasoning is given.  No ethicists are quoted.  No discussion about what makes the destructive research of embryos morally acceptable.

The dirty secret about ESCR is that the science and technology cannot tell anyone what is ethical and what isn’t.  It’s the ‘is-ought fallacy’—just because something can, or can be done, doesn’t mean it’s right.  Such is the case with ESCR.  There is nothing in the embryo that comes with a label that says “don’t take me apart for research,” but we can come to that conclusion by what we know about embryos through science and aided by sound reasoning.

The basic utilitarian and pragmatic ethics that ESCR is founded upon is neither clear nor ethical, and certainly not much in the way of a boundary.  Clear ethical boundaries should have prevented scientists from withholding syphilis treatment to black men in Tuskegee so that they could research the effects of the disease on them.  There’s nothing that said “please don’t infect people with this so you can research how they die,” yet the great moral evil there—treating life as a commodity for the benefit of others—is the same great moral evil of ESCR.  And embryos destroyed for research are no less human than the Tuskegee men.  This is precisely why the ethics of embryonic stem cell research are lacking: it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes human beings valuable.

Contrary to the rhetoric of some stem cell opponents, the Stem Cell Amendment did nothing to change the Missouri Legislature’s constitutional ability to fund, or not fund, any project it chooses.

You might be wondering, if the true intent of stem cell opponents is to outlaw embryonic stem cell research in Missouri, why don’t they just say so? We think it’s because they know a majority of Missourians support all forms of stem cell research. In other words, being honest about their true intent wouldn’t get stem cell opponents what they want, which unfortunately would be a ban on promising avenues of medical research.

Slanderous language aside, the “true intent” of ‘stem cell opponents’—which is itself an odd charge since it’s specifically embryonic stem cell research that is morally unacceptable, which was made plenty clear in 2006 and beyond, not any and all research—is to understand and defend what makes human life valuable.  They never got around to addressing that.

Now the problem with charging opponents of ESCR of ‘not being honest’ is that not a single ESCR opponent is quoted.  Are we supposed to believe this line on blind faith?  Proponents of ESCR have failed to uphold the burden of proof here to substantiate their charges.

And really, this section doesn’t make sense, for the major philosophy undergirding their position: they maintain that any law that perpetuates a lie about human nature—specifically, humans in embryo—is unjust.  Second, due in no small part to the misinformation provided by ESCR proponents (not the least of which has been exposed as such and addressed here) has misled the people it is aimed at about what ESCR actually involves.

When people find out that the process used to make Dolly the Sheep is the same process used to create human embryos that are destroyed for the good of others, they recoil.  I have personally seen it.  Combatting the misinformation is priority number one for ESCR opponents in Missouri.  And it needs to start with addressing the claims of proponents of ESCR.

Opponents of embryonic stem cell research often try to cloud the issue by not differentiating between “therapeutic cloning” and “reproductive cloning.”

It is the duty of philosophy to differentiate; thus it is ironic that the ‘difference’ purported to make ESCR ethical is anything but a difference: intent isn’t the only factor in ethics; so is method.  The method is the same, as has been stated elsewhere.

Pointing out that there is no difference in method, only intent, is not clouding the issue.  Failing to adequately address the objection certainly is.

The medical purpose of therapeutic cloning is to make lifesaving stem cells, not babies.

Again, method matters as much as intent.  The method is the same—thus the ‘purpose’ is hypocrisy.  It’s having your cake and eating it too.

 It’s called therapeutic cloning because it involves copying, or cloning, genetic material from a patient’s cell to make lifesaving stem cells that match the patient’s genetic makeup and avoid transplant rejection problems. Scientists already clone cells and genes for a number of existing medical purposes, such as developing new therapeutic drugs, creating insulin and replacing the skin of burn victims.

And it’s done using stem cells derived from non-embryonic sources.  Ethical research deserves recognition.  Unethical research does not.

“Reproductive cloning,” also referred to as “human cloning” or “cloning a human being,” has never been done and may not even be scientifically possible. It would involve creating a “duplicate” human being by implanting a cloned embryo into a woman’s uterus to make a baby.

The irony is that an embryo is a human being.  She is a human being with a specific developmental program that, uninterrupted, will culminate in a mature human being.  All cloning, by nature, is human cloning by virtue of what the embryo is.  To substantiate the claims that “reproductive cloning” is “cloning a human being,” the humanity of the embryo would have to be denied.  Yet this has not been done, except to be referred to as ‘cells,’ which is medically inaccurate.  And no wonder—if ESCR proponents used the language of embryologists who weren’t using them for destructive research, Missouri would not have bought the misinformation.

The Missouri Stem Cell Amendment specifically bans reproductive cloning. It allows only therapeutic cloning — that is, the creation of stem cells in lab dishes. It prohibits any attempt to clone a human being.

The problem with this claim is that ‘lab dishes’ don’t make an embryo less human.  Since when did location determine the moral status of a person?

The ‘lab dish’ defense of ESCR dies the death of a single exception: Louise Brown.  She was the first person to be conceived by in-vitro fertilization back in 1977.  Was that embryo Louise Brown?  And if so, what does that tell us about the moral status of those in lab dishes?

And what isn’t mentioned is that an embryo is an immature human being who is on a self-directed development that will, uninterrupted, result in a mature human being.  That fact is consistently left out, for good reason—it makes for terrible PR if you are trying to perform lethal research on them.  This is precisely why the claim of ‘clouding the issue’ applies directly to the proponents of ESCR (never mind the “it’s not abortion” line).  Because of what we are—rational animals, with a certain nature from the very beginning—we are the subject of civil rights that are understood as inalienable, with a moral status that, if withheld, is thus immoral and a breach of civil rights.  That embryo is the subject of intentional destruction for the good of others.

A thought experiment: the government is mandated to protect all human lives within a given jurisdiction.  Is it not illegal to harm or kill an illegal immigrant, even though they are not recognized as a citizen of that jurisdiction?  If even those who are not citizens have the right to not be harmed or killed, does this not also logically extend to those at the earliest stages of development?

One other defense of ESCR is sometimes brought up that I will address.  Sometimes it is claimed that something that is controversial should not be disallowed.  Aside from simply ignoring human nature (such an argument would never have been accepted if it had been used by segregationists, and rightly so), it begs the question of what makes something controversial in the first place.

So for Missourians, the question is: what happens when a government perpetuates a lie about human nature?  We must confront this question and recognize what we have enacted as law does exactly that.  It’s not too late to undo the damage that has been done, and to combat the misinformation.  The arguments based on natural law philosophy can easily refute the claims of embryonic stem cell proponents.  We can still do what is right.  And we need to start by refuting the misinformation produced by the Missouri Coalition for Lifesaving Cures.

It’s time to do the right thing by all of our human family.

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