Thursday, February 28, 2008

William Saletan Reviews "Embryo," by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen

From the New York Times Book Review earlier this month: William Saletan reviews "Embryo," by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen, in Little Children:

Thirty-five years after Roe v. Wade, the pro-life movement faces a new challenge: biotechnology. The first human biotech issue, embryonic stem-cell research, looks like an easy call. Stem cells could save millions of lives. And the entity we currently sacrifice to get them — a sacrifice that may soon be unnecessary — is a tiny, undeveloped ball of cells. The question, like the embryo, seems a no-brainer.

For pro-lifers, that’s precisely the problem. Biotechnology is arguably more insidious than abortion. Abortions take place one at a time and generally as a response to an accident, lapse or nasty surprise. Their gruesomeness actually limits their prevalence by arousing revulsion and political opposition. Conventional stem-cell harvesting is quieter but bolder. It’s deliberate and industrial, not accidental and personal. In combination with cloning, it entails the mass production, exploitation and destruction of human embryos. Yet its victims don’t look human. You can’t protest outside a fertility clinic waving a picture of a blastocyst. You have to explain what it is and why people should care about it.

This is the task Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen undertake in “Embryo.” To reach a secular and skeptical public, they avoid religion and stake their case on science.

I particularly like this passage from Saletan's review:

George and Tollefsen reason that the embryo is fully human and its life therefore inviolable, because its program is self-contained. “Nothing extrinsic to the developing organism itself acts on it to produce a new character or new direction of growth,” they write. The embryo has all the “structures necessary for providing the new individual with a suitable environment and adequate nutrition.” It can “get itself to the uterus,” “burrow” into the uterine wall and begin “taking in nourishment” from “a congenial environment.”

Nobody with a womb would describe pregnancy this way. The “congenial environment” is a woman. The embryo doesn’t “get itself” around her like some Horatio Alger hero. Her body sustains it, guides it and affects its direction of growth. Mother and child are a system.

I haven't read the book, but based on the review and the authors' response, this attempt to "stake their case on science" looks to me like nothing more than a repackaging of timeworn arguments for fetal and embryonic personhood.  The authors issued a reply to Saletan in the National Review:

In attempting to resist our conclusion that human embryos ought not to be exploited and killed, while at the same time acknowledging their moral standing and the special respect they are owed, Saletan gets himself into a jam.  To meet our argument that a human embryo is, as a matter of scientific fact, a developing human being—i.e., a living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stages of development—and thus, as a matter of basic justice, a possessor of inherent dignity and a right to life, Saletan is driven to deny that human embryos are whole entities, as opposed to mere parts (such as gametes, tissues, or organs).

I have blogged about this question-begging language issue before.  To say that an embryo is a "developing human being" does not mean that it is a person entitled to a right to life.  Many abortion-rights opponents employ indeterminate language like "life" and "human being" because these terms are evocative of personhood yet allow people to read into them what they wish.  Ultimately, although many (perhaps most) people would agree that a human embryo is a "living member of the species Homo sapiens in the earliest stages of development," most also would not treat embryos as full legal persons in all respects and do not think, for example, that one commits mass murder in discarding frozen embryos.  So, in my view, the authors gain very little ground in identifying the "jam" Saletan has gotten himself into by (they claim) refusing to acknowledge that embryos are "whole entities."

The authors also employ the familiar, flawed logic that, because every person developed from an embryo, an embryo must have the same moral status as a person.  So enamored are they of this tired argument that they emphasize the point with italics:

The argument against our view being advanced by the adult Will Saletan is confounded by the fact that Will Saletan, like the rest of us, really was once an embryo.... The true story is that the organism that is Will Saletan is the same organism that, at an earlier stage of Will’s development, was that embryo. 

Many have refuted this argument by pointing out that an acorn is not an oak tree, and does not merit the same respect as an oak tree, just because the oak tree really was once an acorn.

| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference William Saletan Reviews "Embryo," by Robert George and Christopher Tollefsen :


Post a comment