There is much discussion of President Obama’s decision to lift federal funding restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Supporters of unrestricted research in this area often complain that “politics” and “ideology” have been interfering with science and possible future medical breakthroughs. The terms “ethics” and “morality,” on the other hand, are strangely absent. But surely this is an extremely important moral issue.
William Saletan in Slate makes an excellent point:
Think about what’s being dismissed here as “politics” and “ideology.” You don’t have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings—I don’t—to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They’re not parts of people. They’re the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It’s the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?
Although Saletan doesn’t believe human embryos possess personhood, he at least recognizes the moral weight of the issue.
That the language of the debate is only framed in terms of biology, medicine, and technology is indicative of the scientism and pragmatism that characterizes much of our culture. Rather than puzzle through the moral and philosophical problems, it’s easier to imagine that science operates in a vacuum without its own worldview and value commitments. As a result, the most important issues (e.g., when human life begins) aren’t taken seriously and won’t warrant public discussion.
*Thanks to Adam Reece for bringing the Salon article to my attention.