Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Rite and Wrong

So, now that we've cleared away the technical underbrush -- and I hope you'll forgive what may have been a self-indulgence, but I just love biology, for sheer wonder and amazement it beats the hell out of theology -- let's follow Prof. Korobkin as he parses the ethical issues, and add our own two cents -- or maybe two bucks.

The people who believe -- quite fervently in most cases -- that a single zygote, or a 16-cell blastocyst, is a "human life," and that destroying it is murder, obviously don't base that claim on any discernible resemblance between the object in question and what we normally think of as a human being. In fact, they don't generally try to justify it at all, they just proclaim it, but when forced to explain their reasoning, the usual response is that it represents the potential for human life, and that's close enough to being human life to deserve the same respect. (Note that they cannot base their claim on scripture, which makes no mention of abortion, nor for that matter can they blame it on Christian tradition as the Christian proscription of abortion is in fact a modern innovation.)

It is certainly easy enough to ridicule that claim. An acorn is not an oak, and raking up your backyard is not the same thing as destroying a forest. But even if potential human life is for some unspecified reason more like real human life than an acorn is like an oak, the claim's defenders have a big problem: the large majority of these precious human lives are destroyed already, by the most prolific mass murderer in all of history, the deity. Most naturally created zygotes fail to develop into babies. In fact, they fail to implant and are lost in what the woman probably thinks is just another ordinary menstrual cycle. If this is really the same thing as the death of a baby, then the Christian Coalition ought to be clamoring for the vast majority of medical research funds to be redirected toward preventing it, since it is the greatest public health catastrophe imaginable.

It gets even more ridiculous when you consider that the creation of the zygote is, after all, a purely arbitrary dividing line. The unfertilized ovum, and the spermatazoa, also represent potential human life. Every time a woman ovulates without getting pregnant, or a man ejaculates, potential human life is destroyed. Isn't it a sin, then, to fail to create a baby at every opportunity? You could argue that the uniqueness of the potential life is somehow established at the moment of conception, and that for some reason that's the key, but that's wrong too. Just because the genome is created does not mean we know what kind of person might result. Genes are not destiny; the phenotype -- the unique nature of the complete organism -- develops in a complex interplay between genes and environment. Your destiny was in no way sealed at the moment of conception, nor was your nature. You did not yet exist; there was only a cell, and then a ball of cells, after all.

Prof. Korobkin goes on to point out that if the Catholic Church and the protestant right truly believe that embryos are people and that killing them is immoral, their support for Mr. Bush's solution makes no sense. The law he proposed, and got through Congress, allows federal funding for research using certain HESC lines that already existed at the time, which had been derived from embryos left over from IVF. The rationale was that the sin had already happened, so we might as well use the cells; but no further embryos would be exploited in this way using federal funds.

But this makes no sense, because IVF continues to be legal, and it inevitably creates excess embryos, which inevitably are destroyed. If that's murder, it ought to be outlawed, but nobody is calling for that. Doesn't it make more sense, if the embryos are going to be destroyed anyway, to at least use the cells to potentially save lives in the future? The possibility of using new cell lines for HESC research does not in any way encourage the creation, or destruction, of more embryos than would have been created were that not possible.

And of course, it's still possible, just not with federal funding. If it's murder, it's still murder even if the federal government is not paying for it. The opponents of HESC research respond that since there is disagreement about the morality of the practice, at least people who disapprove should not be forced to pay for it with their tax dollars.

Uh oh. Just about everything the federal government does has destractors among the citizenry. Let's talk about, oh, I don't know, the occupation of Iraq, which costs a few thousand times as much as any plausible program of HESC research. I find it morally objectionable, yet I am required to pay for it with my tax dollars. And oh yeah, it destroys human lives -- not just potential ones.

So it's pretty clear that the Catholic Bishops and James Dobson are in a state of profound moral confusion. Their political position makes no sense at all. It's internally contradictory, and contrary to the most elementary common sense. But here's where Prof. Korobkin stops, and where I would like to go. How is that tens of millions of Americans have come to believe so fervently in such a transparent absurdity? What is really going on here? With real people suffering and dying all over the world, all too often with the assistance of the U.S. taxpayer; and the taxpayer doing so very little to save them, why on earth are these people yelling and screaming about microscopic balls of slime, under the bizarre delusion that they are human babies? And what could this possibly have to do with Christianity?

That is the really important question here. That's where the true moral atrocity is to be found. Perhaps a good Christian out there will care to respond.

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