It remains to apply the reasoning of the morality of abortion to three other reproductive technologies: embryonic stem cell research, genetic testing, and human cloning. Are there ever morally appropriate uses of these technologies? I believe so in one case, and not in the other two cases. Let me explain why.
Reasoning Applied to Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Last week’s argument concerning the morality of in vitro fertilization also applies to embryonic stem cell research—the practice of taking stem cells from an embryo for experimentation and treatment of other persons. The removal of stem cells ends the life of the embryo. Given that the embryo is a (very, very small) person, this practice is the taking of innocent life and therefore morally wrong.
Counter arguments are made based on the utility of the embryonic stem cells—that they have the potential to help us cure many diseases. However, this is irrelevant if it is at the cost of another person’s life. This is no different than the Nazis saying, “We have determined Jews are not persons, and by using them in research we are able to learn much that will advance medical practice.” Such was the work of Josef Mengele, the German SS officer and physician who carried out experiments in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Mengele was hunted for crimes against humanity until (and even after) his death. If embryos are persons, it matters little that they are much smaller than the Jewish patients of Mengele. Experimentation on human persons against their will, especially experimentation leading to death, is morally reprehensible.
Reasoning Applied to Genetic Testing
A third related biomedical procedure, which raises moral concerns if the embryo is a person, is the practice of genetic testing. These are prenatal tests that can be done in order to determine whether the baby in utero has genetic abnormalities that may, or in fact will lead to conditions such as Down’s syndrome. These include tests such as the Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS) test and amniocentesis, which is a standard test for mothers past their mid thirties. If these tests return positive results for abnormalities, termination of the pregnancy is encouraged. Some tests may even be conducted to determine the sex of a child, and if not the desired sex, the pregnancy is terminated.
For the same reasons as above, such prenatal testing in order to determine whether or not to abort the child is morally problematic. It amounts to determining that a child with a certain handicap, or of a certain sex, is less valuable and worthy of life than another. This again amounts to the taking of innocent life. There is little debate that it is wrong to kill a child (or adult) on the basis of their handicap or sex. Given the evidence that pre-born babies are equally persons, the same moral considerations apply to them at this point in their young lives, regardless of where they happen to currently live.
So are prenatal genetic tests ever morally permissible? I believe they are. The key factor is the purpose of the testing. As stated above, if the purpose is to decide whether or not to abort, then no. But if the reason (and only reason) is for the parents to know how best to prepare and care well for their child, then yes. For instance, by knowing a child will have a certain handicap, the parents may be able to make arrangements to best accomodate the child once she or he is born (for instance, obtaining medical equipment that may be needed in the baby’s room or taking classes to better understand how to care for his or her special needs).
Reasoning Applied to Human Cloning
A final, emerging, and related biomedical technology is human cloning—artificially reproducing a person with the exact same genetic constitution as the “original” person. Cloning technology is advancing at a breathtaking speed, and this will increasingly be a viable and affordable option in most of our lifetimes. But is it a moral option? I think not. Given what I’ve argued about the nature and origin of human life, there do not seem to be any morally justified reasons to pursue this technology.
One justification offered for this technology is the ability to produce embryos for research. Similar to the issues related to IVF, it is never morally justified to conduct experimentation on persons against their will and leading to their death.
Another reason some argue cloning is acceptable is the result of providing a source of organs and tissues with the same DNA in case a child needs a transplant or other surgery. But this treats the cloned person as of only instrumental value—only valuable in as far as she or he can keep another person (sibling) alive. This denies the intrinsic value of the cloned child, and treats him or her as a means to an end. In biblical terms this denies the cloned child bears the Imago Dei—the image of God—and is thus intrinsically valuable and worthy of life, respect, and protection.
Similarly, some argue for cloning of a child to “replace” a child who has died. Again, this treats the cloned child as a means to an end, rather than an intrinsically valuable person himself/herself. There are simply no morally justifiable reasons to utilize this technology, no matter how convenient, affordable, or prevalent it becomes.
Summary and Conclusion
It is clear that medical technology generates many opportunities, and along with them, many challenging ethical issues. I once participated on a panel discussing these topics in Wisconsin. Another person on the panel made the argument that “Technology is a cultural good, so if we can do something, we should do it. Advances in medical technology allow us the options such as IVF and cloning. Therefore it is moral to use all these technologies in all possible ways.” I responded that it is never correct to say that just because something can be done that it should be done. Every law on the books shows the fallacy of this thinking—these laws confirm that something can be done, but nonetheless should not be done (and if done, should be punished).
Rather, we must think clearly about these issues, make proper moral choices ourselves, and help the broader culture think well about these issues so that decisions are made the promote human flourishing and the common good. I’ve attempted to offer ways to think about these issues in this series. I’ve given reasons to understand when life begins—when a distinct human soul comes to be. I’ve argued that it is most reasonable, on theological, biological, and philosophical grounds, to believe this occurs at conception. Thus, from the moment of conception an embryo has inherent dignity and worth, and must be treated as intrinsically valuable and worthy of protection. As a result, abortion and a number of other biomedical technologies are immoral, or only moral within certain limits.
As we engage in conversations on these topics with others (in the “public square”), let us remember to keep the main issue the main issue—whether the embryo or fetus is a person. Only by sidestepping this issue and assuming, without argument, that the embryo of fetus is nothing more than part of the mother, like a kidney or liver, can the morality of abortion or these other technologies be justified.
Let us also always engage others in this conversation with gentleness and respect. They too are God’s image bearers, worthy of our deepest honor and care, even while disagreeing.
Until next week, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics by J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae, and Moreland’s The Soul: How We Know It Is Real and Why It Matters.
For a more detailed defense of biological essentialism see my “In Defense of Biological Essentialism: A Reply to Sober et al” in Philosophia Christi, vol. IV, no 1: 29-44, 2002 (an offprint is available from me by request).
For more on how to engage these and other topics winsomely in the public square, see Tim Muehlhoff’s, I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love.