So Obama has decided that federal funds should go to embryonic stem cell research. For those unfamiliar with the debate, pro-lifers have no issues with stem cell research per se (they are not anti-science). Rather they are opposed to scientific research that crosses ethical boundaries. Some will say that they are putting ‘ideology ahead of science’. This is a convenient and intentionally deceptive line because everyone thinks ethics should constrain science. For instance, no reasonable person thinks it would be morally permissible to use people as involuntary subjects of scientific studies.
I won’t bother here with the more dogmatic argument that life begins at conception. If we had dogmatic understanding, the matter would be easy to discern. One of these two scenarios would hold:
(a) The embryo is human (has human rights) and we know that.
(b) The embryo is not human and we know that.
I think most would agree that in case (a) the destruction of embryos for scientific experimentation is morally wrong and that in case (b) there is no prima facie moral reason to refrain from the destruction of embryos.
While this is an important discussion, I am more interested in starting on Obama’s own turf. Obama claims to not know when human life begins (that is, when the unborn has recognizable human rights). It is, as he famously remarked, ‘above my pay grade’. So let us assume that no one knows when human life begins. Objectively speaking, there is a metaphysical fact of the matter, but we will assume a kind of skepticism as to those metaphysical facts. Then what?
Assuming this skepticism, it seems to me there are then 2 possible scenarios:
(c) The embryo is human, but we don’t know that.
(d) The embryo is not a human, but we don’t know that.
What of the moral permissibility of destroying embryos, assuming Obama’s skepticism?
Let’s look at case (c) in this way: Imagine you are in the demolition business. If you are going to blow up a building, you have the moral responsibility to be sure that there are no people inside. If you blow up a building and it turns out there are people inside, you bear moral responsibility for their death. It is not murder, but it is manslaughter. Pleading ignorance would not exonerate you. Sure, you did not know there was a person in there, but you didn’t know there wasn’t either. The act was, at best, incredibly irresponsible and involves real moral culpability (even if that moral culpability falls short of murder).
Let’s turn to case (d): Imagine your demolition company blows up a building without first checking that it was empty of people. Even if you luck out and there are no people, you’ve still acted in an incredibly irresponsible way – really every bit as irresponsible as in case (c). We call this criminal negligence.
Based on these arguments that start with Obama’s own proclaimed ignorance of when human life begins, he has just allowed for government sanctioned and funded manslaughter or, at best, government sanctioned and funded criminal negligence.
That seemed too easy – what have I missed?