Differences over embryonic stem cells are part of broader debate

This article appeared in the opinion pages of the Detroit Free Press on July 27, 2001. The subtitle of the piece was "Get rid of mind-body dualism and recognize embryos as human beings". It was reprinted on a multiple sclerosis website together with other articles on this topic.

The debate raging over the use of human embryos and their stem cells is important for many reasons. Perhaps the least important of these relates to the physical ailments that might, in the future, be cured using these techniques. The debate is more important because it is part of a broader conflict whose origins can be traced back for centuries: a clash determined by vastly different ways of understanding what it means to be human.

About 400 years ago, a genius named Rene Descartes -- a man who contributed important and durable insights to science -- goofed when he dabbled in philosophy. He succeeded in driving a deep wedge between the once well-integrated spiritual and physical dimensions of the human person. Over time and almost imperceptibly, the "split" that Descartes imagined between the mind and the body took root, first among intellectuals. Today, it is flourishing in attitudes and behavior at all levels of society.

Thanks to Descartes, Deepak Chopra can claim, "Your body is just the place your memories call home," and people will buy his books. There are many other examples in popular culture that express the theoretical mind-body split in practical ways. But perhaps none is as disturbing as the prevailing attitude of science and society toward human embryos.

Scientists have become exceptionally skilled at growing them up in a petri dish. They can tell us what they might look like if they are allowed to develop and how they might suffer and die from diseases inscribed in their genes. They tell us the great good that someday may come from using parts of them to treat the diseases of other people. They may feel quite satisfied when they discard some embryos in favor of others. They are simply selecting those less likely to burden society and more likely produce. They are strengthening the gene pool and giving another human the best chance for a "good life." But they refuse to grant the human embryos they use the most vital gift of all: respect.

And the reason scientists are incapable of respecting the humanity of their embryos is because "your body is just the place your memories call home." They view the particular human body they are working on as a shell, a car in need of a driver. It can be produced, discarded or recalled for factory defect. It has no memory, no past and, if they decide so, no future.

It's clear that Descartes had no idea what he was getting into when he split himself and us in two. But ideas do have consequences, and unfortunately, bad ideas may have very bad consequences. After four centuries of mind-body dualism, it is time to put things back in their proper place. Honest science must accept nature on its own terms. Bias defeats its purpose, and it is the voice of antihuman bias in science today that claims that an organism shown to be genetically human, biologically human and anatomically human is just a body and not a human.

To be human is to be both body and spirit. Each completes the other, and together both confer wholeness and integrity to each and every human person.

To arbitrarily deny the full humanity of a human embryo is symptomatic of the disintegration that some human beings have forced on others. Today, the weak, the dying, the disabled and those who are unable to speak for themselves, can easily be defined, either in theory or in practice, as less than human. They become living, breathing shells devoid of spirit, of value and therefore of humanity.

Some today might ask, not without an edge of cynicism, "So when exactly does the embryo become a human being?" This critical question is one that science is now fully equipped to answer unambiguously: "It has always been a human being." Where there is a physically distinct human organism, alive and growing, there is a complete human organism. From the moment of conception, there exists an autonomous human life. All that he or she needs to develop is proper nourishment. Nothing else needs to be added to them.

The ethical dilemmas posed by stem cell research, pre-implantation genetic testing and other assisted reproductive technologies are caused by the dualist view of the human person that has dominated scientific theory and practice for four centuries. This view turns the embryonic human body into the disposable part of a potential person, rather than an integral part of a whole person. We should recognize that treating the human body in this way has implications far beyond science and academia.

Could it be that the many real and imagined conflicts that polarize families and society today are an expression of the same split that inclines us to deny scientific reality and imagine the human embryo to be anything other than human?

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