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Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Left Over Embryos: Cannibalism?

I have to admit something up front: this isn't about the linked article. But the last sentence reminded me of something that I've wanted to address for awhile:
As well as being against abortion in all cases, the Church opposes stem-cell research which extracts useful cells from unused embryos left over from fertility treatments.

This notion that "left-over embryos" might as well be dismantled for whatever components they many yield bothers me quite a bit. Given my own beliefs about abortion, that might not seem surprising, but there are some people who are anti-"elective abortion" who are not troubled. Even my hero Charles Krauthammer endorses the idea.

I will concede all the obvious points. There are many such embryos, and most will never mature. Oh sure, there are a few "snowflake babies" out there, but I'm reasonably sure that the number of added to frozen storage far exceeds the number being rescued - there is no competion.

And yet, every time I encounter the idea of "canniblizing" these unwanted embryos for parts, I find myself wondering: why we bury human cadavers? For that matter, why do we bury pets? Is there no use for those bodies? Sure, they may not be good eatin' any more - but why not at least mulch them up as fertilizer?

Of course, we do "canniblize" bodies in some ways. We harvest parts for transplant from both the living and the dead. But, if the corpsed was an adult, they had to have give explicit consent. If the patient was a child, the parents can give consent in their place, but there is still a catch: it's illegal to kill a child after it's been born, even for the parents.

Since killing an embryo is not illegal, is that difference enough to let its parents' consent to it's use? Well, let's think for a moment. Imagine a mother with two children: a favorite with a fatal condition requiring a transplant, and a hated but healthy sibling. Could that parent kill the hated child, accept the punishment demanded for murder, but still given consent to let the hated child's organs be given to the favorite child? I'm sure many people would say yes, since at least it saves the surviving child. But that just seems wrong to me. Laws serve, to some extent, as lower limits on acceptable behavior. Deliberately killing one child, even if it might save the life of another child, seems below that lower limit.

In any case, we do not handle corpses as we do out of practical considerations like laws or science; we do so out of reverence. Some many consider reverence primitive; but I disagree. Of all creation, only man is capable of reverence, and only modern man has exhibited it. When anthropologists find an elaborately buried man, they consider it a sign that his civilization was advanced. How then could a return to an animalistic, primitive lack the reverence be considered an further advance?

Finally, some may agree with my reasoning, but argue that the potential benefits outweigh any principled objection. To such people, I can only remind them of this joke, which I've seen attributed to the likes of Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill:

Man: My dear lady, you delight me. Would you consider joining me in my bed for, let us say, a million pounds?

Woman: Why sir! You flatter and intrique me. I can only hope to prove worthy of your generousity...

Man: Would you consent for, perhaps, ten pounds instead?

Woman: Why sir! What do you take me for?

Man: What you are has already been established. I am simply negotiating the price.

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