Sunday, July 01, 2007

Stem Cells Endowed by Their Creator

As we approach the commemoration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, let's unpack the meaning of its second paragraph:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Rabbi Marc Gellman, writing in Newsweek online, discusses "Good and Bad Arguments" on the embryonic stem cell issue.

He opens with this needed challenge:
The way we discuss the big moral questions has got to change. We yell too much and listen too little, and demonize those with whom we merely disagree. We need to practice critical thinking that recognizes good and bad reasons for tough ethical issues. Let's practice some forced reasonableness today on the roiling debate over embryonic stem-cell research.
After dismissing arguments which he correctly labels "unwarranted antireligious prejudice," he is left with what he calls the only good argument on the issue:
  • A human embryo is not a bearer of moral rights until much later in its development.
In other words, human beings are not "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights" upon fertilization, but only later, at some "moral moment" when rights attach to a life. The Rabbi says that there are two lines of defense of this argument -- but they are really the same argument. First:
the essential moral moment for a human embryo is implantation into the uterine wall. The argument in support of this claim is that if nothing is done to an embryo in a dish, it will not grow to be a person, but if it is implanted, it will.
The second is really the same as the first:
neither the human embryo in a dish nor the fetus in a womb is a bearer of moral rights until birth or perhaps viability. The argument in support of this claim is that the ability to live outside a host body is an essential moral requirement to qualify for moral rights.
In 1983, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor pointed out that
As medical science becomes better able to provide for the separate existence of the fetus, the point of viability is moved further back toward conception. The Roe [v. Wade] framework, then, is clearly on a collision course with itself.
But if we define "viability" as the ability of a post-fertilized human being to survive "if nothing is done" by parents or society to keep the newly-created human being from dying of starvation or thirst, then killing 1-, 2-, or even 3-year-old infants can be justified, none of whom are "viable" "if nothing is done" to perpetuate their lives.

So when is it "OK" to kill another human being? When the killer deems the other person to be "a life not worth living?" What if a human being gives no objective indication that she wants to be killed by starvation or dehydration, and that human being's parents are willing to provide food, water, and necessary care: can the State declare such a human being to be "a life not worth living" and legally prohibit the parents from caring for their otherwise-"unviable" child?

Such a legal prohibition on care was the result in the case of Terri Schiavo, based on the desires of her killer.

Should we expand the powers of the government to take control in these decisions? Did the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution anticipate the government using legal force to prohibit parents from caring for their children, or taxing citizens to pay for the killing of lives "not worth living?"

Or was the purpose of "the government" to prevent killings in cases where a human being is unable to defend herself?

Those most likely to make the correct decision regarding the killing of "unviable" human beings are those
  • who understand with what rights the "unviable" have been "endowed by their Creator,"
  • who understand what rights "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them,"
  • who believe they are morally obligated to appeal "to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,"
  • and seek such answers "with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence."

This was the spirit in which the Declaration of Independence was written, and the spirit which made America the most prosperous and admired nation in history.

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