Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Tue Mar 10 2009 - 22:46:56 EDT

With an embryo, some action has already been taken to actualize the
potentiality of personhood, whether by ordinary sexual reproduction,
artificial insemination, or IVF. The question then becomes whether and
under what circumstances it is ethically permissible to stop that
potentiality. With any other cell in the body, before any analogous action
has been taken, the termination of that cell is not the termination of any
actuated potentiality for personhood. If the technology existed to clone a
human being from somatic cells,* once that technological process had been
initiated*, similar ethical concerns would arise. But absent the initiation
of such a technological process, there is zero actual potential for any
somatic cell to become a person. "Potential," even in an Aristotelian
sense, involves chains of *causation, *not just any theoretical potential.

You all seem to be assuming that I have argued that the potentiality
principle necessarily results in absolute protection to the embryo. I have
not. What I've argued is that the potentiality principle, together with the
precautionary principle, complicates any utilitarian / consequentialist
approach to human embryonic stem cell research. That argument was in
response to a claim that a utilitarian / consequentialist view would *certainly
*favor continuing the research.

Nor have I claimed that my ultimate view about this question is infallibly
correct. I do, in fact, think that the arguments I've made so far, together
with some specifically religious arguments, render the current practice of
research on embryonic stem cells unethical. But, I don't suggest that my
position is beyond cavail.

In short, up until now I've made very modest claims that are common in the
literature debating this issue. Some of you seem to think that warrants
invective, ad hominems, efforts to intimidate, ridicule, and the like. I
don't get it; frankly, it's lame.

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 9:18 PM, Stephen Matheson <>wrote:

> "Further manipulation?" You mean like successfully implanting into the
> uterus, constructing a placenta, and evading the immune system of the host?
> If any of these processes is aided by other humans, have they then been
> "manipulated?" These glib platitudes just won't do.
> As far as we know, every nucleus in the body does indeed have the potential
> to become a person. The distinction you're making (between improbable
> events that lead to a live birth and "manipulation" by other humans) is, in
> my view, nothing more than a preference for "natural" processes over
> "manipulated" (read: unnatural) processes. I am unimpressed by the efforts
> to translate such preferences into moral fortresses. And we haven't even
> addressed the failure of such distinctions when the process in question is a
> perfectly natural disease and healing comes as a "manipulation." By the
> time the "potentiality" argument is amended to patch its numerous holes, it
> looks so hopelessly ad hoc as to seem ridiculous.
> The fact is that it will soon be easy enough to make a human "zygote" by
> returning a somatic nucleus (perhaps from a tissue stem cell with intact
> telomeres) to totipotency (or at least pluripotency). We'll need something
> a whole lot better than "manipulation" or its absence to figure out how to
> respect life. The potentiality argument will fail spectacularly. Ditch it
> now while there's still time. Or...transform it into one way of describing
> the wide boundary around which one might seek to build moral protections.
> Steve Matheson
> >>> David Opderbeck <> 03/10/09 8:47 PM >>>
> 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
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Received on Tue Mar 10 22:47:25 2009

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