Moral boundaries and the Veto

The fact that yesterday's veto was Bush's first, after more than five years in office, does't interest me all that much. Thomas Jefferson's veto record is a big fat zero and I see nothing wrong with that. What I found bothersome was Bush's justification. He said embryonic stem cell research crosses "a moral boundary." To that I say: which boundary would that be, exactly?

I mean, at which point in the human reproductive cycle does one acquire moral worth? This is the fundamental flaw in the anti-abortion and anti-ESC research argument. Life is a continuum. Even if you believe that life worthy of protecting begins at conception, you're still no closer to an answer, as there is no "moment of conception."

For starters, the process of fertilization take a measureable amount of time. First the living sperm and living egg membranes fuse, then the egg completes the second stage of meitoic divison -- the process that produces a haploid gamete with only half the DNA of a non-sex cell. Then the sperm loses its tail and the energy factory known as the mitochondria. Then the nuclear material from egg and sperm fuse, a process that again takes time. DNA must be wrangled and manipulated until new diploid chromosomes are ready for the next steps. It doesn't happen all at once.

But we're not done yet. It can take several days after that for a fertilized zygote (a cell whose genetic material is the product of the fusion of egg and sperm) to implant in the uterine wall. And, if everything goes right, a while more before mitotic cell division kicks in and the process of growing a new human can begin.

Furthermore, it's only going to get worse. The better the temporal and spatial resolution of our technology,which is improving with each passing day, the more detail and complexity emerges in the reproductive cycle.

So I ask again: when exactly does in this process does one become a "human being" whose destruction is tantamount to murder? Where precisely is this moral boundary of which Mr. Bush speaks?

I understand that to admit to the fact that there is no boundary, that life is continuum, opens a lot of uncomfortable doors for those who like their ethical architecture to be straight and narrow. Sorry, but that's ... life.


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Exactly right. It is "potentially" life once that little sprem wiggles its way through the cell membrane of the ovum, though I could argue equally well that getting halfway through should be sufficient as well. Or a quarter of the way. Or maybe its when the nuclear membrane is breached. No matter where you mark the onset of life, one can always find a necessary preceding event without which it could not occur. Thanks for putting this so explicitly.

I think this webpage helps: and by "helps" I of course mean "makes it more complicated to answer, but that should be a given since life is pretty complicated in general."

(This article explains that the answer depends on what kind of scientist you're talking to.)

While I agree with your sentiment, your arguement does not really apply to the stem cell debate.

Yes the process takes time but the second a sperm fuses with the egg the process begins -- without the sperm fusing the process goes nowhere. Sure there are several other steps beyond that but that's meaningless for most pro-lifers. For most of them, once Man stuff and Woman stuff joins that's life. Sure more things happen and things can go wrong but I'm sure their answer would be "after that it's in gods hands" or somesuch.

They would rather the fertilized eggs stay frozen until either they are adopted or they die on their own because once god makes life it's up to god to kill it (well unless you're seen as an bad person than the "respect for life" gloves are off).

Colin: I think if you re-read my post, you'll note that there are more than one stages to the "second the sperm fuses with the egg." My point is that there is no one indivisible moment. And with new reproductive technologies, we are becoming able to tease the different stages apart. There simply is no one identifiable boundary to cross.

Except that this is "Man stuff and Woman stuff" joining purely through human technology, and everything would just fizzle out in that dish if more tech wasn't used.

I've got a lot more respect for those who are against the whole process. All this stuff about not destroying life to save life: IVF creates life by "destroying" it, so there shouldn't, it would appear, be any justification for it. Most of those screaming about using blasocytes to create stemcells for research sound like they'd forbid the parents of a dead child to donate its organs.

You're perfectly right: life is a process, and it is very dificult to assign a "moment" where life begins. But then again, so what? There has to be a boundary set in stone; You can't go any farther than this. The law depends on it. And wouldn't you rather that it erred on the side of saving a life? I mean, would you allow a child in front of you to be picked up and thrown against a wall? Well, why not protect it a little earlier?
And so, go back far enough to make sure that you are not killing a child. It's the safest way.
Besideds, it's not like this is the only source of stem cells for research. Heck, why not use some other animal?
(I'm sure they use some, but why not more?)

By Mark Smith (not verified) on 31 Jul 2006 #permalink

Thanks for that explanation!! It's neat to know how it works. It's also good to know how it doesn't work (doesn't kill a fertilized egg; it prevents conception). I think a good way to put it might be that, on a reproductive level, this is the chemical equivalent of a condom. (As always, STDs are another thing of course.)

James, sorry for being a few years late, but I just stumbled across this now via a Google search.

Allow me to make a few points:

- first, our politicians (and communities) get to make decisions about what to spend tax dollars on. Commenting on the moral framework they try to peg such decsions on is of course also fair game.

- second, you`ve missed a couple interesting aspects of the discussion of what it means to be a "human being" for moral and legal purposes.

-- there is the curious case of human chimera, along a scale from individuals who are carrying around pieces of a twin (usually fraternal) partially absorbed in utero, to individuals for whom it is difficult to determine gender because they are mixture of two differently gendered embryos, to complete chimera, who represent a heterogeneous fusion of two non-identical embryos.

-- we tend to forget that when we are talking about "us" we are talking only about our diploid phase, and that sperm and eggs are not part of any person, but each distinct biological entities, though haploid. There are still plenty of other species (relatively simply plants, etc.) which an observer can rummage about in nature and find both the diploid and the haploid versions, happily living completely separate existences. We might discriminate against them because they are not diploid, but our haploid cousins are very much human.