Thursday, September 07, 2006


What if you'd died before you were born?

Much of the rhetoric against embryonic stem-cell research is aimed at the concept that an embryo must be destroyed in order to harvest the stemm cells. A study now seems to have found a mechanism that will alow the harvesting of a single cell, leaving the embryo viable. It's questionable whether that will work in practice, or whether it'd be acceptable to the critics even if it does, but let's set that aside for a moment and look at the basic objection.

An argument I've often heard, which started as one against abortion but has migrated into this debate, starts with this question:

Aren't you glad that you weren't destroyed when you were "just an embryo"?
Yes, of course I am. But it's not valid to take a result and use it to validate the entire process. And it's not a valid logical argument to start with a choice made at the end and use it to form a conclusion about a choice made at the beginning.

Had the embryo that grew into me been destroyed, it's entirely possible that another embryo would have formed and turned into me anyway. You might argue that it wouldn't have been exactly me, but we don't know that, and it doesn't strike me as material anyway — it might not have been a bad thing if the resultant adult in that hypothetical case had turned out a bit more buff, and perhaps with rather more musical talent. If, on the other hand, nothing had developed into me, well, I wouldn't be here to care, one way or the other. And, in fact, if you believe that God has a hand (or whatever God has that we might call a "hand") in this, that seems even more reason to think that Barry Leiba was meant to exist and that God would have made sure of it, using one embryo or another.

Analogies are dangerous here, because none are quite perfectly apt, but let's play with one anyway. Suppose we consider a person of great societal value — maybe a Nobel laureate, an indispensible teacher or humanitarian, or a great world leader. And suppose that person had loved soccer as a child, and dreamed only of being a star football player. Her parents, though, dissuaded her. "Football is so frivolous," they said. "Put your mind to something better." And they wouldn't let her play, and made her study. Through that study she excelled, and her dreams went from changing soccer to changing the world.

And as she relates this story, she tells us how glad she is that her parents steered her away from soccer and we say, "Gee, what if her parents had let her play ball, and not pushed her into academic study? The world would lack this important leader, this great intellect, this generous humanitarian." We might conclude from this that every parent should discurage pursuits such as soccer. After all, she is happy today about that decision her parents made decades ago.

Probably some would agree with that, that we should always discourage "trivial" pursuits and push every child into academics. But I think most of us think that there's no one right answer to this, all the time. That we have to consider each instance, each child, each situation, each set of aptitudes and desires and dreams.

The analogy is, as I say, not quite right, but it aims us in the right direction: that the answer is not that every embryo is the same, and that each must be treated the same. We have no idea which embryos will develop into what, nor which will develop at all. The majority of all embryos produced do not develop at all, and the vast majority of those produced in fertility procedures, in particular, do not develop at all.

Considering that, it's clear that this isn't really about what develops into whom, or not at all. It's about a subset of society making the decisions for everyone. The interesting thing about that is that no subset ever likes it when another subset tells them what they may and must and may not do. And yet we often find that a subset that would fiercely object to having its behaviour legislated is happy to legislate the behaviour of others.

There is, of course, an alternative: let people make their own choices; do not tell them what to do. If they make a choice that you don't like, live with it. It's not your choice; it doesn't have to be. But it's theirs, and they have a right to it. We need to look at the whole picture, not just a pixel or two.

1 comment:

MissPrism said...

Great post!
My grandparents met in the second world war - this is probably true of a large proportion of the population of Europe.
So, by twisted "pro-life" logic, the rise of Hitler was a jolly good thing.
(Hit me with the Godwin stick.)