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Who cares about an embryo?

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Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008) opposes embryonic stem cell research - and now that scientists have opened up an alternative that uses pluripotent stem cells but leaves tiny humans alone, the book's ethical argument is not politically dead on arrival. The Jan. 26 issue of WORLD, now online at www.worldmag.com, includes an interview with authors Robert George and Chris Tollefsen, professors at Princeton and the University of South Carolina; here are some additional questions and answers.

WORLD: Why do you begin Embryo with the story of Noah escaping the Katrina flood on a flat-bottomed boat?

RG/CT: Early in his life, Noah was a cryo-preserved embryo in a fertility clinic in New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, he was rescued and subsequently implanted into his mother's womb. He's now a young boy, and doing fine. It's a great story, and the point of it is this: it was Noah that was rescued in New Orleans. It wasn't a blob of tissue that later became Noah, and we doubt he will ever think that he came into being later in the story. When Noah thinks about his life he'll think "I was rescued that day in New Orleans." And he will be right-not merely as a matter of theological teaching but as a fact of science.

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The story is important as well for its obvious Biblical overtones. In the Old Testament, the story of Noah is, above all, a story of hope in God's promises. God enters into a covenant with Noah, and it is a covenant of life: God will never again destroy, but will protect human life, and He asks Noah and his descendents to bring forth new life. From a Christian perspective, that covenant requires that we give very small human beings the same respect we give to mature persons. And the fact that the New Orleans rescuers thought Noah's life important enough to save gives us hope that we might see that respect more widely shown in the future.

WORLD: Until the breakthrough with non-embryonic stem cells late last year, those who favor killing embryos to obtain stem cells seemed to be winning politically. If a scientific breakthrough enables prolifers to win this ethical battle, should we be thankful for, and awed by, God's providence -- or should we be worried that reason by itself was unable to prevail?

RG/CT: This is a difficult question. There is indeed something disturbing, for example, in the willingness of some scientists to embrace the new stem cell technology as offering an ethically superior alternative even though they were willing to proceed with the ethically inferior procedure when it seemed necessary. It would certainly be better - at least for these scientists - if they had been willing to do the right thing for the right reason.

The worry is not unique to this problem, of course. Bad moral choices are frequently self-destructive; virtues often have the welcome side-effect of making us healthier and better off in other non-moral ways. And perhaps this is best seen as an element of God's providence. Just as the law sometimes leads us to do the right thing from fear or hope of benefit, and not only for the right reason, so has God given us divine guides, in the order of things, to lead us in the direction of virtue.

Unlike the law, however, which is satisfied when external compliance is achieved, God continues to call each of us to a conversion of heart so that we can love Him ever more deeply and our neighbor as ourselves. This option is still available to us, as it will always be, in the ethics of human life. Will we only protect human life if and when it is convenient to do so, or will we love life, and love one another as He has loved us? That is and will always be a choice for.

WORLD: As you dive into the philosophical bases of the new proposals, you criticize various kinds of "dualism." What are the major variants, and what effect do they have on the debate about embryos?

RG/CT: We talk about two kinds of dualism, which we call "metaphysical" and "moral." Metaphysical dualism holds that we - you and us, and all human persons -- are something other than the biological organisms we see when we look in the mirror: we are consciousnesses, or spirits, or perhaps brains making use of that body. If you think that, then you might also think that we were never embryos ourselves; and if that is true, then the destruction of human embryos will not be the destruction of human persons - in other words, those embryos will not be deserving of full moral respect.

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