TCS Daily

Double Trouble

By Stephen Bainbridge - July 25, 2006 12:00 AM

In his recent TCS column, For Stem Cell Research: A Lesser Malevolence, Michael Rosen offered a thoughtful and balanced analysis of the morality of embryonic stem cell research. There is much in Rosen's analysis that people of good will on both sides of this contentious debate should embrace; most notably, his "to calm the heated rhetoric on both sides of the issue."

I would not presume to critique Rosen's analysis of Jewish theology as applied to the problem of stem cell research, but I must take issue with his venture into Christian theology. Rosen writes:

"In my understanding, ESC research satisfies the four prongs of ["double-effect" principle in traditional Catholic doctrine]: (1) creating stem-cell lines for research is not wrong in itself; (2) the intention of the scientist extracting the lines is right, namely saving lives through research; (3) the bad effect (i.e. killing the embryo) is not a means to the good effect (i.e. saving lives) because although the embryo dies after the stem-cells are extracted, its death is not a "means" to that extraction but rather a result thereof; and (4) the gravity of the reason for creating the ESC lines is commensurate with the foreseen (but unintended) bad effect, namely the death of the embryo."

Unfortunately, in my understanding, Rosen has misapplied the doctrine of double effect.

The principle of double effect is an old doctrine, traceable back at least to St. Thomas Aquinas, which seeks to sort out the moral problems inherent when a proposed action has both good and bad consequences (a so-called "double effect"). Specifically, the principle distinguishes between an act that deliberately causes harm in order to achieve some desirable outcome and an act that achieves a desirable outcome in a manner by which some harm foreseeably results as a side-effect. The former is never morally permissible, while the latter may be if the act satisfies the principle of double effect.

The New Catholic Encyclopedia identifies four conditions for the principle of double effect to be satisfied:

  1. The act itself must be morally good or at least indifferent.
  2. The agent may not positively will the bad effect but may permit it. If he could attain the good effect without the bad effect he should do so. The bad effect is sometimes said to be indirectly voluntary.
  3. The good effect must flow from the action at least as immediately (in the order of causality, though not necessarily in the order of time) as the bad effect. In other words the good effect must be produced directly by the action, not by the bad effect. Otherwise the agent would be using a bad means to a good end, which is never allowed.
  4. The good effect must be sufficiently desirable to compensate for the allowing of the bad effect.

In applying the doctrine, the initial question thus is: What is the "act" to be evaluated. Rosen uses the clinical and neutral phrase "creating stem-cell lines for research" to identify the morally relevant act. Yet, given the current state of technology, there is a clinically necessary prior to creating such lines; namely, the destruction of an embryo so that stem cells may be harvested.

My claim that Catholic theology would view the destruction of an embryo as the morally relevant act to be evaluated under the tenets of double effect is supported by the highly authoritative Declaration on the Production and the Scientific and Therapeutic Use of Human Embryonic Stem Cells by the Pontifical Academy for Life: "the ablation of the inner cell mass (ICM) of the blastocyst, which critically and irremediably damages the human embryo, curtailing its development, is a gravely immoral act and consequently is gravely illicit." (Emphasis in the original.)

With the morally relevant act correctly identified, it is clear that embryonic stem cell research violates at least the first and third conditions of the principle of double effect. As to the first condition, the act itself is neither "morally good" nor even "indifferent," but rather a grave evil.

As to the third condition, the actor is "using a bad means to a good end." The Declaration states: "No end believed to be good, such as the use of stem cells for the preparation of other differentiated cells to be used in what look to be promising therapeutic procedures, can justify an intervention of this kind. A good end does not make right an action which in itself is wrong." (Emphasis in the original.)

The Declaration therefore concludes that it is not morally licit to (1) "produce and/or use living human embryos for the preparation of ES cells," (2) "engage in so-called therapeutic cloning," or (3) "use ES cells, and the differentiated cells obtained from them, which are supplied by other researchers or are commercially obtainable."

We owe Rosen thanks for bringing faith-based moral principles into the public square. Faithful Catholics looking for a moral justification for embryonic stem cell research, however, cannot take comfort from Rosen's analysis. The principle of double effect simply does not justify the acts necessary for such research to occur.

The author is a TCS Daily Contributing Editor and law professor at UCLA.



Calming the heated rhetoric
Isn't it the case that the rhetoric in this issue is only heated on one side? On the other side, that of following up on a promising line of research, it is more "over easy".

The sensible way out of this thicket of muddled reasoning would be to call up Bill Gates, and suggest to him that he should replace the absent US government in the matter of funding stem cell research. That way the good burghers who see a moral issue here could retire, their jobs well done, secure in the knowledge that their tax money didn't murder any little snowflake babies.

I do find it ironic that we are going this far out of our way to save stockpiled frozen embryos that have no more chance of ever becoming babies in the real world than our stockpiled nuclear weapons have of ever becoming giant holes in the ground (we hope)-- while at the same time we took a nation that was at relative peace, the broken Iraq of Saddam's later years, and turned it into a meat grinder that currently renders 3,000 actual, living people every month into hog tied and mangled corpses left in the streets each morning. All done with our tax money.

Oh protectors of human life! Wherefore art thou, when we the living really need you?

(supposedly, hopefully) promising
"Isn't it the case that the rhetoric in this issue is only heated on one side? On the other side, that of following up on a promising line of research, it is more "over easy"."

"If we do the work that we can do in this country, the work that we will do when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again," Edwards said.

"We will be back again and again and again until we end the cruel restrictions on (federal funding of some potentially) lifesaving research that are denying hope to millions of American patients and their families." Sen. E.M. Kennedy (D,MA)

"...the absent US government in the matter of funding stem cell research."

The government was "absent" from ESC funding until the first Bush Administration. It is no longer absent. The government is hardly "absent" in adult and umbilical stem cell research funding. Those facts make the statement quoted above hyperbolic rhetoric, do they not?

potentially lifesaving research ?
What does that mean?

Funding research
Granted, that we are funding other kinds of stem cell research now, as opposed to back when it was only a pipe dream and we were unaware there was anything to be funded.

Further granted, that politicians are not immune to bombastic statements on wedge issues.

What I was referring to was only the anguished way certain Christians wail and beat their breast about using some otherwise unmarketable frozen embryos-- while remaining conspicuously silent about funding our panoply of death-dealing ambitions over there in the lands of the heathen.

unmarketable frozen embryos
Unborn babies have no capability of self defense.

Why Not Murder?
Bush spokesman Snow apologizes for stem cell remark

Tony Snow, President George W. Bush's chief spokesman, apologized on Monday for saying Bush believed embryonic stem cell research amounted to "murder," saying he had overstated the president's position.

...Bush himself said, in casting the veto, the legislation "crosses a moral boundary." Asked if Bush considered it murder, Snow said: "He would not use that term."

What does that mean?
It means that ESC research has not yet demonstrated that it has or can save lives, though many believe that potential may exist. Adult and cord blood stem cells, on the other hand, have done and continue to do so.

We are funding ESC now also.
"Granted, that we are funding other kinds of stem cell research now, as opposed to back when it was only a pipe dream and we were unaware there was anything to be funded."

The federal funding is limited to a number of stem cell lines which were already the subject of non-government research when the current legislation was passed. There is no such limitation on privately finded ESC research.

For the same reasons...
That the term is not used with regard to abortion, which terminates post-embrionic life - PC.

The emotion based argument
"Unborn babies have no capability of self defense."

And your method of rushing to their rescue helps them in what way, exactly? Does it result in their being implanted, grown to full term and then born?

These are 400,000 frozen embryos-- bits of flesh that have never been conscious. Only the tiniest fraction will ever be used for any purpose. Tell us what you would do with all those that are not chosen.

Cheapen Life
Once those 400,000 embryos are gone, then what?

Reseach scientists can contract out for more. Women can get paid for ovulating.

The decision as to what to do with those embryos lie with the parents.

Emotion based argument
Federally funded embryonic stem cell research MAY cure every disease known to man!

Unless that prude Bush signs the legislation the world will never know!

Technically, yes
Yes, those lines are getting pretty tired now. They're like copies of copies of copies. After a while the edges get blurred. Like Dolly the sheep, who was born middle aged.

That's what you get when a religiously inclined politician makes decisions regarding the direction scientific inquiry should take.

All that life
You really don't get it, do you? This year there's a backlog of 400,000 embryos. Two years ago the backlog was only 200,000. Next time we count, there'll be 600,000 of them. We are making more of these things now than the parents can ever possibly use.

There's no need to pay anyone for them. Couples are walking away from them. Currently 150,000 have just been abandoned. The "parents" stopped paying storage fees. What do we do with those little snowflakes?

There are parents who want to donate them to stem cell research, but are not able to do so owing to the current rules of the game.

How many can I put you and your wife down for? A thousand?

Funding any kind of research
Obviously we need to look for nonfederal sources of funding. That would be the foundations, and the states.

We can't count on having a government that stimulates basic research, and we shouldn't accept that primacy in fields like medicine should go to other countries. So we need to develop the other sectors, to keep America in the forefront.

After 9/11 we nearly killed university research. The best and brightest students from all over the world had been coming to our research universities. Overnight the fear made them leave. After that, one thing that happened was that fees went up. The other thing was that research wings shrank. We had a brain drain, especially from the Islamic countries.

Destroy them
I do not support exploitation of human life.

I do not support euthanasia.

I do not support the death penalty.

I do not support government welfare.

I support individual liberty and life.

We had a brain drain, especially from the Islamic countries.
Too bad.

The only reason universities want foreign students is because they pay full rate, plus.

US students can't afford to go on to grad school with the pittance universities pay for research and the high cost of tuition and low payback for higher degrees.

Mandetory Organ donation
Since so many are in need of organs, it is a shame to let all those people who die get buried with what they were born with.
Want a driver's license, you must donate your organs if you are declared brain dead.

Stop doing it.
Pay volunteers to bring them to term.
Make it part of the cost of the procedure.
No procedure until a volunteer has been found.

Kill 'em all?
Yes, marjon. I understand all those statements. They are mantras, not solutions.

What I want to know is just a pragmatic approach, What would you propose to do with all those embryos that will never get the chance to become human in any event?

Destroy them? Is that your answer? That would go against life, in that they would then never be of any use to anyone.

Paid volunteers?
To my way of thinking, that's just being silly. In the first place, these paid volunteers are perfectly capable of having all the babies they want themselves.

In the second place, how would you like it if your mother just had you for money? Wouldn't that be the next step lower than prostitution?

In the third place, as a volunteer would hardly ever be found, your decree would go against life, in that hundreds of thousands of families who did badly want a child would never get to have one.

I think it's just mental contortions around a principle you take as a bedrock: that somehow the human spirit gets implanted at the time a sperm and egg meet, not at some time subsequent to implantation. This is arbitrary and not borne out by any evidence. It's just an idea that has become lodged.

Who needs doctors?
Fine, if that's the way you want it. But the brain drain has seriously slowed research in schools that formerly used to be outstanding in their fields. And it has also diminished the number of first rate doctors, scholars, engineers and specialists in every field that formerly used to remain in practise here after graduation. It's not just those students who've been the losers. WE have been losers in this deal.

It;s a shame to waste a liver
I agree, it would be nice to have access to all those sweet young organs-- particularly those from healthy young bike riders who go around without their helmets. But it doesn't seem to be a very libertarian approach.

Are you telling us that the state owns your organs, and enjoys the option of collecting and redistributing them after you die?

"Destroy them? Is that your answer? That would go against life, in that they would then never be of any use to anyone."

It is not life at the cost of your soul.

If the embryos are destroyed, they cannot be eploited.

No one shoud be buried or cremated if they have organs that could be used by someone else.

You only need one kidney, why not mandate you sacrifice for another?

Local talent
Why not develop our own?

You don't disagree that universities want foreigh students for the money, not talent.

We already have them
"You don't disagree that universities want foreigh students for the money, not talent."

I very strongly disagree. Universities depended on the tuition money, back when we had lots of bright foreigners, but research institutions depend equally on the brilliant intellects they require in order to continue to produce cutting-edge research. This is a very big issue, and I would suggest that if you have any friends who are in medicine or the sciences you ask them their opinion on the subject.

We do have a few bright students in this country. But it's not a thing you can encourage by offering incentives, or devising programs. For the most part you either have it or you don't. And you find more exceptional young people in a talent pool of 6-1/2 billion than you do in a pool of 300 million. Plus, many foreigners are much more highly motivated than our kids are to be successful.

For all those reasons I don't think we'll enjoy much success in developing our own. We already have them.

Destroy them in order to save them
"If the embryos are destroyed, they cannot be eploited.

mj, you are one weird dude. Do you not see some basic inconsistency in thinking on the one hand that a zygote has a soul, and so should be destroyed rather than be used in founding a new cell line that might save thousands of lives? While on the other hand, organs that once were human should be harvested rather than destroyed out of respect for the dead?

Or was this humor? Maybe you could do what I do, and when I use irony to make a point add a little smiley face to explain to people that I'm not being altogether serious. :)

"That's what you get...
when a religiously inclined politician makes decisions regarding the direction scientific inquiry should take."

On the other hand, 1.3 million abortions a year are what you get when religiously dis-inclined politicians make decisions regarding "health" policy.

Oh well.

Keep 'em guessing

You sure had me fooled
Your answer is pretty inscrutable. I'm guessing that you in fact favor the sanitary disposal of unused embryos, to prevent their getting into the hands of researchers.

Goes great with fava beans and chianti

Let the unused eggs perish.
Or prohibit the practice altogether.

the embryos are being put up for adoption.
There are agencies who specialize in that kind of adoption.

Newer in vitro techniques also produce a lot fewer excess embryos.

there's also the issue that ESC has been a dead end
all of the progress has been in adult stem cells.
This morning I read a report about research that is turning ASCs from fat cells into smooth muscle cells of the type needed to repair damaged organs.

ASCs don't suffer from the problem of rejection either.

Break all the eggs
This is a truly amazing opinion. I had no idea people could think this way.

Snowflake adoptions
After every woman in the country who can't have a baby using her own eggs and who wants one of these snowflake babies accepts as many as she can, don't you think we're still going to have several hundred thousand babies left? The number of excess babies just keeps going up.

It may be that newer techniques are producing fewer embryos. But year before last there were only half the number of frozen embryos there are now. So where is the trend leading?

Piled higher and deeper
"Unfortunately, the Ph.D. market is far from perfect, because
universities influence both supply and demand. An August 1995 Rand
Corporation study of the academic labor market found that the number
of doctoral students admitted to American colleges and universities
depends less on the private labor market than on the needs of graduate
departments to provide teaching assistants for undergraduate courses.
(See William F. Massy and Charles A. Goldman, "The Production and
Utilization of Science and Engineering Doctorates in the United
States," RAND Institute for Education and Training and the Alfred P.
Sloan Corporation.) The graduates' future employment prospects are not
a consideration. Academic departments admit as many grad students as
needed for their own internal teaching and research needs, expanding
the supply by accepting increasing numbers of foreign students into
their graduate programs and subsidizing their tuition with federal R&D
grants and state-subsidized tuition."

Some young scientists are so embittered by the job market that they
believe the time and effort invested in pursuit of their degree was
pointless. "The only thing clear is that there are fewer jobs for
physicists because there is less economic need for physicists," Murray
Arnow of Skokie, Illinois, wrote in a letter to Physics Today. "The
current commitment of the American Physical Society to promote science
education is almost folly given the declining demand for physicists."

High-tech employers agree. Virtually all will tell you that their
ideal workers have just a BS or MS degree. There are only a small
number of industry jobs requiring a Ph.D., and many commercial
laboratories that once employed full-time scientists now prefer
postdoctoral students working as temporary employees. "What surprises
me is that even those young people with outstanding research records
are having difficulty finding permanent employment," writes Kevin
Aylesworth, a physics postdoc, in Physics Today.

A Polemic
I offer what the subject promises. Bush has untied the Gordian knot by not outlawing ESC research but rather not providing federal funds for that research. In this way those affronted by this research can rest easy that their tax dollars are not being spent on this research but also allows the rent seekers to petition their state govt's or private capital or foundations. Positively Solomonic.

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