April 3, 2001 -- Human life begins at conception. Biologically speaking, human life begins when a cell with 23 pairs of chromosomes capable of dividing into all the separate and distinct cells that make up a human organism is created. Human life does not begin at birth and it does not begin when an embryo implants in uterine lining. The biological basis for human life is contained in the genetic code present in human cells. And that code is created at conception—regardless of whether or not that conception took place in a womb or a test tube.
Embryonic stem cell research destroys human life. Every time a blastocyst—a human embryo of about 100 cells before it implants in the uterine lining—is harvested for its stem cells, it is destroyed. Further, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research will undoubtedly spur laboratories to fertilize or clone embryos for the express purpose of harvesting their stem cells. Should President Bush allow federal funding, human life would be created, harvested, and destroyed by the thousands.
Finally, neither of the two facts above—taken alone or together—have anything to do with morality. Embryonic stem cell research destroys life, but destruction of life is not, in itself, immoral. People breed, clone, raise, harvest, and destroy plant, animal, and bacterial life by the millions. Furthermore, human embryos are also destroyed or discarded by the millions. Embryos are routinely miscarried when the embryo fails to implant in the uterine lining, and of those that do implant, many are sloughed off as part of the woman’s normal menstruation cycle. The destruction of life—even the destruction of human embryos—is not immoral.
For the destruction of life to be immoral, the destruction must be intentional and the life that is destroyed must be a moral being. The first requirement explains why lightning and sharks, even when they kill people, are amoral. The second requirement, that the life destroyed must be a person, explains why it is not immoral for people to destroy plant life, kill insects, eat chicken, or take penicillin.
Both of these requirements depend upon conceptual awareness. The shark is not conceptually aware, and therefore cannot have any conception of the moral consequences of its actions. The shark’s lack of conceptual awareness makes its actions amoral. Likewise, zucchini, chickens, bacteria, and mosquitoes all lack conceptual awareness. Destroying them is amoral because they lack conceptual awareness and therefore are not moral beings.
The possession of conceptual awareness—in whatever degree—is the attribute that makes people moral beings. Certainly some people possess varying degrees of conceptual awareness (adults and children, for example), but the degree of awareness is not as important as the fact of its possession. Children, as such, have certain basic rights but not others. As they grow, and as their conceptual awareness and their faculty of reason grows, they accrue more rights. The same is true when an adult is afflicted with a mental infirmity (like Alzheimer’s). As faculties diminish, so too do corresponding rights. The most basic right, however, the right to life, comes with mere possession of conceptual awareness.
In the case of human embryos, there can be no debate. They do not possess, in any form, any sort of awareness whatsoever. In fact, it is precisely because embryonic cells have not yet differentiated (into nerve cells, for example) that they are of value in medical research. Embryos—unlike sharks, chickens, and even mosquitoes—have absolutely no awareness at all. Embryos have the same moral status as zucchini.
And if we had even the remotest chance to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s by destroying zucchinis should we hesitate? If immorality is the destruction of rational, intentional, conceptual life, then the enhancement of that life should be moral. Embryonic stem-cell research is not immoral; it is profoundly moral.