Proposition 71, Economic Benefit and Morality
Post-election comments on Proposition 71

As most people know, Proposition 71, the "stem cell research" proposition, passed in California. But simply because the proposition has (or will shortly) become law, does not mean that the comments about the Proposition are finished. In the November 16, 2004, edition of the Wall Street Journal, two letters to the editor commented on the proposition, one praising the economic benefit that will flow to California from the proposition and the other questioning our ability to know what is truly moral.

Mickey Fleschner of Trinidad, California, wrote praising the passage of the proposition convinced that stem cell research is as--if not more--important to science as atomic theory and particle physics, and that California's bold move in passing Proposition 71 will lead to a trillions of dollars of income to the State.

Regarding effects on humanity (not to mention all life on Earth), the understanding and uses that will flow from this field of knowledge will eclipse those we have experienced from progress made since the industrial revolution. There is no aspect of human endeavor (industrial, agricultural, environmental, social, spiritual) that will not be profoundly affected. It will provide an entirely new slate of tools and technologies for maintaining a healthy, happy, contented population of ten-plus billion people on our beleaguered planet."

(I bet it will also help you lose weight and cure bunions.)
"[N]ow fully funded, California is off and running while the rest of the world dwaddles, introduces political and social restrictions, and limits funding.

"You think $6 billion over 10 years will be a bad investment, though it has bought California a virtual monopoly on the ground floor of human achievement fundamental to the success and perhaps even the survival of the human race and much if not all of life on our planet for the next century. The returns over the decades will be measured in the trillions."

I will acknowledge that this rather utopian view of the effects of Proposition 71 could be true. It is possible that the research from embryonic stem cells could result in amazing discoveries. (In fairness to the writer, I note that he nowhere uses the words "embryonic stem cell" in his letter. He could be discussing the potentially amazing scientific discoveries that could be coming from adult stem cell research, which appears from the scientific literature I have previously mentioned, to be more likely. However, if that is the focus of his comments, the writer does not understand that Proposition 71 was enacted primarily to assure that embryonic stem cell research will be undertaken in California.) However, since what I have read shows that few scientists seem to believe that embryonic stem cell research will result in any amazing breakthroughs, I am certainly reluctant to embrace his viewpoint.

If the evidence doesn't support the idea that embryonic stem cells will result in amazing scientific breakthroughs, then it is likely that his economic argument fails. One can make the same claim about a hypothetical proposition that will put $6 billion into research for a perpetual motion machine. After all, if such a machine were made it would certainly give to the state where such a machine is created "a virtual monopoly on the ground floor of human achievement fundamental to the success and perhaps even the survival of the human race" and the returns from such a machine over the decades would "be measured in the trillions." The problem, of course, is that no one believes that it is possible that such a machine can be created, and thus, it would be safe to say that there would be no "trillions" generated from the research which will almost certainly turn out to be fruitless. While there is some more hope for scientific breakthroughs using "embryonic stem cells," it certainly appears that greater hope lies in adult stem cells which have very few restrictions in any state. Thus, it appears that California has spent $6 billion dollars to research what may be a scientific dead end where the real advances are going to come from other states where the research will be into adult stem cells.

Again, I cannot be dogmatic about this. I certainly agree that scientists' opinions can be wrong and it remains possible that some major multi-trillion dollar scientific breakthroughs will come from the embryonic stem cell research being funded by Proposition 71. However, if I were asked to invest in a particular line of research, I would not put my money into embryonic stem cell research. The probabilities of success appear rather remote and the return on my investment too tentative.

A second letter to the editor from Bruce Dwiggins of Ann Arbor, Michigan, argues that we cannot be certain whether embryonic stem cell research is moral or not. Responding to a letter to the editor from Stuart Creque, Mr. Dwiggins writes:

"[Mr. Creque] seems to know with great certainty what the bounds of morality are. However, there may be some other interpretations that could shed a different light on the morality of this subject.

"When a young child is lost by disease or accident, is it moral for the parents to authorize use of the child's organs for transplant to potentially save lives? For parents who have conceived by in vitro fertilization, is it moral to authorize the unused frozen embryos be discarded? In this situation, is it moral for the parents to authorize embryonic stem cells (the organs of the embryo) from the embryo be used to further research that has the potential for helping untold millions of people? How can it not be moral to use these stem cells for this cause? In fact, it seems immoral not to use them."

This is a typical appeal. It is the same appeal that is made on all issues of morality, i.e., "on what basis do you claim to know what is moral?" Let me try to clear this up.

First, let's start with the proposition that it is morally wrong to kill a living human being in the name of scientific research. Any doubt about this proposition should be quelled by mentioning the name of Joseph Mengele. Perhaps there is an exception if the person who will be killed consents, but I doubt it. Even so, there is no issue that the embryo can consent.

Second, while some people may disagree, it is indisputable that the embryos being discussed in Proposition 71 are human beings. Here is the definition of an embryo from the IntegraMed Fertility Dictionary:

EMBRYO - The developing baby in the early stages of fetal growth, from conception to the eighth week of pregnancy. In infertility treatments this term is restricted to mean a fertilized egg, between 1 and 5 days old, used in IVF treatments.

As pointed out by Greg Koukl of Stand to Reason in a commentary entitled "Embryonic Stem Cell Research: Means and Ends", "you have to have a human being before you can get human stem cells."

"Embryo is not a thing - it is a stage. It is like saying a ten-day-old, or an adolescent, or a youngster. It does not tell you anything about the thing except for its level of development. It could be a young dog, or it could be a young parakeet, or it could be a young human being. It could be a fish embryo, it could be a dog embryo, it could be a human embryo. You see, embryo, or blastula, or blastocyst are just terms to describe this earliest stages of development where stem cells are present; these are just words that identify a stage of the development of a thing. It does not give you any information as to what that thing is that is developing.

"To say that an embryo goes from an embryo after a certain level of development into a human being is to create a kind of category error, it is mixing terms. It is kind of like saying this thing went from a ten-day-old to a young rabbit. A ten-day-old what? Well, a ten-day-old baby rabbit into a young rabbit. These are terms that represent two different categories of things. To be clear about these things, we have to acknowledge that distinction. So when we say embryo, we are talking about a stage of development, we are not talking about the thing.

"The question is what kind of embryo is it? And in this case the embryos are human embryos, the blastula are human blastula. You have to have a human being before you can get human stem cells. So, this discussion about the legitimacy of cloning for the stem cells versus cloning to create a human being, is a rationally confused distinction. There is no difference. You cannot get human embryonic stem cells but from a human embryo. So, you must create a human being first in its embryo stage, which then is either allowed to grow into subsequent stages, fetus, newborn, adolescent, etc., or is destroyed before it can begin to develop into other stages and is then cut up an used for body parts. But it still is what it is when it is destroyed - a human being in a blastula stage."

I think that Mr. Koukl's comments are irrefutable. To get the human embryonic stem cells, you have to start with a human being. And if it is immoral to kill a human being for the purposes of scientific research, then embryonic stem cell research must be immoral.

But what about the other things? Doesn't the fact that the research using the embryonic stem cells could result in amazing medical treatments make it moral? As I have stated before, it appears unlikely that this treatment will result in such amazing scientific breakthroughs. But even if it were likely that such results could be achieved, it is hard to fathom how a person can find such research to be any more moral than arguing that Joseph Mengele's experiments on twins could be considered moral because they may have resulted in amazing scientific breakthroughs. What about the fact that the fetus' were going to disposed of anyway? Two things: first, I think it is clearly immoral to create more embryos for implantation into a woman than she desires. If she wants one child, then one embryo should be created. We shouldn't compound immorality by further immoral actions. Will that create more expense? Probably, but that is a cost we should bear. Second, and more importantly, as I understand it Proposition 71 permits the cloning of embryos. "Unused" embryos are not the subject of the proposition (or are a very small part of the issue).

No, these two arguments do not lead me to conclude that Proposition 71 is even arguably a positive thing. I would rather put $6 billion into adult stem cell research (if no cloning is permitted) or into cold fusion research. Both are at least as likely to result in scientific breakthroughs and result in fewer moral difficulties.


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