Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Sat Mar 14 2009 - 16:52:32 EDT

David -

I pretty much figured that's what you meant - not just that we don't know at present but that we'll never know. & so, as I said, you've in effect absolutized potential personhood and said that it will always trump potential benefits of ESCR.

I never suggested that the process of reflection I suggested would be easy - that we could have a conference some weekend & publish a consensus on Monday. Furthermore, such a process should begin with the Christian community before we try to engage others. Before the question arises of someone trying to show that the present RC view is wrong, it would behoove the RC magisterium to be a little more straightforward about the limits of that view. That would mean, 1st, recognizing that their present hardline position is not the one that has always been held by the RCC, & that its adoption (as relates to abortion) was not arrived at because of any deepened understanding of embryological development but as part of Pius IX's general reaction against the modern world. It would also mean willingness to take seriously the counsel of people with scientific expertise in the area, an approach 180 degrees different from that of Paul VI on birth control, a not unrelated issue. Of course those who hold entrenched views at the opposite end of the spectrum should also do some honest re-examination, but I'm addressing now the type of question you asked and the position you hold.

It seems to me that what you mean by "biologically reductionist" is really just taking of biological science seriously. You're quite prepared to counter the implications
of that science with regard to twinning, e.g., with theological speculation. Not only does that not show adequate respect for science, it isn't good theology.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: David Opderbeck
  To: George Murphy
  Cc: Don Winterstein ; John Burgeson (ASA member) ;
  Sent: Saturday, March 14, 2009 3:59 PM
  Subject: Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

  I guess I don't think we'll ever be able to know with any reasonable certainty when "personhood" begins. What sort of test could you devise that wouldn't be either (a) biologically reductionist; or (b) unfalsifiable (either on scientific, philosophical or theological grounds)?

  You've mentioned the (present) RC view of ensoulment, for example. How could you show with any reasonable certainty that this view is "wrong?" You can raise all sorts of objections to this view, but at the end of the day it depends upon assertions about the "soul" concerning which there doesn't seem to be any means of final adjudication. (I don't think twinning defeats the RC view, BTW, because that view also entails a strong view of God's providence -- i.e., God can create two souls that go with the twins-to-be.) I'm a MacIntyrian on this -- metaphysical arguments at some point simply become incommensurable, and the choice becomes one of competing traditions in which some irreducible metaphysics are embedded.

   I think what I'm saying is that "personhood" is in some ways the wrong question. "Personhood" tries to set a hard boundary where there is in reality a gradual continuum. From the moment of fertilization, any lines that get drawn between "person" and "not person" seem arbitrary and pragmatic, or at least biologically reductionist. The real question is what kind of tradition do we want to see our political culture embody. If we choose a tradition that isn't biologically reductionist, I don't know how we ever draw sharp lines on "personhood" with the human embryo.

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

  On Sat, Mar 14, 2009 at 2:55 PM, George Murphy <> wrote:

    So what it comes down to is that we can't at present "state with any reasonable degree of certainty when 'personhood' begins," we do know that the embryo is a (at least one) potential person, & the value of that potential person trumps the potential benefit from research to many people with disabilities - & this without engaging in any discussion (in this thread at least) about the question of when personhood begins. Without such discussion the chance of reaching any greater degree of certainty about that question is of course zero, so that the decision will always be in favor of the potential person. Thus potentiality is being used to impose as absolute a ban on ESCR as if we did knew for certain that the embryo is a person from conception onward.

    The alternative - which folks at neither extreme seem to want - is to say, yes, potentiality and precaution (which are in fact closely related) mean that we should not engage in such research at present, but that we are going to try to make a serious attempt to see if some consensus about personhood can be reached, free of many of the loaded arguments that have bedevilled this issue. That means OTOH that we recognize that the claim that personhood begins at conception is not & in fact has not been universally accepted in the Christian tradition. OTOH those who are in favor of ESCR will forego the trype of argument that implies that if you aren't in favor of embryonic stem cell research, you want people with spinal cord injuries to remain paralyzed.


      ----- Original Message -----
      From: David Opderbeck
      To: Don Winterstein
      Cc: John Burgeson (ASA member) ;
      Sent: Saturday, March 14, 2009 2:15 PM
      Subject: Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

      You anticipate the problem, Don, but you don't really offer any solution. The problem of euthanasia and what "capable" means is one reason why I think the potentiality principle remains important (though, as we have noted ad nauseum, "important" doesn't in my mind mean "conclusive" or "incontrovertible.") . A human embryo is in fact more "capable" of having "spiritual interaction" than a 90-year-old person, if "capabilities" include all potential interactions over the course of an average human lifetime.

      This ties into a very important strand of theory in virtue ethics related to global development, Martha Nussbaum's "capabilities approach." Note that I am NOT suggesting Nussbaum applies this in the same way I might to our present discussion -- in fact, I think Nussbaum's articulation of "capability" is too individualistic. The point is simply that "capabilities" or "potentiality" remain important for many normative theories of ethics.

      IMHO, both on either scientific or theological grounds, it is presently impossible to state with any reasonable degree of certainty when "personhood" begins. In my view, this means it's equally impossible to draw meaningful lines about when it is permissible to terminate a human life having some potentential to exercise at least some of the capabilities we associate with personhood -- whether at the very start or very end of biological life. Given that, and given the immense value (not "absolute" value, but immense value) we place (or ought to place) on human life, in my view the precautionary principle strongly weighs against intentional termination of embryonic human life.

      Further, I think the view I'm taking here is the most consistent among the presently competing views with a Christian understanding of the human person, the relationships among human persons, and the role of the state. I take as a central ethical imperative Jesus' restatement of the law: to love God with all the heart, mind, soul and strength, and to love one's neighbor as one's self. I further take as a central ethical imperative the repeated Biblical injunction to care for and defend those who are unable to protect themselves against the exercise of power by others. And, I think the state has a particular role as God's vice-regent over human affairs to promote laws consistent with these imperatives.

      If there is any reasonable doubt at all about the status of an entity as "human," then, IMHO, the love command and the injunction to defend the powerless compel us to oppose the intentional termination of embryonic human life, as well as human life in its end stages, EVEN IF the purpose of that action is to promote research that might benefit us.

      Now, someone might take the line here taken by Ted Peters: beneficence and the love command suggest exactly the opposite -- that we ought to resolve this doubt in favor of persons who unquestionably presently possess human capabilities but who are damaged by illness. (Peters argues this in "Playing God?", in which he acknowledges the potentiality principle, BTW). I can't agree.

       Among other things, I think this view ultimately devalues people with disabilities. Disabled people who might benefit from embryonic stem cell research -- whether a paraplegic or my own son with his neurological misfunction -- remain able to exercise human capabilities, with excellence, dignity and beauty. The fact that society views my son as "marred" or "impaired" doesn't justify completely extinguishing the capabilities of another person or potential person. A better approach, IMHO, is to pursue other avenues of research while at the same time exercising love and beneficence by helping people like my son to live meaningful lives within the context of their unique physical abilities. At some point, after all, every one of us must learn to live with the unique limitations fate, or providence, or karma, or whatever you want to call it, hands us.

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

      On Sat, Mar 14, 2009 at 3:03 AM, Don Winterstein <> wrote:

        IMO abortion, while always traumatic, distasteful and a thing that should be undertaken only as some sort of last resort, isn't murder unless the organism aborted is capable of spiritual interaction at the level of persons. Capability for spiritual interaction at the level of persons, which I regard as tantamount to "having a soul," among humans requires a fairly complete body. A few million cells won't do. In other words, humans don't get souls at conception but at some much later stage of development. In other words, the soul is an emergent property of the body--and you can't prove me wrong on this from Scripture.

        If you amputate someone's leg, you're killing human tissue but you're not guilty of murder because you're not killing a person. Destroying a frozen embryo is in a similar category.

        Does this mean I'd support mercy killing for the mentally defective on grounds they can't be spiritual? No, because no human can tell where the boundary is between having capability for spiritual interaction and not having such capability. But I'm comfortable sticking my neck out to say that frozen embryos don't have it.


          ----- Original Message -----
          From: John Burgeson (ASA member)
          To: David Campbell
          Sent: Tuesday, March 10, 2009 6:47 AM
          Subject: Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

          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 Sat Mar 14 16:53:14 2009

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