January 05, 2007

Hybrid embryos

Writing about web page http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6230945.stm

Some scientists afraid that this line of research will be blocked are blaming religious groups for their bigotry. As an atheist I want to stand up and be seen as saying that that is a cheap shot. It’s not just religious people who have strong feelings about this. It’s about whether or not we place a real value on human lives.

Or whether humans can be farmed and used as laboratory animals. Have humans simply become one more commodity to be traded and profited from?

I have nothing but sympathy for people who have uncurable diseases but we are not gods. We cannot cure every illness by applying our considerable science to it. We have to draw a line, in my opinion, between what we can treat easily and conditions that we can only treat by turning sufferers into monuments to medical engineering. Where is the dignity in long term suffering just to avoid death? We all die sooner or later and I have written before ( http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/richardstevenson/entry/planet_earth_standing/ and http://blogs.warwick.ac.uk/richardstevenson/entry/how_will_you/) about the need to preserve people’s dignity in death. Why are we so afraid of death now as a society?

In the past (quite recently, too) a person who gave birth to a handicapped child would do its best to save the child, feeding it and caring for it but when it died from natural causes there would of course be grief. The point is, though, that the child would not have suffered for long and there was no long drawn out lingering death for the parents to cope with. Why can we not act like this now?

And if we value human life so much as try to act like magicians or gods and save everyone, where is the sense in farming other humans? It is a contradiction to say that it is okay that humans have no value because humans are so valuable.

Perhaps it is fine as long as someone is making some money from it.


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  1. Chris May

    We cannot cure every illness by applying our considerable science to it.

    Do you mean ‘cannot’ (which is true, at least right now, but not really relevant to your argument) or should not?

    As to whether or not you think this is acceptable, I guess it all depends whether you think that an embryo (of the sort being experimented on) is a human life, or not. It’s oversimplification to describe this as ‘farming humans’, although it makes a good headline.

    05 Jan 2007, 11:31

  2. Dan

    “Why are we so afraid of death now as a society?”

    I don’t think that fear of death has ever gone away its perhaps the single most important motivating factor in the formation and continuation of religion. In a sense its the one thing that we can never have any direct experience of while alive and thus will always remain a mystery and to many who truly enjoy their lives a terrifying one. If you can truly accept that beyond death lies nothing because there is no beyond death then that is surely a great weight to be considered. I doubt there are many people on to his planet who are able to stand face to face with the end of everything with joy. Everyone should be afraid of death, because unlike vampires, spiders and tall buildings its definitely going to get you.

    Secondly, I’m not sure I agree that all of this stem cell/embryo research type therapy is concerned with putting off death for a while. To many people it is about making massive differences to their day to day lives that will allow them to once again function normally in a society they have been unwillingly forced out of by a quirk of genetics.

    Thirdly, I want to make a personal comment on humanistic assumptions. Why is it that we as humans regard ourselves, as a species, to be something above and beyond the rest of our reality? Why is a collection of atoms that form part of my left arm more intrinsicly valued than a similar collection of atoms in a table or rock? At the atomic level one would likely struggle to find a reason for this valuation. Where is the ‘god in the machine’ that allows us to claim atomic supremacy? This is the question that differentiates people’s moral judgements. I decided that the valuation for myself came at the stage of capacity to feel pain/suffering.This judgement that when applied generally led to some interesting consequences (vegetarianism, a sort of pyramid of moral consideration based on intellectual complexity, support for pre-pain aware abortion) some of which confirmed my already held judgements and some of which overturned them. Of course living up to any moral standard at all times is difficult and I’m sure that I’ve cocked up several times, but its still nice to have a consistent standard which I can live up to where I know exactly the origins and reasoning that underlie it.

    I’m not sure that your position on this issue can be justified in a similarly coherent moral way without recourse to a pure valuation of ‘the human’, but I expect you feel otherwise. As you are someone who has obviously thought more thoroughly and consistently regarding their values (I always find aethiests to be the most moral and likeable people) I’d be interested to hear your reasoning.

    Of course we could always just sod the whole thing and let god sort it out eh? :)

    06 Jan 2007, 10:38


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