Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Tue Mar 10 2009 - 21:12:34 EDT

No, David, a zygote or an embryo does not have in itself the potential to become a person. It requires an appropriate relationship with its environment - i.e., a uterus as part of a living woman.

Of course reproductive cloning would require something in addition to that. But in neither case do we begin with a cell that has some potential for human personhood in & of itself. & if you're going to argue that the difference of "natural" & "artificial" development is critical I'll say preemptively that that's a very weak argument, at least for those for whom Aristotle isn't the last word.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: David Opderbeck
  To: Jim Armstrong
  Cc: ASA
  Sent: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 8:47 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

  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).


        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 21:13:23 2009

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