Embryonic stem cell research involves the destruction of human life as an
incident of speculation that such destruction may yield useful medical
knowledge which we might not otherwise obtain. That statement, although
emotionally charged, is nevertheless true.
An embryo is a human life-form. It is not something merely with the
potential to become a human life-form like an unfertilised ovum. It's the
That embryo will become a little boy or girl. Once it is fertilised, its
DNA, its chromosomes and its other fundamental characteristics have already
been set in place. It will be a boy or a girl. It will have a certain colour
in its eyes. It will have a certain colour to its hair. When it grows into
adult-hood, if it is a male, the fact that it may have male pattern baldness
has already been determined. This embryo carries all these very human
The debate about whether stem cell research ought to be done cannot be
undertaken in the vacuum of utilitarianism. Particularly for us liberals
(and I use the term in its descriptive sense rather than its political
nominative sense), it cannot be conducted without reference to the
fundamental norm of our philosophy, that every human is inherently worthy.
The incident of that norm is that human life must have sanctity. That is why
we don't execute criminals. It is why we don't follow the example of the
Romans and leave disabled babies out in the fields to perish rather than
raise them. We understand now that for our human rights to prevail, they
must be grounded in principle.
It is very easy to submit to arguments such as the one put in the
parliament by Simon Crean that opponents of embryo stem cell research ought
to look at the face of a particular paralysed two year old and tell him that
they are not prepared to find a cure. Of course, this argument is equally as
cruel to those whose opposition to such research is based on sound moral
principle as the argument by some of the more intemperate opponents that
support of such research is the same as support for Nazi research on human
beings. It discounts the strongly - and in many cases faithfully - held
views that people have. You will never hear Simon Crean say that those who
support mandatory detention of refugees ought to look into the face of a
detained child and say "you can't have a home here."
Either human life is sacrosanct or it is not. You don't have to have a
religious faith to believe that proposition. You just have to have some
semblance of a liberal political philosophy. You can't pick and choose. You
can't pick a date in the life of an embryo and say "vivisection is okay
as long as you get in before this day." An embryo is a helpless human
being and our society shouldn't be in the business of terminating the lives
of helpless human beings.
The argument which is used as a trump card by those who support the
research is that these embryos are the by-product of in vitro fertilisation.
They're never going to be used anyway. There are a multitude of things wrong
with this view. Let's examine just three.
First, we should never take the view that human lives which are doomed to
an early fate ought to be yielded up before their time for experimentation.
Second, how is it that we got to the stage where it is permissible to
create human lives and doom those lives either to a static existence or an
early death merely for the convenience of allowing people to have children?
In virtually any other field where children are involved (family law or
adoption are just two examples) society demands that the needs of the
children are put first. When it comes to child-bearing, the needs of
children (whether embryonic or born) become incidental to the desires of
adults to become parents.
Third, it is argued that IVF is already expensive. If we didn't create
multiple embryos, the cost would become even more prohibitive. In other
words, we create human life which we immediately doom because it is cost
effective. How is it that a society which is so dedicated to human rights
has become so casual about human life?
Nicola Roxon MP says that her colleague Christopher Pyne is wrong to say
that the difference between a developed foetus and an embryo is negligible.
I agree with her: the difference is not negligible, but neither is it
fundamental; both are human beings in development. To argue that because one
is closer to being born, it ought to enjoy different rights than one which
has got a lot further to go is logically flawed and worse, it is cruel.
The research we are talking about is effectively an exercise in trading
some human lives for the possibility of saving others – and it is no more
than a possibility. There is very little reason to suspect that this
research will yield results not available through other means. We shouldn't
pick and choose which human lives are valuable and which are not. If we do
that, we destroy the fundamental premise from which we draw our society's
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