Stem Cells, Cannibalism, and the Wisdom of George W. Bush

Having posted an explanation for Bernie Madoff's crimes last week, I thought I'd continue in my role of devil's advocate by taking President Obama's announcement of the new government policy on embryonic stem cell research as an opportunity to reflect on the wisdom, such as it was, of the prior policy of President G.W. Bush. Just a month before 9/11 transformed his Presidency, Bush's August 2001 speech on stem cell research was billed by the White House as a watershed moment, one that would show the seemingly callow President to be a Marcus Aurelius of the 21st century, as he wrestled with a great ethical challenge of the day.

Bush began by describing his process of consultation with the great minds of science and philosophy. He then boiled down the issue to two questions:
First, are these frozen embryos human life and therefore something precious to be protected? And second, if they're going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn't they be used for a greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?
The Philosopher-in-Chief did not expressly provide anything purporting to be an answer to either question. Instead, like a Zen master, he "unasked" the question. Because there were, in Bush's account, 60 existing stem cell lines already, he would permit stem cell research on these lines, but not on other embryos. I must confess that my first reaction to this announcement was "that's ridiculous. Why should the morally significant moment be the date when Bush gives his speech?" On further reflection, I came to see that line as potentially defensible if one accepts certain assumptions.

I'll explain what made sense about the Bush approach with a parable. Suppose that Alice is the chief of of a remote tribal society of cannibals. Tribal members eat the dead bodies--as smoked and cured "people jerky"--of their fellow tribal members as well as the dead bodies of those of their enemies they manage to kill, either for the specific purpose of eating them or those that they kill for other reasons. One day, a visitor from the developed world arrives by airplane in the domain of Alice's tribe. Regarding the visitor as a god, Alice decrees that he is to be revered rather than eaten. The visitor tells Alice and the other members of the tribe that cannibalism is unethical. The tribal members are at first dismissive of the idea but over time it gains adherents. The visitor leaves but now there is much debate among the tribe about whether to continue as cannibals or to find new food sources. They settle these things as they settle all divisive matters: Alice consults with the tribal elders and renders a judgment. She decrees that henceforth there shall be no more cannibalism---except that tribal members can eat the already-smoked-and-cured stocks of people jerky they possess.

Is that a sensible resolution of the issue? Why permit eating existing people jerky but forbid tribe members from smoking, curing and eating the bodies of people who died of natural causes or tribal enemies killed in battles that were fought for reasons having nothing to do with cannibalism? One answer might be that cannibalism causes kuru (similar to mad cow disease), but let's suppose that the tribe members don't know this. Another possibility could be that cannibalism is wrong even if it doesn't lead to additional killings, but if that were so, we would think that eating the existing human jerky is also wrong. The best that one could say in favor of Alice's compromise, I think, is that the process of creating people jerky is regarded as unethical, perhaps because it shows disrespect for the dead, but that once people jerky exists, it is in a form that is so far removed from living people that eating it no longer bears the taint of its origin.

Can we make that claim plausible? I'm not sure but it pretty much reflects a close analogy to my own practices. I only became a vegan a few years ago, at a point at which I still had in my possession some leather items. After giving the matter some thought, I uneasily decided to keep and use them, even though I don't purchase new products made from animal products. If I were accidentally to hit and kill a deer with my car, I suppose that I would have no first-order moral objection to eating its flesh and making slippers out of its hide (assuming I knew how to do that). Indeed, on utilitarian grounds, I might have good reason to call a butcher and tanner to do these things and sell the products to the omnivorous public, on the theory that doing so might make unnecessary the deliberate killing of one additional deer. Yet I have a revulsion against both courses of action, perhaps on aesthetic grounds only, although my aesthetic judgment here is clearly related to my ethical grounds for veganism.

If the reader thinks that my practices and the decision of my hypothetical Alice are at least plausible, what does that tell us about Bush's policy of 1) permitting the destruction of embryos; 2) forbidding the use of new embryos for stem cell research; but 3) permitting research on the already-extant lines of stem cells?

One answer, of course, could be that there's nothing wrong with using any embryos for stem cell research. This, I think, is where most Americans (including me) are: I think that at some point prior to birth a fetus develops capacities for sensation, pain, etc., that warrant our moral concern, but that occurs much later than at the embryonic phase.

Moreover, even if one thinks that it's wrong to kill embryos, we still have the puzzle--acknowledged by Bush in his speech--that if not experimented upon, the embryos are going to be destroyed anyway. A view that the real problem is the killing of the embryos would target their creation. (Sherry discussed the consequences of that view in a column just before Bush's speech.) To make sense of the Bush view, one must think that experimentation on human embryos is wrong--presumably because it is either wrong in itself or leads down a slippery slope to something like the Tuskegee experiment or Joseph Mengele--and that experimenting on existing human stem cell lines is different from experimenting on new fated-for-destruction embryos that could lead to new lines. One must think, in other words, that the existing stem cell lines are like the leather baseball glove I bought when I was an omnivore or the human jerky in Alice's decision.

Now I'll admit that I don't see the extant human stem cell lines as purged of the taint in quite the same way as my baseball glove, and indeed, I don't even regard my baseball glove as fully untainted. But I suppose it's possible that someone--Bush himself, say--could regard the existing stem cell lines this way. Sure, it may only be an aesthetic judgment, and the banning portion of the decision rests on the controversial assumption that experimenting on human embryos is either wrong in itself or poses the slippery slope dangers, but at least the policy wasn't completely irrational, which by the standards of the last administration, is pretty good.

Posted by Mike Dorf