Disagreeing With Michael J. Fox

Furious Thinkers from both sides of the Liffey are writing quirky brilliance these days. Visit D4 resident Teragram and her amazing Belle and Sebastian revelations. Then cross the river to the real Dublin and see how much of an insane genius that quiet guy with the shaggy beard at the back of the room is. Jimlad– a man who improves the web.

One of the other Irish bloggers who I enjoy a great deal is Planet Potato. Unlike Teragram and Jimlad, Spud would never get into our collective because he hasn’t yet been washed in the blood of the lamb, the sinless Saviour of humanity, the only Begotten Son, Very Man and Very God, the Lord Jesus Christ. I hear he is scheduled to have a consultation in August though. But over the weekend he made a post on embryonic stem cells that made my blood boil and my temples pulsate with that hallmark of the furious thought. As I get better at this blogging/journal thing I realise the only motivation for a post is pure anger at something someone else has said. Sputtering rage of an arrogant nature is what Blogger and Diaryland and all the rest of them are making their money off.

What Potato says is that the only objection to embryonic stem cell research is a religious objection. Although I am in many ways the least religious person you’re likely to meet, I understand by what Potato means is that Christians are the doomsayers holding up the embryonic cure-train. According to Ireland’s second smartest hillwalker, the “chilling effect of religious intrusion” leaves Michael J. Fox and millions like him, languishing in the purgatory of early-onset Parkinsons.

Opposition to embryonic stem cell research is universal amongst Christians of all persuasions but is not exclusively (or even majorly) the domain of the God-botherers. People with worldviews that run the whole range from secular humanist to Islamic fundamentalist (they can be oddly similar, sort of like Communists and Fascists) oppose embryonic stem cell research out of ethical concerns. The ethical issue is whether or not an embryo should be afforded human rights. In Ireland, the large majority of people are not Christians (in practice or belief) and the large majority oppose abortion because they have serious and thought-through doubts about the ethical implications of terminating pregnancies.

To simplify a debate as momentous as stem cell research into the camp of progressive, intelligent secularists and their opponents, the Luddite, ignorant religious fanatics is to make any serious debate impossible. Until someone can show concerned secularists and Christians, agnostics and Buddhists, and whoever else, that embryos are not worthy of human rights, then the ethical risks (regardless of the metanarrative one subscribes to) of embryonic stem cell research are simply too great. We cannot kill some life (potential life) in the hope of treating other lives.

Finally, how great are menstrual cups? One of the great questions of our time, that has now been left unanswered (again) but tangentially touched upon by the amazing Babette.

Your Correspondent, A supposedly fun guy you’ll never see again

12 Responses to “Disagreeing With Michael J. Fox”

  1. potato says:

    I only got as far as “In Ireland, the large majority of people are not Christians ” but then my head exploded in confusion 🙂 Will give more consideration after I finish eating my cheese sandwich.

  2. lucas says:

    Well lets start the debate then, given that now we’ve agreed parameters!

    Myself I’m in favour of the research. To me embryos seem like a very small cluster of cells that in no way resemble the qualities which pertain to humans. (Tolerate my definition of what it is to be human for one moment please: there is no neutral terminology!). I mean take any human (baby or adult) and compare with an embryo (the kind of embryos that scientists are interested in for stem cells, they are very, very young), the embryo has no nervous system, no heart, no brain, no organs of any kind whatsoever. Moreover, dualistic philosophical conundrums aside, in having no brain, it is completely reasonable to consider that in no sense is the embryo conscious.

    So to me it just looks that those two kinds of entity are fundamentally different, to me the only commonality is that they are multicellular lifeforms, which albeit possess the same genetic code. Yet that they share the same genetic code is not sufficient to establish a necessary identity between the two. Since identical twins, though different individual persons, possess the same genetic code. Therefore it is possible to share the same genetic code and be completely different entities, such that no common ethical approach must in principle be taken towards them (embryos and people). To me, an embryo is just a thing, a person a person.

    I’m open to persuasion, it’s just that what I’ve said now appears to me to be the most reasonable position.

    Partly through cowardice, I will completely leave aside the question of when an embryo becomes a human person, because it’s very hard indeed. Yet I am not content with the pro-life definition, that it begins at contraception, since from a non-pro-life point of view it has the possibility of being viewed as an equally intellectually cowardly act in that it would be an arbitrary consideration that set it at that point (conception) for no other reason than that it could not be set earlier (self-evidently, it would be completely untenable to consider that ova and sperm in some way constitute human life for various reasons, one of them being that they lack the necessary number of chromosomes for human life. Now, although I have said that genetics is not sufficient for a definition of human life, I do yet consider it to be a necessary condition, but as only one necessary condition.)

    I mean that if the only argument for a definition of life saying that it begins at conception (and I know its not the only one) is by reasoning: “well we’re not to sure about when life begins, so let’s play it safe. We’ll put it just short of the slipery precipice that leads to ludicracy”. By analogy this would be like if at the time when fire was just about to be invented, and someone interjected between the inventor’s two stones and spoke thus: (this isn’t likely to be a very realistic modelling of that moment) “hey this fire thing could burn down the whole world, and where would we be then? Let’s play it safe, and be assured of our cold and bleak survival. For a cold and bleak survival is better than none at all.”

    Likewise, from the non-pro-life point of view, pro-life considerations can smack of this ludditism, in that meak (religiously) browbeaten people would cowardly deny the oportunity to alleviate the suffering of countless people, those who are our parents, siblings, friends and so on.

  3. zoomtard says:

    Having not the inclination nor the faculties at this late night to digest the depth of your response (I’ll do that over coffee tomorrow morning), I can’t take you on wholesale Lucas. But a question for you and Potato is this- how realistic is the idea that browbeaten people (religious or irreligious) would seek to hinder the development of cures for very common, very visible, very painful illnesses without real ethical concerns about the methodologies being used?

    See, my point, admitedly late night point, is that I am the one (as the reformed Christian) who is meant to believe in the depravity of human beings and yet even I can’t bring myself to stomach the harsh view of people that is extended implicitly in the “They don’t care to help the suffering” argument. 😉

  4. zoomtard says:

    From a reductionist viewpoint, evolutionarily speaking, there is simply no way to demarcate the beginning of a life. Across the vast sprawl of our genetic history, birth is as arbitrary as conception which is as arbitrary as our father’s birth or our grandmother’s first ice-cream. Time and evolution is analogue. It does not atomise for us.

    So the reason that many people think that conception is a good marker consists in an evaluation that considers more than science. At conception, a potentiality that did not previously exist, comes into being, such that should nothing interfere, a human life is the inevitable outcome.

    If you spy an embryo at a certain point, let’s call that time t, it will be as you described- a cluster of cells smaller than your nail clippings. But at a very small interval t+1, you will see a radically different prospect before you. By the time abortion happens at t+x, it is more than likely that the form of humanity, including the brain, will now be evident.

    Now I realise that at t, where embryonic stem cell research takes place, maybe 12 days after conception, we have a cluster of cells alone. The fact remains that left in a stable womb that will become a thinking, feeling, laughing, verbal human.

    Now my response to your fire analogy is two fold:
    The first is that while all life-beginning markers are scientifically arbitrary, conception has a logical advangtage in that it is a point that marks a substantial change (ovum + sperm = something brand new) and so doesn’t face the moral repugnation of birth as a life starting point or the ambiguities of somewhere in between conception and birth that can’t be defined.

    The second is that the pro-life movement is not concerned with maintaining existence, even at the cost of a cold and hard life. It is the opposite. Pro-life ultimately argues that humanity is so worthy and each life so precious that existence itself should not be secured through repellant methods. There is a kind of existence that can’t be described as life, pro-lifers would say. Existence that rests on the back of millions of deaths would be one such mode.

  5. lucas says:

    Please don’t misunderstand me (if any exists) and think that I don’t recognise the ethical genuineness of the pro-life side. The stakes are indeed very high, since, if one actually thinks that life begins at conception, then it is a very serious matter indeed that embryos (or rather people) would be treated as mere things, and used for spare parts.

    Moreover I can fully accept your logic and recognise the validity of your point in saying that we cannot promote a view of ‘life’ based on the alleviation of suffering of an arbitrary selection of human beings, which necessarily causes the untold suffering of murdered millions of others.

    I understand this, and can see the perfect reasonableness in it.

    But this view rests on a fundamental supposition, and we all know what it is: that embryos are people. And as I have not been satisfied by your rebuttal, nor your counter argument, I still do think that this basic premise, which is the fulcrum of all the ethical reasoning contained above, is wrong. As such, the ethical reasoning above, though understandable and internally consistent, would be wrong.

    However, remember (maybe you don’t need to), nobody in this debate, including myself, wants to be party to murder, neither in practice nor in intellectual justification. And so because of this, I’m quite receptive to being proved wrong.

    But nonetheless, let me spell out my justification for maintaining my original standpoint.

    You considered my fire analogy, but it seems you didn’t square up to the point that I made. That though conception is indeed a substantial change, it is not at all evident that it is the start of human life. Rather it seems clear that you still assented to the view that it is merely the safest moment to award to the embryo the status of personhood. It does not seem that you have in any way tackled my comment that this is a woefully insufficient criterion to accord personhood. The reason for this is spelt out in my fire analogy, and there is no need to repeat it.

    Your second consideration of my fire analogy would seem to be based on the granted supposition that embryos are humans and as such my talk about survival and life is itself bleak and cold in that it would murder many millions and possibly more. But I think I have already addressed this in the ‘preamble’ above.

    As to your argument that if that ‘mere’ cluster of cells is left be, it will develop into a person, this I think I can convincingly handle. It seems to me that you are implicitly arguing that a person will, given time and non-intervention, develop from an embryo such that that person has an ‘identity’ with that embryo. What I mean by identity is that the embryo and person consequential to the development to the embryo would be the same entity. As in, if the person looked at ultrasound pictures of their embryonic state, they would have to say; ‘that’s me!’ The non-pro-life person would necessarily be committed to saying ‘that’s not me.’ As such it seems that the ethical status awarded to the embryo would be read into it retrospectively from the undoubted personhood of the post natal entity.

    The argument then would be that by virtue of the self-sufficient nature of the embryo, which if left alone would unfailingly develop into a person, (again please tolerate my terminology: there is no neutral one) shows that this self-sufficiency is a sufficient criterion to consider the embryo to literally be the person it will develop into.

    As is, the conclusion is not necessary. You seem to have argued: ‘since every post-natal entity must have once been a self-sufficient embryo, it therefore follows that the post-natal entity is that self-sufficient embryo’. The conclusion just does not follow from the premises. In purer logic it would be: let A be a ‘self-sufficient’ embryo, and let B be a post-natal entity; your argument would then be: ‘B implies A, therefore B = A’. This is logically invalid. It is indeed true that B implies A, but it does not follow from this that B is A.

    It is certainly a necessary condition of a person’s existence that they would have developed from an embryo, but the point in contention is as to whether this is a sufficient condition for the personhood of a person, that they were once an embryo. Your argument in no way proves that this is the case.

  6. zoomtard says:

    I fully accept that:
    1. B->A
    2. B!=A

    But my argument is not that post-natal entities are the embryonic entity. Rather, my argument is that left in the state that which can be described as “natural” (that is, a stable womb) the embryonic entity inevitably becomes a post-natal, self aware human. Obviously an ovum on its own or a sperm on its on in their respective natural environments do not produce such an inevitability.

    There are other more detailed flaws in your fire analogy. The primary problem for you is that embryonic stem cell research and the human generation of fire are not analogous. Generation of fire is a basic domestication of a naturally occuring force. With embryonic stem cell research we are implementing adaptation utterly different in like and degree to the sparks generated by two stones over dried wood.

    To explicate, fire occurs naturally and we tame it. Tailored embryonic stem cell adaptation in the mode that we are discussing does not happen naturally (hence the initial Planet Potato debate about the potential futility of altering the “natural” behaviour of adult stem cells). It is lunacy to fear that the whole world could burn down from a fire. It is not lunacy to fear that the genetic database (for want of a more technical term) would be weakened by experimentation we are engaged in.

  7. lucas says:

    Just a point of clarification, I shouldn’t have used the expression ‘post-natal entity’ since it implied that the entity before birth would not be human. My actual position is that from conception to birth, in a fuzzy in betweenness, the embryo becomes human, and this well before birth.

    I would ask you to clarify what you mean where you write: ‘my argument is not that post-natal entities are the embryonic entity’.

    In this you seem to have recanted from your pro-life position. For it seems clear me that the fundamental thesis of a pro-life perspective is that the person which is born and existed before birth came into existence at conception. The embryo would then be the person it develops into. This is the way in which embryos are normally understood to have human rights. There does not seem any feasible alternative to this argument.

    If this is not the case and yet you still want to protect the embryo, you would have to do so not under the title of ‘human rights’ but rather ’embryo rights’. As such you would have to argue on independent grounds as to why ’embryo rights’ should be the same as ‘human rights’ -grounds which have not in any way been provided. I will leave this point hang until you clarify your position.

    Furthermore, I still think that your argument ultimately rests on the reasoning I identified before. For you have said that in its natural environment the embryo will inevitably develop into a self-aware person, and (presumably) therefore the embryo is that person it later grows into. The conclusion that I’ve tagged on seems implicit from the context, why else would you have stated the premises?

    There seems to be two ways to analyse your argument, one of which is new: 1. that you have argued that since an embryo if left alone CAN grow into a person, it therefore SHOULD be left alone. You have not in anyway whatsoever provided an argument as to why it should be left alone. As such I am, and everyone else is as well, under no obligation to take on board your view, because it is completely unargued.

    Again 2. If it is the case that you do think that human life begins at conception, then your argument as you have presented does have the form that I’m about to outline. You would then say: ‘since it is a precondition for my own existence that a self-sufficient embryo existed, it therefore follows that it is a sufficient condition for my existence that that self-sufficient embryo existed’. This is clearly an invalid argument. It would be like saying that since a necessary pre-condition of my present existence is that my father exists/existed, it therefore follows that it is a sufficient condition of my existence that my father exists/existed (i.e. my father exists/existed implies that I must exist. Not necessarily).

    As to your problem with my fire analogy, I’m not entirely sure about the point you’re driving at. It seems that you have brought in the kind of concern which is normally expressed about G.M. crops. This is a new perspective in this debate. However it doesn’t seem to be a point that has been given the justice that might be due to it. As such I might more productively use up space on the other important point raised.

    Your argument against my analogy seems to be that whereas fire is ‘natural’ and therefore it’s okay for it to be used for us, stem cell research isn’t ‘natural’ and therefore it’s not okay for us to use it. This to me appears unargued. You really haven’t given any reason to support your distinction. Therefore, again, I’m under no compulsion to accept your assertion.

    So, overall then, in that same way that non-pro-life people have a duty to be receptive to refutation, likewise pro-life people would also have a duty to be receptive to refutation. For if it really is the case that embryos are not people, and that this research isn’t allowed, then lots of people will suffer and die needlessly. That would be a horrible eventuality. And indeed, it should have to be quite a blot on a person’s conscience for them to knowingly tolerate an obduracy in this matter.

  8. jimlad says:

    jimlad sidles closer wondering what on earth could be keeping these two minds so occupied, AND HORRIFIED, FINDS HIMSELF IN A SOUP OF ARGUMENTS WITH A WHIRLPOOL IN THE MIDDLE! NOO! I’M BEING SUCKED IN! QUICKLY. MUST GET AWAY. AAARGH!

    phew. I really think it might be easier if you tossed a coin to see who is right.

  9. zoomtard says:

    Lucas, lets cut through the crap. I could present the finest argument ever seen and you are under no compulsion to accept it. It is not sheer rationale that is guiding your position to not support pro-life. If you were, you’d have no time for this fuzzy life beginning argument. Being intentional fuzzy on the point of the whole discussion (a discussion literally about life and death) doesn’t make a strong position from which to convince me.

    I sought to agree with your assertion that Lucas, the “post-natal entity” would look back on a cluster of cells making up the first stage of embryo and not sense an identification. However, it is impossible to think about your life without acknowledging that you were that embryo. All that is you that can be tangebly expressed (and in my belief system that which cannot be so expressed) was contained inside the strands of those cells. Does this re-establish my pro-life orthodoxy sufficiently? 😉

    My reasoning to challenge your 1. Paragraph is a tough one to explain in this context. My cornerstone is in the musical poetry of King David of Israel, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”. But such Evangelical arguments won’t work with you!

    Maybe I would find more Lucas-friendly support from the likes of Levinas. Regardless of your theistic commitment, life must be seen as good to a degree beyond other goods since it is the neccessary condition for all virtue to prosper. From the Christian persepctive, all virtue is an instantiation of love. We must be alive to do love. Love is the one thing that won’t pass away, therefore life is to be valued, treasured even, sought after and maintained.

    When the zygote is fused, a life that was never likely to exist (mathetmatically speaking) now becomes close to certainty, all things being equal. This potentiality is so huge as to be staggering. It is a significant (even instinctive) marking point because of the substantial change the universe (and the lives of the parent) has just enjoyed.

    That zygote shouldn’t just be left alone but should be nurtured to maturity (birth and onwards to emotional, intellecutal and physical adulthood) because life is a good thing. I feel a Sheryl Crow song coming on here…

    As for Paragraph 2., breast augmentation is a form of cosmetic adjustment that is not natural. Losing weight is an example of cosmetic adjustment that is natural. In the “natural” course of things, weight fluctuates. Breast size doesn’t (to such a degree). In the natural course of things, fire starts. In the natural course of things (CRUCIALLY for my arugment) adult stem cells have changed from their embryonic state. But embryonic stem cells are never tweaked. Left to their own devices they form certain types of adult stem cells. Adapting the adult stem cell is a perpetuation of a natural event, much like increased excercise is a perpetuation of the natural weight loss event. But modifying stem cells in their embryonic state to create formulations that are not seen occuring in the unintruding genetic universe is a new thing. This new thing is risky in the extreme, as GM Foods are.

    Risky doesn’t mean bound to tragic failure. It means that there is considerable ambiguity over whether or not this action will cause serious side-effects. To dismiss this concern is to dedicate your argument to ultimate failure because the millions of people out there know that some reservations in this new horizon of research is not just Luddite hesitation but simple wisdom.

    As a final aside:
    People dying and suffering from disease is not needless. This is clumsy language of the worst kind, all the more so for its commonality. Life has to end and if it ends naturally then all is well with the world. Natural ends are sometimes painful and all ends involve suffering (again not just physical but emotional and intellectual too) but death by alzheimers, as much as I dread it, is a natural death. I have no right nor possibility of avoiding death and life, was it Sartre who said it, is suffering. Maybe it was Gorbachev mis-quoting Sartre. Anyway, pursuing a life that transcends our natural context and overcomes the 2nd greatest force in the universe (death) 😉 is futile. Death has to happen. I, like one of my heroes, John Paul II would prefer to die painfully than accept a treatment where there is a risk that I am profiting literally, off the death of another person.

  10. jimlad says:

    When a young person dies part of the shock is that of the lost potential of their life. They never got a chance to do such and such. At what age does a person become old enough that this factor is irrelevant? I suppose that the factor never goes away but simply decreases fuzzily. A person who is older will always have more to offer and do in life, but the largest shock in this case is of people missing a person they had grown to know very well over the years.

    Just because we don’t know someone does not make it all right to kill them. Part of the loss of death is the potential of their life. The most potential lies at the start of life, before our DNA has developed into a human form. Loss of potential life is bad. If it weren’t, why do people acknowledge this as a poignent factor in the death of a young person? In the case of a destroyed embryo, there is no element of losing a person we know. We cannot however remove the factor of that embryo’s potential.

    In war, soldiers may be trained to not see the person they are shooting as someone with a wife, kids, name, life-story etc. In the case of an embryo that knowledge is automatically removed, but a persons life is not validated by our knowledge of them. That we don’t know anything about what sort of consciousness an embryo may develop does not justify its destruction. What I am saying is that the embryo’s right to live is not the only thing to consider. Consider instead that WE do not have the right to decide its right to live partly since we have insufficient knowledge. That last sentence has to be a human rights argument rather than simply an embryo rights argument since it concerns our own rights as humans.

    That’s my uneducated input. I hope that if it is silly you will not simply nudge and laugh and say, “ah that jimlad. he is very silly isn’t he? Let’s go and laugh about him over a beer. At least he gives us something to laugh about in this morbid existance that we refer to as life. I need a beer.” but will also educate me.

  11. zoomtard says:

    How about we just go for a beer instead? And laugh at all the dead people who have no potential left.

  12. jimlad says:

    Sure! By the way, did you notice I used the word ‘poignent’? I was hoping you’d notice that. Its an intelligent word. I learned that in the Leaving Cert.