Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Life science

William Saletan reviews the latest attempt by the tireless Robert P. George (and co-author Christopher Tollefsen) to defend human life against scientific efforts aimed at the relief of our estate (as Francis Bacon would put it).

Saletan poses some challenges to their case, which apparently relies almost exclusively on science to make the case for respecting our humanity from its earliest beginning. Here’s the nub of Saletan’s argument:

“The proper way to identify the nature of an organism,” they write, is “to look at it through time.” Each of us “comes into existence as a single-celled human organism and develops, if all goes well, into adulthood.” But in the big picture, the embryo isn’t a future adult. It is, as the authors acknowledge, a future corpse. And the program is far bigger. It doesn’t end at death, because it doesn’t run on one body. It runs on the network of humanity. In fact, it runs on the entire Internet of evolving species.

According to even a teleological science, in the end we’re all dead, providing food and fertilizer for our successors. Our humanity gains its significance, not from science, but either from our capacity for self-assertion (in which case, the argument against abortion or destructive embryonic stem cell research is at best merely a pragmatic one) or from our creatureliness. Because science can’t answer the biggest question, it can’t settle the dispute. And since we’re "doomed," so to speak, to be unable all to agree on the answer, the dispute will always be with us.

Properly understood, this gives no comfort to those who would privatize abortion decisions or deregulate embryonic stem cell research. Rather, it leaves us with the various political mechanismes for conducting our disagreements--legislation and constitutional amendment, above all.

Discussions - 16 Comments

While on my walk today, I listened to the Peter Schramm podcast interview with Allen Guelzo. It was interesting for many reasons, but in relation to this post, there was a bit that I am recalling just now. Guelzo relates the "choice" of the abortion debate being reduced to democracy to the democratic choice Stephen Douglas proposed for the states on the issue of slavery. Lincoln pressing the issue of "what is right" clearly did not persuade everyone.

In a similar way, abortion is such a convenient option, not just for women, but for irresponsible men, too. While science can't answer the question, ultimately, we are wrong to ask it to do so beyond what it has done. The ultrasound/sonogram is a great contribution of science affecting people's perception of what was always true, that when a woman has a viable pregnancy, there is somebody moving and living in that womb.

Many pro-choicers tell me that if it came to a vote, say in a popular referendum, almost all of America would still be in favor of legal abortion. I am afraid they might be correct in that. Don't you just wonder what it will take for people to come to the conclusion that the right is not right? Science can show us that there is someone alive and moving in the womb, but it cannot get anyone to believe that that bit of humanity is important. Maybe the democratic process can't, either.

Is it true that George and Lee rely on "science" to make their case, or is it more properly "reason" that employs scientific "facts" in its service? I'm not sure I quite grasp why the fact (is that a scientific fact?) that we die makes much of a difference in the debate? It seems more important that we are the sorts of creatures who understand that we'll die, care about that fact, and indeed can reason about it. I'm just puzzled by the critique, that's all...


I think you're right. Saletan seems to want to leave it at a "science" that says, no only do we die, but we're jsut part of a larger system, to which our deaths contribute as well as our lives. We might call his position something like "teleological materialism."

But where do the telos and the cosmos come from?

And that is the real question.

It seems to me that the issue is always the point of ensoulment. Materialist biology tends toward the survival of the species, but is impersonal and often cruel. Folks in the George camp must claim preemptive prudence, and insist that we must treat the embryo as already-ensouled, when we simply can't know that, and seem to have many materialist grounds for thinking that unlikely. A unique set of DNA is an interesting phenomenon, but an embryo doesn't have a shot at human growth and flourishing without the complicity of a woman, and it's not unsurprising that it's politically unpopular to put the alleged rights of the former on par with those of women who have fully-developed interests.

Well, even with a soul, a post-embryo (baby) doesn't have a shot at growth unless someone takes action to help (feed and care for example).

Come on, Fred.

I simply don't think that once someone boards the George train (admitting that a one- or eight-celled organism has human DNA) that one must ride it all the way into his station. I agree with Saletan: We should never create or destroy embryos lightly. We owe them our respect. We just don’t owe them the same respect we owe one another.


Because humans at their most earliest development don't appear human?

Also, if the newly formed organism, formed from human sperm and an human egg, isn't human, then what is it?

Lastly, if we don't owe them the same respect, then why should we not destroy them lightly?

This type of thinking is so full of holes it is ridiculous.

Dale, I'll admit that a few years ago I shared your absolutist view, but I no longer do. A willingness to draw distinctions and to embrace the subtlety this sort of casuistry demands need not equal an argument that's "full of holes," as you put it. I write this in the context of Joe Knippenberg's assertion that George's argument "leaves us with the various political mechanisms for conducting our disagreements--legislation and constitutional amendment, above all." I find the notion that a selective biological account inform constitutional law a misguided proposition. (And this is what George does when he overemphasizes the embryo's independent existence). It is very possible to respect the unique potentiality of an organism, and to allow that respect to guide action and still not to jump to the conclusion that we ought to be giving a human blastocyst the highest legal protection under the law. I would be willing to risk life and limb to rescue children from a burning day care center, but wouldn't be as willing to risk death or harm for a freezer full of frozen embryos, and I think there is something instructive in this moral intuition. I suspect that you would in fact act likewise.

Not even God saves every embryo. Nor does he save every child. But he is God and we are not.

Yet, Fred has a very good last point. The problem is in how to how to create a coherent moral stand while admitting life's ambiguities. Don't we start with some basic, like "Thou shalt not kill" and worry about circumstantials after that?

Anyway, having had a few miscarriages and currently trying to help a young mother through her latest in a long and emotionally painful series, even careful care does not always ensure a live child. It does bring home the idea of that continuity from blastocyst to born baby.

Speaking of moral ambiguity, what exactly is the human status of a frozen human embryo? When we move into the unnatural, thanks to science, we lose our moral footing. In a certain frame of mind, I might be persuaded that the burning of a freezer full of embryos could be an expression of the grace of God. Clones, the idea of clones, especially clones as harvest field for internal organs - horrible. Science might toss us into circumstances wherein we have no choice but to throw up our ethics in dismay and confusion.

So, the argument isn't about whether an embryo is a new human life, which it is, but it is about whether we accord the embryo the same basic right to life we give the born.

I would have to surmise that George subscribes to the idea that the location of the embryo is irrelevant (that's precisely why he wrote this book, I gather) so that the embryo in a freezer has the same moral status as one in a woman's womb.

Instead of throwing up our ethics in dismay and confusion, though, I think we've no choice but to try to weigh all the facts, to look at multiple perspectives, and to be careful about the interests we necessarily project onto embryos and fetal life (a miscarriage may be deeply grieved by one woman and interpreted as an "act of grace" by another if her pregnancy is unwanted). When it comes to legislating for the public square, it's best to be as transparent as possible about competing interests, and to muddle through as best we can, without using the law as a bludgeon to enforce a conclusion that was decided in advance.

Then is it impossible to make abortion illegal? The law expresses a morality. If there is no law against abortion, then there is a legal ambiguity that persuades to a moral ambiguity: a muddle, indeed. I would still be inclined to make abortion illegal.

Science no longer seems to seriously question that an embryo is a new human life. The embryos are in the freezer just for that purpose, to make people of them. Someone, on here maybe, argued that there should be granting of rights in a gradual way, as we do with children. Is that the way?

Forgive me. I am trying to work it out, Dale. I hate to think that my young friend (whose womb won't hold the embryos and fetuses she and her husband keep creating, hoping to bring one to term) could be considered guilty of creating life just to kill it. That is sure not their intent, but IS what happens.

And so goes the mess we have made for ourselves in this matter.

Are we Turkeys or humans?

This argument is used to muddy the waters, not to make it clear. Stick with human biology, Mr. Saletan, unless you think you can birth a turkey
from a human embryo.

Also, the only fatherless human birth that I know of happened over 2000 years ago.

Show me where it has happened again, Mr. Saletan, or anyone else for the matter.

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