Princeton prof. attacks morality of embryonic stem cell research in SBTS lectures

Communications Staff — February 15, 2007

Embryonic stem cell research is fundamentally wrong because it destroys human beings who deserve moral respect, Princeton University professor Robert P. George said Feb. 8 in the Norton Lectures at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

George argued that stem cells may not be the cure-all that stem cell research advocates are proclaiming them to be.

“The fact that there’s been a lot of hyping going on and that embryonic stem cells probably will not prove to be the therapeutic miracle that they have been hyped to be isn’t fundamentally the reason we should be opposed to the use of those cells,” said George, who serves as McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton.

“The reason we should be opposed is a moral reason. [Embryonic stem cell research] involves, at least for now, the destruction of innocent human life to obtain the cells.”

The Norton Lectures are a series of addresses on science and philosophy in their relations to religion. The series was established in 1910 by a gift from George W. Norton II and an additional bequest from the will of his widow, Margaret McDonald (Muldoon) Norton.

George argued that advocates of embryonic stem cell research have obscured the fundamental issue in the current debate over the practice.

“If we were to contemplate killing mentally retarded infants to obtain transplantable organs, no one would characterize the controversy that would erupt as a debate about organ transplantation, now would they? The dispute would be about, rather, the ethics of killing retarded children to harvest their vital organs,” he said.

“By the same token, our contemporary debate is not about embryonic stem cell research. No one would object to the use of embryoic stem cells in biomedical research or elsewhere if they could be harvested without killing or harvesting the embryos from whom theye were obtained or if they could be obtained from embryos lost in miscarriages.”

George noted that the potential of embryonic stem cells to cure diseases has been greatly exaggerated, adding, “The difficulties that scientists hoping to work with these stem cells therapeutically face are profound.”

The two fundametal questions surrounding embryonic stem cell research concern the definition of a human being and the respect owed to embryos, he said.

An embryo must be regarded as a human being because the embryo is “a distinct and complete human organism in its earliest stage of development,” George said.

He argued that an embryo is as much a human as a person at any other stage of development such as adolescent, child or fetus. Even secular science books reject the idea that an embryo is not a distinct and complete human, he said.

“Those who say that the defense of the embryo as a human being constitues the imposition of religious teaching on other people are wildly off the mark,” George said. “It’s not the Bible or religious authority or the authority of the Christian tradition or the church that teaches us this—although the church, of course, reinforces the teaching. Rather it’s the accepted, validated, certified teachings … of human embryology and developmental biology.”

Embryos are worthy of moral respect because they have the capacity for “characteristically human mental functions,” he said.

Though embryos cannot immediately exercise their capacity for human mental functions, the qualities that will develop into normal human mental functions set embryos apart from all other species, George said. If a person has to exercise his capacity for mental functions in order to receive respect, then sleeping people and those in comas are not worthy of moral respect, he observed.

If embryos may be destroyed for scientific research, then it follows that scientists should be able to destroy infants as well because infants also lack the ability to exercise their capacity for mental functions, George said.

“If human embryos may legitimately be destroyed to advance biomedical science, then it follows logically that, subject to parental approval, the body parts of human infants should be fair game for scientific experimentation,” he said.

George also noted that humans cannot be worthy of moral respect only because of the ability to exercise reason. If that were the case, all humans would not be worthy of equal respect because some people are more rational than others, he said.

“The proposition that all human beings are created equal would be relegated to the status of a myth since some people are more rational than others,” he said.

George concluded that all humans “are intrinsically and equally valuable from the point at which they come into being.”

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