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.
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.
Moral dualism holds that human beings only become worthy of moral respect because of some achievement, and not because of what they are-members of the human family. So human beings need to become conscious, or self-conscious, or intelligent before they are owed moral respect. So even if we were once human embryos, we were not at that time human persons - beings owed full moral respect.
We make three contrary claims in our book, and give many arguments for them. First, we are human animals, individual members of the species Homo sapiens. Second, in the vast majority of cases, human beings begin to exist at fertilization, when sperm penetrates egg, and a new being, genetically and functionally distinct from either mother or father, begins the self-initiated and self-directed processes of growth and development characteristic of human beings (identical twins are an exception to this).
Third, human beings, unlike the other animals, are possessed of the literally awesome (one might even say God-like) capacities of reason and free will by their nature. It is because they have these capacities that they are due full moral respect. But since these capacities are natural, humans have them from the time that they exist and for as long as they exist, even if an individual is not capable of exercising those capacities (because of disease, impairment, or stage of development). From the earliest embryonic stage, therefore, all human beings are deserving of full moral respect: they are human persons.
WORLD: You also point out the problems of "consequentialism." What is it, and why does it lead to justifications for cruel and unusual punishment in relation to embryos?
RG/CT: Consequentialism-the best known version of which is known as utilitarianism-is one of the most influential moral theories of the secular world. It holds that all moral choices are to be judged on the basis of whether they are likely to produce the greatest good for the greatest number. Consequentialists willingly embrace the maxim of Caiaphas: It is better for one person to suffer than an entire people. So for utilitarians and other consequentialists, there are no absolute rights, no absolute moral norms.
What this means in practice is that even if human embryos are the same sort of being as you and I, and even if they are entitled to full moral respect, still they may be sacrificed for the "greater good." We see a purely consequentialist argument made in the case of "spare" human embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. If they are going to die anyway, shouldn't we use them to achieve some good? But many people are going to die anyway (all of us, in fact!). Inevitable death does not do away with the absolute right of innocent human beings not to be destroyed and used for the purposes of others. So we argue against and reject consequentialism in our book as a deeply misguided approach to questions of embryo ethics.
WORLD: What's needed to bring before our eyes the humanity of the embryo?
RG/CT: Awareness and knowledge (often made possible by television and other media) have helped to diminish the disadvantages of distance and numbers concerning, for example, the crisis in Darfur. Awareness and knowledge can diminish these disadvantages for embryos. Basic embryological knowledge can help embryos seem much less different and distant from ourselves. And embryo adoption is a practice that brings willing couples into the personal relationship with "spare" embryos that makes their plight an emotional reality.