Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: Jim Armstrong <>
Date: Fri Mar 13 2009 - 23:20:50 EDT
As is a sloughed skin cell?  JimA [Friend of ASA

Alexanian, Moorad wrote:
Is the DNA of a fertilized egg the same as the potential adult that it will develop into? If so, then since the DNA is what constitutes or characterized a person as purported by most scientists, then a fertilized egg is in essence a person.
From: [] On Behalf Of Christine Smith []
Sent: Thursday, March 12, 2009 9:59 PM
Subject: Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

Hi all,

I've been following this thread with great interest and was contemplating it over lunch. It occurred to me that regarding the notion of potentiality and personhood, perhaps a different distinction would be more helpful. The point of contention seems to be that anything that has the potential to be a person should be protected from destruction, but as demonstrated by this thread, this notion can become controversial when you try to define both the term "potential" (does a cell,  or a sperm, etc. constitute potential?), and the term "person" (is it cognizance, a heart beat, etc.?). It seems to me that some of this debate could be alleviated if you introduced a third "category" if you will, or intermediary step - the term "human".

In the context of the debate, "human" and "person" has been used interchangeably it seems to me, but the term "person" carries with it much deeper connotations about spirituality, emotions, rationality, etc. The term "human" however, doesn't necessarily  convey these additional concepts - fundamentally, it merely distinguishes us from say, a cat. In this particular context, the term "human" retains the idea that a person could be the end result of the process, but it also succeeds at setting it apart from something such as a sperm, or a cell, or any of the other raw materials which our bodies are composed of. These latter things may be thought of as "human" only in as much as they are parts of a human, but they are not human in and of themselves. Whereas, a fertilized egg can be said to be a new, unique human living and growing within another human. Thus, if you make the argument that life starts at conception and that it deserves our protection, you are
 essentially arguing that though it may not yet be a *person*, it is nonetheless *human* and this constitutes enough of a basis to make a moral judgment in favor of protecting it. (does this make sense? I'm not sure I'm articulating this well...)

Anyway, just my two cents. :)

In Christ,

"For we walk by faith, not by sight" ~II Corinthians 5:7

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--- On Thu, 3/12/09, Stephen Matheson <> wrote:

From: Stephen Matheson <>
Subject: Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?
To: "David Opderbeck" <>
Cc: "ASA List" <>
Date: Thursday, March 12, 2009, 8:05 PM
David, you're right that there was too much crap in my
response, and I'm sorry about that.  Personal invective
was not my goal, but my frustration was all too evident and
you shouldn't have had to deal with that.

Let me make the wildly foolish assumption that you might
still be interested in some of my comments.  :-)

1.  I have objections to some of your comments, and
disagreements with some, and those shouldn't be
confused.  I don't disagree with the notion that
"potentiality" can contribute to consideration of
moral significance.  Perhaps I disagree with the extent to
which you and I emphasize it...hard to say.  But I do object
to flat assertions regarding such matters, and was
attempting to point to the fluid nature of many of the
distinctions that form the basis of the assertions.  Yes, of
course ethical concerns arise once an embryo has been
"created" by a "manipulation"; my point
was that the actions that can "actualize the
potentiality of personhood" are not as simply
delineated or circumscribed as some seem to suggest.

2.  When it comes to science-related discussions among
Christians, I'm mostly focused on issues of integrity.
Secondarily, I'm interested in topics that are used as
faith barometers in evangelicaldom and beyond.  I tend to
worry a lot about the attachment of spurious ideas (bogus or
brilliant) or positions (laudable or ludicrous) to the
gospel or to the church.  This leads me to worry about the
extent to which serious Christians are free to question
dominant evangelical views on abortion or evolution or
politics without facing suspicion regarding their faith
commitment.  You don't do this, not at all, but
simplistic assertions of the type that I saw in the
discussion of "personhood" does remind me of those
who do.

3.  Much of this friction between us is, I think, purely a
consequence of our choice to use the inferior medium of
email to explore our ideas.  I typed that just to remind
myself.  :-)

4.  My own view is that we (society, Christendom, whatever)
should take a somewhat different tack on this subject.
Instead of focusing on those things that don't have
moral significance (sperm, skin cells) and talking about why
they don't, we should focus on those that do and why
they do.  I'm talking here about the things that
everyone acknowledges to have "personhood":
neonates and beyond, say.  Then when we've agreed on
what those things are, we build a generous moral fence
around them and agree not to threaten anything inside the
fence.  (Sort of the RvW emanation thing in reverse.)  We
can then freely acknowledge that we're protecting some
things that few people would identify as morally complete
but that we agree to protect so as not to anywhere near
those things that we want to protect at almost any cost.
I'm not suggesting that this is even achievable, but I
am proposing it as a better way to think about personhood.

5.  I see nearly all arguments for "personhood"
or even potential personhood during very early human
development (i.e., at least till the morula stage)
foundering on the issue of twinning, and I believe the only
way to reasonably ascribe moral signfiicance to such embryos
is by admitting that one is invoking a moral buffer zone
like I mentioned in the last paragraph.  This is why I have
little or no sympathy with claims of dramatic moral status
for such embryos, and do not oppose disaggregation of such
embryos for the isolation of ESCs.  This is not to say that
I find such activities to be as morally innocuous as killing
bacteria, nor is it to say that I am oblivious to the
disturbing nature of certain arguments in favor of the

6.  The scary thing about HESCs is not, in my view, the
ever-diminishing potential that demand will cause
large-scale destruction of human embryos.  As others have
noted here, it will soon be easy enough to create custom
pluripotent stem cells, a far better therapeutic asset that
can be established with almost no ethical complications.  If
you want to worry about pluripotent stem cells, I think you
should worry about their very real potential utility in the
practice of genetic engineering.  For a hint as to why, see
my symposium talk at the ASA meeting in 2006.

Steve Matheson

David Opderbeck <>
03/10/09 10:46 PM >>>

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 &

On Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 9:18 PM, Stephen Matheson


"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

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


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

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 &

On Tue, Mar 10, 2009 at 10:47 AM, John Burgeson (ASA


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

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 <>
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
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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