Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Tue Mar 10 2009 - 13:34:13 EDT

Responses below.

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 12:58 PM, George Murphy <>wrote:

> 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?

I never said that shouldn't also be a concern. As with the precautionary
principle in environmental ethics, the question is whether there is some
probability, even if small, that an action taken will have effects
significantly more deleterious than the harm the action is seeking to
prevent. Just about everyone will agree that it is immoral to conduct
medical research on human subjects involving the subject's certain death,
even with informed consent; and just about everyone will agree that it is
immoral to conduct medical research involving any significant risk of death
on infants, regardless of the parent's informed consent.

If the moral status of a human embryo is uncertain, there is some
probability that embryonic stem cell research will result in the great harm
of taking human lives for research purposes. Under the precautionary
principle, proponents of the research would have to show a near certainty
that the proposed research would succeed in producing an even more
substantially beneficial result -- something that cannot under any
estimation presently be shown.

> 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?

No, a separated ovum and sperm is not a potential person. The potentiality
for personhood only exists when a zygote is formed. Neither an ovum nor a
sperm can individually mature into a person. There is a morally
significant, qualitative difference between a zygote and an individual ovum
or individual sperm.

> 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.

The problem here, as I see it, is that this research reinforces an industry
that is essentially unregulated and, in my judgment, highly morally

> 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.

I don't agree. Natural miscarriages result in the context of an intent to
carry the baby to term. (Let's set aside for the moment the question of
unplanned pregnancies, which gets into additional issues about the ends of
sexuality, marriage, and the family). With IVF, the intent at the outset is
to produce embryos that will have to be destroyed. Intent is critical to
moral and ethical assessment of the conduct.

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Received on Tue Mar 10 13:34:42 2009

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