William Saletan recently published an essay at Slate, in which he compares research on stem cells with torturing accused terrorists, suggesting that there is an important moral line crossed in both cases.
This is infuriating nonsense.
"Embryos are the beginnings of people," Saletan says. "They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject."
Wrong. An embryo is not a subject in any sense.
Unlike accused terrorists, the embryos that we're talking about are not creatures that even have nervous systems, much less nervous systems developed to the point where they can feel terror or pain. Such an embryo cannot fear death, or sickness, or injury. It has no hopes or fears at all, and it certainly cannot lie awake dreading its own destruction. It has no subjectivity, no inner experience. Our sympathies should not be engaged in any way by the plight of an early embryo that is selected for destruction in stem cell research. Not if we're rational about it. Nobody who destroys such an embryo is being callous towards its interests, let alone cruel. You cannot show cruelty to something that can't experience any physical or psychological suffering whatsoever.
Saletan says, "It was a fight between 5-day-olds and 50-year-olds. The 50-year-olds won."
I beg your pardon, sir, but there is a huge difference between a so-called "5-day-old" with no nervous system and the predicament of an adult human being of 50 (or 40, or 60, or any other age) who might be diagnosed with a serious illness. For the 50-year-old, a prognosis of increasing pain and impending death is tragic. The destruction of an early embryo is nothing of the sort.
Even if death were painless, we'd have good reason to treat it as an evil. Once we are old enough to be conscious of ourselves as existing in time, we have many reasons to want to stay alive, at least until life becomes so restricted and painful as to be a burden. Until then, we have powerful forward-looking reasons to want to go on living, immersed in our relationships and projects. Take a man in his early 50s, for example ...
In fact, let's keep this real: take me, for example. I may wish to complete whatever book I'm currently working on, to see progress with political causes that I've taken up, to watch how my loved ones fare in life, and on and on. Speaking of my loved ones ... yes, various people love me, and some would be emotionally shattered by my death. And I care deeply about this because, as it happens, I love them.
No one in my situation could be indifferent to a medical prognosis of imminent death. For me, or anyone at all like me, it would be a terrible evil, snatching away all my hopes while also inflicting great loss on the people I care about most. If it happened to someone else I know, or whose predicament was brought home to me, I'd be moved by pity and a degree of futile anger.
By contrast, an early embryo harvested for stem cells has no plans for the future and cannot imagine the future at all. It cannot commit itself to any projects that give it reasons to want to go on living and developing. Indeed, it has no concepts, or experiences, or wants. There is nothing at all that it is like to be that embryo, and if its destruction is a misfortune for it in some way, it is certainly not in the same way as death is a misfortune for a human adult (or a human child, if it comes to that). When we decide how to conduct ourselves towards it, there is no reason to be motivated by sympathy. That would make no sense. Nor is there anyone else whose interests come into the decision - it has no networks of kin, loved ones, dependents or colleagues. No one will be left behind with a broken heart. Its situation is radically different not only from that of a 50-year-old man or woman but also from that of a child or even a newborn baby.
We have no reason, none at all, to refrain from stem cell research, merely on the basis that it destroys early embryos.
Why the hell shouldn't the 50-year-olds prevail in any supposed "fight" between their interests and whatever bizarre interests can be attributed to the so-called "5-day-olds"? Saletan is not being rational.