Delusions of Personhood: Philosophy and Stem Cells (with links to Whelan/Miller and Ponnuru arguments)

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Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review wrote a September 24 piece, "Delusions of Moderation," attacking embryonic stem cell (ESC) research. He criticized ACSH president Dr. Elizabeth Whelan and ACSH Director Dr. Henry Miller for their earlier defense of ESC, charging them with euphemistically promoting the mass-murder of tiny human beings.

It is very difficult to speak in morally neutral terms about the topic of ESC and still speak in a way that is acceptable to pro-life conservatives such as Ponnuru. But his central complaint is that pro-ESC commentators, and the medical establishment generally, are using the promise of ESC-derived treatments to talk around the (purported) fact that ESC research kills countless tiny humans -- what pro-life libertarian columnist Deroy Murdock once called "microscopic-Americans" (and not, he claims, merely as a joke).

Ponnuru is so convinced that a blastocyst, the microscopic ball of undifferentiated cells that exists shortly after an egg cell is fertilized, is a person, he even objects to Whelan and Miller's rather generous (to my mind) characterization of blastocysts as "potential" people. That's an insult to the true status of blastocysts in Ponnuru's book:

W&M say we should be concerned about "actual -- not potential -- people." They say this as though it constituted an argument. But very few reflective people argue against killing human embryos because they are "potential" human beings, whatever that would even mean. The vast majority of opponents of ESCR and its funding argue that human embryos are actual human beings. They are human beings in the embryonic stage of development.

I am not a doctor. I am not a scientist. But like Ponnuru, I enjoy philosophy and know that it depends upon terminological clarity. So let me state my position -- not necessarily that of everyone who defends ESC -- very clearly: a microscopic ball of undifferentiated cells is not a person. (I hope he won't accuse me of euphemism.) I have indeed known pro-lifers who took the view that blastocysts are inviolate precisely because they have the potential to become humans, and I must confess I thought this was the one remotely plausible argument for defending blastocysts against destruction: they aren't people yet, but they could be eventually, so leave them alone. (Of course, that argument would raise other strange questions, such as how one gauges "potential" -- if an egg is fertilized in a petri dish and will never get near a womb, does it have potential? On the other hand, if, as seems likely, the distant day comes when science can, with the proper application of chemicals, turn any cell into a fully-diversifiable or "pluripotent" stem cell, should every cell in the body then be treated with the respect afforded a potential person?)

But if Ponnuru -- and, he claims, all other right-thinking pro-lifers -- are dismissing the "potential" argument, what are they left with? They apparently have some definition of "person" so broad that blastocysts already qualify, as-is. Now, I object as strongly as any pro-lifer to what might be called the social-definition arguments for the non-personhood of embryos -- that is, the argument that something simply isn't a person until we all agree, possibly through voting or some other indication of assent, that it is a person. Feminists will sometimes argue, for instance, that until we bestow citizenship on an entity and accept it into the community of persons, it isn't "really" a person, as though it were simply a matter of popular will. That line of argument is, I think, wrong and dangerous -- one can easily imagine that this view might bode ill for disliked or outcast members of a community, too, whether street urchins, clones, or super-intelligent robots, whose personhood some might choose to deny.

Persons Per Se

I think there are objective, albeit complex and debatable, criteria for personhood, regardless of what the consensus of the general public -- or the consensus of stem cell research scientists, or the consensus of pro-life religious adherents -- is. Presumably Ponnuru and I agree on that and simply differ on what those objective criteria are.

My criteria for personhood would at the very least, though, entail that an entity have a mind. There is a reason, after all, that we think someone who loses an arm is still a person while someone who loses a head ceases to be one, and it's not just the fact that it's much harder to keep someone's heart and lungs pumping when he loses his head. It's that his mind -- which is what made him a person rather than just a big lump of flesh and blood -- is gone. You might hear people say, "He lost his leg, but thank goodness he survived!" I submit that you will never hear even the most ardent pro-lifer say, "His head was destroyed, but thank goodness he survived!" (not even in an era in which a headless body could be kept "alive" indefinitely on machines).

Echoing the brilliant artificial intelligence researcher Douglas Hofstadter (specifically, the concluding chapters of his book Le Ton Beau de Marot), I am even willing to concede that in some sense the mind is a non-material thing -- not that it has ever been demonstrated to survive without the fleshy medium of the brain, but it is, after all, a pattern (of thoughts) rather than an object. In principle, that pattern could perhaps be replicated in another medium than the one in which it was originally found: minds might someday be uploaded to electronic containers or downloaded into robot bodies. It is the mind that matters, not the flesh. Call that non-material pattern the soul, if you wish, even at the risk that the pro-life crowd will pounce on the word as an implicit endorsement of all their religious claims.

A severed arm, by comparison -- or a kneecap, or a lone fingernail clipping -- does not have a mind even though it is flesh, and it is precisely for this reason that one never speaks of a severed arm or a fingernail clipping as a fellow-being, let alone a fellow citizen with rights. We naturally treat human remains with a certain amount of respect (well, the arm at least, maybe not the fingernail clipping) -- witness recent furious debates about ownership of organs in England, chronicled by Spiked-Online (part of a larger debate raging there about the proper balance between medical bureaucracy and "patient-centered health care"). But we do not treat remains -- certainly not partial remains -- as a still-living person, even if they're hooked up to machines that keep blood flowing through them.

For that matter, mindlessness is the reason we don't treat, say, rocks or refrigerators as people with rights. It is also the best argument for thinking that animals, while of some moral significance (because they have some intelligence), are not the moral equals of humans (despite the fact that animal rights militants are now training for hand to hand combat and sabotage and are committing a growing -- but underreported -- list of terrorist attacks with each passing year, as the group ConsumerFreedom frequently warns).

Minds Matter

If minds are important, then there is an important and very real moral gulf between a walking, talking human being and a microscopic, mindless, nervous-system-less, undifferentiated ball of a few dozen cells. An argument could be made, using my premises, that a sufficiently developed fetus, with nerves and an incipient brain and the ability to feel pain, is a person and deserves protection -- but that is not the state of affairs with a newly-fertilized egg cell, or a blastocyst in the crucial early days, which is precisely when ESC researchers are interested in them. Since it is precisely undifferentiated cells that scientists want to use, there is no plausible slippery-slope danger of scientists saying "the next logical step is to carve up five-month-old fetuses, and then nine-year-old children" -- it is, by definition, those as yet undifferentiated cells that scientists are after for ESC research purposes.

Conservatives often accuse their foes of reductionist thinking, of regarding humans as mere piles of chemicals. But if I say a person is something with a mind, whereas Ponnuru says that a microscopic ball of cells is a person, who is the real reductionist and who has the loftier vision of what a real person is?

Of course, it may be that Ponnuru doesn't really care about any of this rational analysis. He accuses Whelan and Miller of engaging in euphemism, but perhaps he is the one who is holding out on us. Isn't it likely, after all, that what he and most opponents of ESC research really think is, in essence, that we must protect the tiny zygote from the moment of fertilization because that's when God puts the soul into the cell? And if they think this, regardless of the millions of humans who may agree with them, I'd say they're obliged to offer us some evidence for the claim. (Biblical references would not seem to suffice for purposes of rational, secular argumentation -- but even if they did, the zygoteans, as I've called them in a previous article, would be in a tough spot, since there's no real Biblical support for the very specific claim that the soul enters the zygote upon fertilization. This is mere assertion and assumption by generations of believers, who could just as plausibly assert that the soul enters gradually over the course of gestation, say, around the time brain tissue develops. Who knows? And how do they know?)

If, despite his great command of rational philosophical argumentation, what Ponnuru really thinks is that he knows exactly when God puts the magic in the blastocyst and knows that it's the magic, not any mind, that makes a person, let him come clean and see how logical his arguments sound then. He might at best argue that it could, hypothetically, be the case that the magic that constitutes personhood is already in those blastocysts -- but he will then more clearly than ever be guilty, as Whelan and Miller say, of granting more moral weight to potential/hypothetical people than to the very real ones that we know long for the benefits of ESC research. I'll take demonstrable, observable benefits over schemes to protect mindless-magical-maybe-people any day. So should you.

UPDATE: See Ponnuru's rejoinder on's The Corner blog (my only big quibble with which is that he seems to gloss over my point about a headless body ceasing to be a person even if it's kept otherwise "alive," its lungs and heart operating and so forth, since that now-missing mind was crucial to its moral/person status, not just its bloodflow and such).

Todd Seavey will debate the marginally related topic of whether society is sexually repressed (he says no, but Marcia Baczynski from will argue yes) at Lolita bar on Manhattan's Lower East Side, at the northeast corner of Broome and Allen, on Wednesday, October 6 at 8pm. The views he expresses there, like the ones expressed here, do not necessarily reflect the views of ACSH or FactsAndFears. But it'll still be good.