Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Tue Mar 10 2009 - 20:47:45 EDT

No, Jim, every cell in our body does not have the potentiality to become a
person until, as you note, an act of cloning is done. In contrast, a zygote
(and even more so an embryo) has the potentiality to become a person without
further manipulation.

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

On Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 8:35 PM, Jim Armstrong <> wrote:

> I think the "potentiality" argument is particularly weak. In short (and
> admittedly oversimplified), every cell nucleus in our body has the
> "potentiality". Just transfer that nucleus into a suitable cellular context
> and it can (and does in cloning) become a living entity. But we slough
> millions of such cells every day, ...with their potentiality. But we don't
> even have to go there, because ova are likewise mostly sloughed by the body.
> Ah, but that leads us to the fertilized ovum.
> The point of conception is latched onto by many at the initiation of a
> person. But that is simplistic and fuzzy too, IMHO. An unfertilized ovum can
> be teased into beginning mitosis without any fertilization. Quite a few
> creatures in fact do that spontaneously (chickens, sharks, etc.). So it
> seems to me that might cast a bit of a shadow over the adequacy of the
> conception definition of personhood .
> But there is also the matter of a high degree of natural attrition of such
> zygotes, as well as after the cellular cleavages (mitosis) begin. [As I
> understand it, it is after some 2 weeks of these cellular multiplications
> that one might refer to the organism as an embryo]. So this at least might
> ask for some thought as to the "value" of any given zygote or even embryo,
> since many (most?) embryos do not successfully mature to a born baby. Is any
> given one of them then effectively of some fractional value from a
> pragmatist view? Does this significant natural attrition of potential humans
> nuance the argument at all in the tradeoff of potential life vs potential
> benefit to current and future generations?
> So, as you say, David, the analysis is truly "not by any means obvious",
> but these considerations (among others) cause me to lean in the direction
> voiced by Burgy.
> This embryonic stem cell controversy may be a transient issue at the end of
> the day, because so much research is also being done with non-embryonic
> cells, and many researchers are not insensitive to the ethical concerns. Dr.
> William Hurlbut's ANT (altered nuclear transfer) work, for example, was
> inspired by human cellular structures that develop naturally (teratomas),
> but have developed in a flawed way such that they cannot develop into a
> viable baby. He is a practicing and articulate Christian. [ANT summary
> here <>.]
> JimA [Friend of ASA]
> David Opderbeck wrote:
> 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).
>> jb
>> 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"
>> >
>> > To unsubscribe, send a message to with
>> > "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
>> >
>> --
>> Burgy
>> To unsubscribe, send a message to with
>> "unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
> To unsubscribe, send a message to with "unsubscribe
> asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.

To unsubscribe, send a message to with
"unsubscribe asa" (no quotes) as the body of the message.
Received on Tue Mar 10 20:47:53 2009

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.8 : Tue Mar 10 2009 - 20:47:54 EDT