Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Mar 10 2009 - 12:58:18 EDT

1) Why should a "precautionary principle" invoke precautions against the possibility that a human person is being destroyed & not be concerned with precautions against the possibility that people will continue to suffer from illnesses & injuries that might be healed as a result of ESCR?

2) Of course an embryo is a potential person. A seperated ovum & sperm is also a potential person. The stirring of desire in a husband & wife is a potential person. How far do we take this?

3) I don't mean to suggest that either a precautionary principle or concerns about potentiality are unimportant. In the last analysis I would prefer that both researchers & politicians had the patience to wait & see what can be done with other means - adult stem cells, &c. Slippery slope arguments have some validity. But much of the opposition to ESCR is based on an unexamined assumption that "life begins at conception" can be equated with "personhood {or ensoulment &c) begins at conception."
That assumption needs more serious & undogmatic examination. Simply saying "Well, it might be a person" or "It's a potential person" can be just lazy ways to avoid that examination.
4) It should be borne in mind that the president's recent decision only makes possible federal funding for research with embryos produced for IVF which will otherwise be discarded. As I understand it, the congressionally approved ban on funding for development of embryos specifically for the research remains in force. Now David said previously, "I personally find destructive human embryonic stem cell research morally horrifying, particularly when cell lines are harvested from embryos cast off by the IVF industry." This seems strange to me, suggesting as it does that research on embryos produced for IVF is worse than that on embryos produced solely to be destroyed for research. It makes sense only if "the IVF industry" is immoral, which may well be what David means.

But let's reflect on that a bit. One of the criticisms of IVF - & at the same time the reason why it can supply ESCR, is that "spare" embryos that will not be allowed to develop fully, are always produced in the procedure. But the same thing in fact happens when babies are conceived in the old fashioned way. We know now that a high percentage of conceptions are spontaneously aborted very early in pregnancy. (I've seen estimates of something like 80% but someone more knowledgeable may have a better number.) So traditional conception & IVF are not wholly different in this regard.

5) Having said all this, I agree with Doug's original point, that this is not a question of scientific fact vs. ideology. It is an issue (or group of issues) of the ethics of scientific research & the uses of scientific knowledge. Leaving aside those who are just in it for the money, prestige &c (& there are some), it's a matter of convictions about the importance of protecting human life in its most incomplete & vulnerable condition relative to the importance of convictions about the imperative toward "repairing the world" (tiqqun `olam), to use a Jewish concept. & note that I say "relative to" & not just "versus."


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: David Opderbeck
  To: John Burgeson (ASA member)
  Cc: David Campbell ;
  Sent: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 11:01 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

  I don't think the ethical issue is quite so simple, Burgy. For example, if one is agnostic on the personhood of a human embryo, as you and probably most other people are, or if even those who say "no" here have to admit some uncertainty, then the precautionary principle comes into play. Curiously, the same people who strongly assert the precautionary principle as a backstop for global warming mitigation often completely blow it off when it comes to embryonic stem cell research (and vice versa!).

  Also, the options aren't just the polar "person vs. non-person." Many opponents of human embryonic stem cell research argue from "potentiality." If embryos are not "persons" in a full sense -- e.g., if personhood relates to existing cognitive functions -- they are at least "potential persons." In such a case, one mode of ethical analysis might be to weigh the potentiality of an embryo's personhood against the potentiality of the research program. The result of such an analysis is not by any means obvious.

  Finally, all of the above assumes that a consequentialist ethic is necessarily the right and only appropriate kind of ethical analysis to employ in this case. Why? Many ethicists would argue that consequentialism ends up being incoherent, and therefore favor deontological and/or virtue perspectives -- a position with which I'm quite sympathetic.

  David W. Opderbeck
  Associate Professor of Law
  Seton Hall University Law School
  Director, Gibbons Institute of Law, Science & Technology

  On Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 10:47 AM, John Burgeson (ASA member) <> wrote:

    Doug posted, in part: "public policy should be based on scientific
    facts not ideology.
     I think this is an awful statement. It's a false dichotomy.

    Scientific "facts" don't make public policy; they form a necessary
    informational base, but every action based on that knowledge also
    requires a moral/ethical/ideological decision."

    I don't see it as "awful," but a simple factual statement. If one
    takes it to mean "based ONLY on scientific facts," then, of course,
    I'd agree that it is "awful." I'd probably use a stronger term.But it
    does not say that.

    Relative to the stem cell issue, it really boils down to the question
    "does a frozen embryo have personhood -- a soul?" For those asserting
    "yes," the issue is clear; stem cell research is immoral. For those
    who assert otherwise, stem cell research in morally OK.

    Having read a lot on this, I tend toward the latter position, but I do
    NOT claim certainty. I don't know that any of us can claim certainty
    on the issue.

    It is a classic case that whichever side of the issue you choose, you
    run the risk of doing harm (or not avoiding harm).


    On 3/10/09, David Campbell <> wrote:
> Yes, in the case of embryonic stem cells there is little disagreement
> about the science, and the self-identified "scientific" policy is
> merely one ideology among many.
> In other cases, such as environmental or evolution, there is denial of
> the science that could be described as disagreement about the science.
> Nevertheless, even in such cases, science is still descriptive.
> Science cannot be morally prescriptive, as that is outside its scope.
> --
> Dr. David Campbell
> 425 Scientific Collections
> University of Alabama
> "I think of my happy condition, surrounded by acres of clams"
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Received on Tue Mar 10 12:59:10 2009

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