Thursday, July 7, 2005

Ellen's Ethicists

Sometimes an argument that I hear or read gets lodged in my consciousness the way a splinter can get stuck in my finger, and it stays there, inflaming and irritating me until I excise it.

Consider this post such an excision.

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman wrote this column about the status of frozen human embryos a few weeks back, and, for me, here's the offending splintery bit:

When people claim to believe that a frozen embryo is the moral equal of a child, ethicists like to pose this question: If a clinic is on fire and you could save either a 2-year-old or a vial full of embryos, which would you pick?
Ah, okay. I'll pass over the fact that the ethicists I know don't really like to engage in this kind of parlor game, but let's play anyway. I'll go first.

I pick the two-year old.

Now, let's shuffle the variables. First, we'll stipulate that the embryos in the vial have every chance of being implanted in wombs and eventually seeing the light of day as babies.

Next, we'll pretend that you're a Nazi, and that the vial is full of embryos bred of the purest Aryan stock. And instead of a cute two-year-old in the burning clinic, there's a rather ugly and unscrupulous Jewish banker.

Which would you pick?

Or how about this one. You're a Chinese peasant. In the vial is the embryo of your only male offspring -- in fact, the only offspring you're allowed by law. You need that boy to help you work the farm. In the burning clinic is your elderly and ailing mother-in-law, whom you hate and who hates you.

Which would you pick?

Or you're an 18th-century South Carolina plantation owner. The vial contains the embryonic offspring of you and your beautiful and accomplished wife, who died tragically of consumption only months ago. In the burning clinic is one of your less-productive African slaves.

Which would you pick?

You get the idea. Ellen's ethical test only tells us something about the sympathies or prejudices of the chooser: it is utterly unrevealing of the objective moral status of human embryos.


Jim Rosenberg said...

C'mon David, there isn't a bootstrap in existence strong enough to support your emotionally loaded anecdotal argument. Ellen Goodman, and others, place a higher value on a born and conscious child. You may agree or disagree -- I am torn but closer to your view than you might think. It's beneath your intellect to equate Goodman's views on the difficult and unsettled "when does life begin" debate with vanilla class-based prejudice. This is an unimpressive analysis from an impressive mind.

David Wharton said...

"emotionally loaded anecdotal argument" -- yes, that describes both my and Goodman's scenarios; hence my desription of them as a parlor game.

Note that my gut reaction in the two-year-old scenario is the same as Goodman's (and yours, I presume). But gut reactions about ethical issues vary wildly in different times and cultures, and are not a substitute for ethical reasoning. I want to know whether that gut reaction is well founded, and the more I think about it, the less I can justify it.

That was my point.

Anonymous said...

WAY TO GO DAVE. A human life is a human life is a human life. Goodman's little game was manipulative and obnoxious. Here's one for her: you have the choice of saving human embryos or...Ellen Goodman.

Yes, I'm pissed off. Because a human life is a human life is a human life. Of course 2-year-olds are cuter than embryos. But it's not about being cute, for which Ellen Goodman should be thankful.

Jim Rosenberg said...


I won't argue your point about gut reaction, but I am just about ready to draw a line at Nazi and Hitler comparisons and say that I don't want any part of people over on the other side. I want you over here. That was my point.

David Wharton said...

Sun, I think you mistook my intention with the Nazi thing. I did not intend to equate those who want to use human embryos for medical research with Nazis; I wanted to show only that people's gut attitudes toward the value of other people are very culturally conditioned, variable, and unreliable.

Probably a better way to show the fallacy in Goodman's test is to remove the embryos entirely. Imagine a burning house with two children in it -- your own and somebody else's.

The fact that most of us would choose to save our own child says nothing about the moral status of the other child.

LISA, I find Ellen irritating, too (obviously!). I once had an e-mail exchange with her in which she was polite but strangely immune to argument.

nelle said...

Ellen's question is a sound one. Too often pro life advocates resort to cute little babies to make their point about foetuses that are, when the vast majority of abortions take place, a collection of undeveloped organs.

For me the real issue is over rights... in this debate, there is no middle ground... either a woman has rights to decide what happens within her body, or the foetus has rights. These rights cannot exist simultaneously.


David Wharton said...

Then we're agreed that appealing to cute little babies is ethically unenlightening, whether Ellen Goodman does it or pro-life people do it.

But your assertion that either a woman has rights or a fetus has rights -- but not both -- does not wash.

First of all, neither women nor anyone else has unrestricted rights over what happens in their bodies. Drug laws prohibit the use of crack, other laws prohibit self-mutilation, etc.

Secondly, it's frequently the case that different people's rights come into conflict. This fact does not automatically neutralize the rights of one party or another. For example, my right to enjoy my property doesn't entail me having the right to raise tigers in my back yard because that would infringe my neighbor's right to enjoy his property safely. It's the function of the law and the courts to sort these things out.

But saying simply that fetuses can't have rights because that would infringe a woman's right to control her body is like saying children can't have rights because that infringes parents' right to freedom from the tremendous financial and emotional burdens that children entail.