Robert George and Chris Tollefsen, professors at Princeton and the University of South Carolina, have just come out with a tightly written book that immaculately sums up a big debate about tiny humans. Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008) argues elegantly that Americans should neither condone nor governmentally fund embryonic stem-cell research-and now that scientists have opened up an alternative, theirs just could be a winning argument.
WORLD: Late last year a New York Times headline announced, "Scientists bypass need for embryo to get stem cells." Why was that a breakthrough?
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: The announcement that pluripotent stem cells-undifferentiated cells that can be used to produce most and perhaps even all the tissue cells of the human body-can be obtained from reprogrammed skin cells is tremendously exciting.
Prior to this breakthrough, scientists had thought that human cloning of embryos was the best way to obtain new stem cells that would be genetically identical to possible patients. The new approach shows that cloning is unnecessary and that it works without using or destroying embryos.
WORLD: The Times, which had previously led the rush to pluck stem cells from tiny humans, killing them in the process, noted that because of new discoveries the "debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot." Is that debate over?
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: Unfortunately, the debate does not look like it is over. Almost immediately after the announcement, some scientists, journalists, and lobbyists started to declare the need to "keep all options open"-including the option of killing human embryos. This has become a mantra for those who seem committed to research on embryonic humans regardless of the moral or scientific merit of such inquiry. It's probably important, as well, to keep in mind the history of the debate over embryo destructive research: It preceded the debate over stem cells by about two decades. So we need to keep making the arguments, changing people's minds and hearts, and pressing the important points at the political level.
WORLD: The pro-life movement has some optimism these days, but you provide a dire warning: "Whereas, in the past, the humanity of the fetus, or its moral worth, were ignored or denied in favor of an alleged 'right to privacy,' or considerations of the personal tragedies of women who experienced unwanted pregnancies, what is now proposed is something quite different." What are the new proposals?
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: Here is the worst case scenario: the creation of millions of human embryos-human beings in the early stages of development-in order to perform scientific experiments on them, and in order to harvest their body parts for medical therapies for others. We have, sadly, seen the destruction of millions of human beings before, in a litany of tragedies of the 20th century. But we have never seen the creation of human beings precisely for the purpose of destruction and use.
WORLD: And we'd all be inextricably linked to that.
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: The research would be funded with our tax dollars. It would be performed in our public universities. The therapies would be used by doctors for all of us in any number of circumstances. All of modern medicine would be touched by the influence of research that was deeply immoral and corrupting, and it would be nearly impossible for us to avoid being benefited by, or contributing to, this research in some way. So the creation of a massive industry for producing human embryos by cloning for research in which they are killed really does seem to us an entirely new kind of social evil, on a scale of almost unimaginable magnitude.
WORLD: You write that your argument for the embryo's value does not rely on belief in God or the authority of the Bible.
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: We certainly think that an understanding of the value of all human life, from conception to natural death, is fostered and deepened by reflection of the Scriptures. "You are of more worth than many sparrows," and "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew ye" are natural starting points for a pro-life ethic. But we also think that the pro-life ethic is "written on the heart" (to borrow a phrase from Paul's Letter to the Romans) of all human beings, and that reflection on basic science, basic philosophy, and basic ethics establishes a convincing case that all human beings, including those in the embryonic stage of development, deserve full moral respect.
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: We are human animals, but we are profoundly special sorts of animals. We have reason and free choice, the capacity to initiate something new in the world, and not to be narrowly bound by the physical laws of nature. These literally awesome capacities are aspects of our nature as human beings, and exist in us at least in root form from the time we come into existence. . . . They are powers that give rich meaning to the biblical teaching that, unlike the brute animals, we are "made in God's image."
WORLD: So, the particular value that we have is that we're made in God's image?
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: Our freedom and reason are what is God-like (albeit, of course, in a strictly limited way) about us, what likens us to God. But to have been like God in these respects ties us to our Creator in a special way in our creation: He makes each of us, knowing us, in doing so, as the unique individuals we are. We do not intend to deny any of this in claiming that we are human animals, or in claiming that even those who do not share biblical faith can understand the biological, philosophical, and ethical truths that ground our claim that all human beings, including those at the beginning stages of life, have a profound, inherent, and equal dignity.
WORLD: You argue convincingly that questions about size and appearance of an embryo are not morally relevant, but are they politically relevant?
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: Embryos at risk of destruction suffer from two disadvantages when other human beings think about what is owed to them, though neither is ultimately unique to embryos. The first is the disadvantage of distance. Like those who suffer on the other side of the globe, embryos are distant from our awareness: We cannot see them, we do not know them personally, they cannot ask for our help. Second, they suffer the disadvantage of numbers. We cannot adequately respond, emotionally, when thousands of persons are killed or otherwise harmed; it would overwhelm us. And there are hundreds of thousands of embryos currently cryopreserved and considered "spares" from in vitro fertilization procedures.
WORLD: Since that response is muted, isn't it wise for pro-lifers in politics to emphasize the horrors of partial-birth abortion, then third-trimester abortion, then second-trimester abortion, gaining support by garnering sympathy for those who look most like born babies?
GEORGE/TOLLEFSEN: A focus on partial-birth abortion will typically pay greater political dividends. But there are two points to remember here. First, the disadvantages of distance and numbers make no genuine moral difference to what is owed, either to those on the other side of the globe, or to those in labs in our own country. And what is owed, above all, is the respect that is paid in our refusal to kill the innocent. We can't give up the call to make this respect a legal and social reality.
Obviously, political priorities must be chosen, and prudence must guide the choosing; but we should never abandon the principle of equal respect for all members of the human family, and our goal must be to make that principle a legal and cultural norm.
-For more of the George/Tollefsen interview, go to worldontheweb.com