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Just a Piece of Property?

On embryonic stem cell research.

by James Leroy Wilson
August 8, 2001

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Just a Piece of Property?_James Leroy Wilson-On embryonic stem cell research. In the ethical debate on federal funding of research on the stem cells of human embryos, we have all too often been asking the wrong questions, the same wrong questions we ask on the moral status of the fetus. Religious pro-lifers invoke this or that passage from their holy books about the soul and human life, and philosophers may ask whether the fetus or embryo is a "person" and explore the meaning of "personhood."

Such arguments are irrelevant. From a purely utilitarian point of view, the unborn are not persons in the only politically applicable definition: they are not members of civil society.

For to be a member of civil society, one must not only be alive, which means, in part, a consumer of resources, one must also exercise some independence and have the potential to produce wealth. That is, members of civil society not only use resources, they "give back" by contributing resources of their own. The fetus does not count because it is an entirely dependent creature, a consumer with the mother's womb that gives nothing back. The frozen embryo is lesser still, existing by consuming the energy resources laboratory's freezer, again giving nothing useful back to society.

Of course, by this reasoning other, visible, born human beings also would hardly qualify as members of civil society: the severely mentally handicapped of any age; senile old people drawing Social Security and Medicare; newborns; the terminally ill. In each case, resources are drawn, and the labor and care of others is required, with nothing in return. Infants have, at least, the potential to become full members of civil society; for the others that may be impossible.

I am not suggesting that government must only protect independently functioning persons and can treat other human life as property that can be used, altered, or destroyed for an individual's or society's convenience. Rather, I'm suggesting the opposite: if we treat human life, even an embryo, as a resource to be used and then destroyed, at what point does human life cease to be property?

That's what I find troubling. I am not pro-life, I am pro-freedom. And human freedom means that human life is not to be treated as the property of others. Once we start treating "non-person" human life as a means to utilitarian ends, we are on that "slippery slope."

I know that the slippery slope is a cliche term and perhaps not logically valid. But I view it like this: once a principle is violated for convenience or a "special case," a precedent has been set whereby that overturned principle can not then be invoked to stop others. Others cannot be condemned for violating the same principle we violated, nor can we honestly be shocked that others would take our precedents to extremes we did not imagine. The slippery slope is really the Law of Unintended Consequences.

The frozen embryo is two things: it is human, being of no other species, and it is living, not dead. It is human life. We can either be utilitarian or pro-freedom. We protect only those who on balance can benefit society, leaving it up to individuals, doctors, or the government to decide who else should live or die. Or, we protect all human life in law.

Any in-between stage at which the law should protect human life is completely arbitrary, and we are a proud race indeed if we presume to know at what point (birth? third trimester? In the womb? 70 IQ?) human life becomes worthy of our protection and not just property for our use.

You may disagree; many do. We ought to have the freedom not only to express our opinions, but to act on them through political action. The federal government, when properly limited to the powers vested in it by the Constitution, would not be facing such a moral dilemma. Protecting human life is a state, not federal, responsibility. If embryonic stem cell research is to be funded, let the people exercise their Tenth Amendment rights and let their states, or free markets, do it. So, too: if the embryo is to be protected by law, let that be a state, not federal, law. But if we allow the federal government to treat some human life as property to be used and destroyed, I'm not sure by what principle it wouldn't treat other human lives the same way.

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