Minnesota is currently in the thick of an ongoing debate surrounding embryonic stem cell research and its legislature is now considering a bill that would classify such research as a criminal offense rather than as a scientific achievement. In an article in The Minnesota Daily, Julian Switala dives right into the middle of this controversy:
Arguing that life begins at conception is misleading, not only because prior to conception both the sperm and egg cells were alive; they carry out the processes of living organisms. If the human cells capable of creating human life are infinitely sacred, then the use of birth control, wet dreams and masturbation should be felonies.
With this rather amusing example, Switala shows the irrationality behind legally protecting a cell that has merely the capacity for human life. It’s clear that the real debate surrounding this research depends entirely on determining when human life begins.
Opponents of stem cell research argue that human life begins at conception and believe that once the sperm enters the egg, that cell automatically obtains personhood and is therefore subject to governmental protection. The error in this view is treating a potential being (an embryo) as equivalent to an actual individual with legal rights. But a potentiality is not the same as an actuality so an embryo is nothing more than a group of cells.
Kira Peikoff, author of a new novel about stem cell research, explains further:
[But] I can hear some of you protest, life begins at conception. So shouldn’t embryos be protected from destruction?
No. First, let’s get out of the way the notion that humans sprout magical souls at conception that automatically grant them personhood. Scientifically, we’re talking about cells only visible under a microscope. The question to ask then is not, “When does life begin?” but rather, “When does a potential become an actual?” In other words, when does a clump of pre-human cells become an actual human being who acquires individual rights and protection under the law? When it’s a biologically independent being, no longer requiring its mother’s body for survival. Only then can this life rightly be called human. Until that point, the cells are part of the mother’s body. No one else is morally entitled to determine what happens to them.
It’s important to understand that opposition to stem cell research is fundamentally rooted in religion: opponents have faith that there is a tiny soul within those microscopic cells when there is no evidence that one actually exists. For that reason, any ban on embryonic stem cell research is a mixture of church and state and the imposition of a religious bias on our scientific freedoms. They may not be forthright about their motives, however, as Representative Bob Dettmer told Minnesota Public Radio “we just feel [stem cell research is] not for Minnesota.”
The question to demand an answer to is: exactly why not? What one finds is that there is no rational defense to the question, no value in preserving clumps of tissue at the expense of progress, and no justification for preventing a blind man’s opportunity to get his eyesight back.
Creative Commons-licensed picture from Wikimedia Commons