An ironic reductio for a 'pro-life' argument: Hurlbut's proposal for stem cell research
Bioethics 2007 February; 21(2): 98-110
William Hurlbut, a Stanford University bioethicist and member of the President's Council on Bioethics, recently proposed a solution to the current impasse over human embryonic stem cell research in the United States. He suggested that researchers could use genetic engineering and somatic cell nuclear transfer (i.e. cloning) to develop human 'pseudo-embryos' that have no potential to develop fully into human persons. According to Hurlbut, even thinkers who typically ascribe high moral status to human embryos could approve of destroying these 'pseudo-embryos' for the sake of harvesting human embryonic stem cells. This essay argues, first, that an argument based on the 'paradox of the heap' (an argument that many 'pro-life' thinkers employ in order to defend the notion that human embryos have high moral value from the moment of conception) challenges the ethical legitimacy of Hurlbut's proposal. Second, the paper argues that this conflict may illustrate a reductio ad absurdum for this 'pro-life' argument itself rather than being a problem for Hurlbut's proposal. As a result, the paper challenges the 'pro-life'strategy of arguing that one should respond to uncertainty about the moral status of developing embryos by being morally 'cautious' and granting all human embryos full moral status from the moment of conception. It appears that one is faced with a complex series of choices (about where to draw the moral line between entities that are human persons and entities that are not), and a strict moral 'cautiousness' about this series of choices may ultimately lead to absurdity.
Bioethics; Cells; Cloning; Embryonic Stem Cells; Embryos; Engineering; Genetic Engineering; Life; Moral Status; Research; Researchers; Stem Cells; Uncertainty; Value / Quality of Life; Cloning; Genetics, Molecular Biology and Microbiology; Stem Cell Research; Donation / Procurement of Organs and Tissues; Research on Embryos and Fetuses;