Jesus Creed

We began a couple of weeks ago to look at Kevin Corcoran’s book Rethinking Human Nature: A Christian Materialist Alternative to the Soul where he develops a constitution view of human persons. The fourth chapter of the book deals with moral, ethical, and theological ramifications of metaphysical views of persons. There is much worth discussion – but I will concentrate on only one or two points – related to stem cell research. This is not central to Corcoran’s book or constitution view of persons, but is relevant to our society today, and to the discussion of the Manhattan Declaration last week.

Is stem cell research wrong? If so when and why?

I will admit to being agnostic on this issue – not because I’ve thought about it and come to the conclusion that it is not possible to conclude, but because I haven’t thought about it much and because I have never yet heard a convincing reason as to why it is unquestionably wrong (which seems to be the gut response). I’ve been planning to post on this issue, and Corcoran’s book provides an interesting initial foray into the topic.

Abortion is, in my opinion, clear cut – intentional destruction of a developing fetus is wrong. Except – well it is always a problem, but when the life of the mother is at risk the question changes. Both lives are of value, and I won’t pass judgment – this is an issue for each individual in a given circumstance to decide. I also won’t pass judgment if the fetus is so defective that life is not viable. But usually the question is one of convenience or money or timing or … and then abortion is the wrong choice.

Stem cell research is another question altogether.

Kevin Corcoran is a philosopher – and his interest is in the metaphysics of persons, but to get to the meat on this issue we must first consider the science. He gives a nice sketch.  I am not a biologist either – so I hope that those with more expertise will correct anything I (or he) gets wrong here given our best attempt to get the facts straight.

The big question is when does the change from molecules and cells to human happen? Some claim at fertilization – but that is debatable. For stages through blastocyst shown in the figure above the possibility of twinning occurs. This mass of cells can become multiple individuals. In the morula stage each cell contains the potential to become not only an individual, but more than one individual. I don’t think that this potential constitutes a person (feel free to argue).

Gastrulation, morphogenesis or development of body form begins at the third week, followed in weeks four through eight by the organogetic period where there is differentiation and formation of specific organs. At this point we have an individual. Corcoran reflects on this:

So, exactly when does a human organism come into existence? The best I think we can do is point to an interval of time and not to a specific instant. Again, it seems at least that a human organism does not come into existence before the gastrulation stage (thirteen days after fertilization) or after the early organogenetic period (twenty-six days after fertilization). Rather, sometime between the thirteenth and twenty-fifth day after fertilization of the oocyte, the cells composing what biologists call the embryo are caught up in a stable well-individuated, self-directing, and homeodynamic event (a life) and so compose an individual human organism. (p. 102)

Does this mean that anything goes in the earlier stages? The absence of a human before this period doesn’t mean that we are free to do anything – Corcoran makes this point, and I agree. But it does mean that the issue is different than in abortion. We are discussing potential, not actual human persons or human animals (Corcoran would say personhood comes later still).

If one holds that in vitro fertilization is wrong – always, then the issue of where to go with this discussion will never come up. A human will exist before any decision is made. The moral error is in messing with the process in the first place.

Reproductive technologies, especially in vitro fertilization, raise the question to a new level. I don’t have space here to work through all of the various scenarios and arguments. I intend to come back to more of them in the future. Lets just look at a few points.

First – we argue from potential. Arguments from potential are not easy to defend. Certainly the potential contained in the DNA is not enough. Humans are more than information and identical twins are distinct individuals. Separated cells in early stages can develop into separate individuals. Does this mean that there is the same obligation to one stem cell  as to the original embryo? And then we get into the issue of contraception … and even marriage. When is potential enough to direct the moral argument?

Second – there are several different questions involved. On the stem cell question Corcoran concludes that producing embryos for research is not morally permissible, using embryos to be discarded may be morally permissible, and preimplantation genetic analysis, even for terrible diseases, is morally problematic. The way to cure disease is not to destroy the diseased.

Of course many couples have made a choice to have no children rather than to take the chance of passing on a devastating disease. Is this any different than implanting only unaffected embryos in an IVF process? Both decisions cure disease by avoiding bringing the diseased into existence.

Third – metaphysics doesn’t provide the answers. With respect to stem cell research, the arguments are not grounded in the existence of a human individual, a human person, or a human animal. These conclusions are no different or need be no different if one takes a materialist view, such as Corcoran’s constitution view, or a dualist view. Metaphysics of humans persons is not enough to provide a definitive answer.

Fourth – there is great potential in stem cell research for the treatment of disease. We should  note that those (or the vast majority of those) involved in stem cell research are trying to cure disease and develop ways to understand and cure disease. Healing is a kingdom activity. We can disagree with the method and we must discuss moral and ethical ramifications – but it won’t do to vilify those who argue opposing views. Nor does it make any sense to shout them down without hearing them out.

Well I am sure that at least some of you have thought about this much more carefully than I have. Lets start a discussion.

What do you think?

Is IVF wrong?

Is stem cell research morally permissible? If so when and why?

If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]

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