May 22, 2008
By Thom Brooks
Recently, British MP’s voted to allow the creation of hybrid embryos for medical research. These embryos would be 99.9% “human” but 0.1% “cow” or “rabbit” — the animal element is simply the use of animal eggs, from which animal DNA is extracted, human DNA implanted, the “hybrid” embryo is then given an electric shock, and then stem cells harvested for use in research. All matter must be destroyed within 14 days. (Q&A on hybrid embryos can be found here.)
This move has been highly controversial for several reasons. Some of these reasons include the following:
1. It is morally wrong to mix human and animal DNA in this way.
This first reason is perhaps the primary reason behind opposition to this legislation. There are several problems with this argument.
First, what do we mean by “morally wrong”? It is easy to claim a position is “morally wrong”; it is difficult to prove a position is morally wrong in a compelling way. That is, deontologists and consequentialists can agree on many ethical issues, but they will not agree on all ethical issues. Who then decides? We would have to see the best arguments on both sides in order to see which view should prevail. It is no use to say that x is “morally wrong” without a full account of morality, not least as there are many different camps and what is wrong (and right) is not self evident.
Secondly, that a view is morally wrong may be insufficient to demonstrate that the view should not be adopted politically. Politics is not reducible to morality, even if we may be tempted to believe that politics should aspire to embodying certain moral norms. Thus, again, some argue that politics and morality should be strongly interconnected and that one view of a religious tradition should be the source of this morality. This religious view will take a stand on what is morally wrong and, yet, many may reasonably object as they may hold different religious views (or no religious views) with reasonable views on moral wrongness nevertheless. That a view contrasts sharply with common understandings of justice may be an important reason to disapprove politically of a practice, but it is one reason amongst many others.
2. This move justifies a controversial position that has little proven benefit.
Opponents claim that proponents are reaching to the stars too hastily and that the latter talk often and loudly about the many dramatic scientific advances that will become possible without demonstrating that these advances are likely. In response, we might say simply that there does not seem compelling reasons to think that greater research on stem cells would not lead to benefits. Perhaps the benefits will come in small steps over a longer than anticipated time. But why think no benefits will come at all?
In the end, I am broadly supportive of this legislation. I do not see any problems morally and believe it may well be an excellent decision politically, not least as it offers a genuine endorsement of the work by medical scientists at the country’s universities to carry on pioneering work at Newcastle’s medical school and others. It will now be interesting to see what advances do come about . . .
Needless to say, I would be very interested to learn what readers think.