stem cells via "virgin conception" an untidy problem for the pro-life view of things?

As I often try to argue, the idea that there is some clear line over which an egg/sperm becomes a distinct individual, making it obvious that it should be considered a full human being just like all other humans is basically nonsense.

One of the clearest problems with that idea is parthogenesis: essentially virgin births (eggs simply developing into an individual rather than needed to be fertilized). Common in many other species (though in a large number of different ways in underlying genetic mechanics), parthogenesis is unlikely in most larger mammals mostly because the mechanisms to make it happen don’t exist in us. But as a technical problem, there is no mystical barrier preventing it from happening, and almost certainly it will be possible to make happen by artificial means. While current techniques create a whole host of genetic and developmental problems, there is likewise no good reason why these hurdles cannot be overcome as we better understand the mechanics involved.

Even without doing so, however, scientists are right now trying to develop techniques to harvest stem cells from these “parthenotes.”

My question is this: are THESE sorts of stem cells objectionable to pro-life people? Apparently from the article, many activists have already decided that they are. The problem is, parthenotes, especially when they are never induced or allowed to grow into fetuses (with current sloppy techniques, it’s unlikely that many of them even COULD make it to that stage, and it would certainly be wrong to intentionally make someone be born with a predictable abnormality, especially one that would likely lead to an early death), seem to be a huge problem for the arguments pro-life people conventionally make against embryonic stem cell research.

Namely, there is no “distinct individual” moment that comes from the union of sperm and egg. Human egg cells have a FULL complement of DNA: it’s just that normally half of it is jettisoned, replaced by the sperm’s half as egg cell begins to divide and develop. Given that all that is required to make egg cells develop into full human beings are some physical and chemical signals that trigger particular functions in the egg cell, it seems that either the logic of pro-life activists should be that unfertilized eggs are essentially “dormant” people deserving of full protection of the law (mestruration is murder!) or their logic breaks down entirely (as I think it does anyway).

After all, they have the full complement of DNA describing how to construct what will be a distinct individual, and all that is required is the right signals and environment to make it happen (you might argue that the “electrical shock” or other artificial modifications are what somehow turns the egg into a person, but this response seems disingenuous given how much fuss pro-life people usually make over the DNA and cell alone). After all, embryos will not naturally develop unless they are given the correct chemical signals that come from a successful implantation in the mother’s tissue, so you could just as well argue that if minor changes are what makes something human, implantation is when they are “complete” not fertilization).

Maybe that’s why they have to be so vocally against embryonic stem cell research: not because they seriously think that a blob of DNA with no nervous system deserves rights or that killing it is really murder, but rather because too much knowledge about these areas of life basically clouds and messes up all their careful, simplistic arguments about life starting as a bright line right at conception or “embryo just being what a human being looks like at that point in life.” So instead, we get all this “franken-science” stuff to scare people off of thinking about it too much.

P.S.: Which is not to say, at all, that there aren’t VERY serious ethical concerns involved with genetic research and manipulation: whether it be humans or other creatures. There are many dangers (creating new diseases accidentally, causing creatures to develop and be born with horrid physical and functional defects, a whole host of social issues, etc). It’s just that I don’t think manhandling or even killing a cell in a test tube is one of them, whether it has human DNA or not.

Just a nitpick on an interesting and thoughtful OP:

Well, sure there’s such a clear line. It’s called “gestation” or “pregnancy”. Nobody disagrees that a separate sperm cell and egg cell don’t constitute a distinct human being, and nobody disagrees that a newborn baby does.

Narrowing that line down to a specific moment in the gestation process that everyone agrees on, however, is what you rightly describe as impossible.

Such a large period is the very definition of not having a clear line.

By way of background, I’m not someone who has yet come down on one side or the other of the abortion debate, so hopefully this question isn’t too inane, but;

If there is no clear line over which a thing becomes a distinct individual, and since a line must be drawn SOMEwhere since clearly some things should be allowed to live, where should that line be drawn?

Or to put it differently, in an ideal world would we be able to look at a thing and calculate both its chance of survival and it’s life expectancy (I include the second factor because I feel as though it’s more reprehensible to kill something that could live another 80 years as it is to kill something that has only another 10, although some people may disagree), multiply the numbers together and if the result is less than or equal to an agreed upon number, then it’s okay to destroy it, and if it’s greater - then the thing must be allowed to exist?

Hmm, that’s a long sentence…probably goes to show that I don’t yet have a good grasp on the issue. I guess my question is, if the legal abortion line is fairly arbitrary, are pro-lifers comfortable with that? Or where should the line be? (The line I’m referring to now being the line at which something may/may not be destroyed, not the line at which it becomes a “distinct invidivual”). If I’m too off-topic feel free to disregard this post. :o


No, KidScruffy, you are right on the meat of the issue and the meat of the op.

Right to Lifers claim a clear line. They have revealed truth on their side. The answer may be simple but it is easy to understand: Any fertized egg has a human soul. Any body with a heart that beats (even if the brain is kaput swiss cheese) has a human soul. Every human soul is worth protection. Unsure if this is right? Err on the side of defending innocent human souls.

Pro Choicers see that it is very fuzzy and want to cut a wide swath for individuals to decide for themselves. Even if the swath goes so far as to make them just a little uncomfortable themselves. But only a little. So many of these Americans are against abortion but pro-choice. Up to a point that makes them too uncomfortable too.

The op is attempting to flesh out where it would be fuzzy even for those who claim a clear bright line. To illustrate that their discomfort is really more based on how close these cells are to becoming a cognizant human being, rather than being a clump of human cells, and that they just draw that arbitrary line in a different place than many others. I believe that the op is trying to get the right to lifers to see that there is no singular moment that the ghost begins to inhabit the machine, but instead a consensus of when the cells are developed enough that we imbue it with the rights of an individual life.

It is a fruitless exercise I am sure. The security of having simple bright lines is just too attractive to many. Even if they need to modify it to “once the machinary is in motion to develop cells in the pathway of individual life, they are imbued with a soul” to do it.

The thrust of the OP is ultimately against gross and unworkable essentialisms.

Given the reality of things like cloning and parthogenesis, egg cells (and even skin cells) are essentially just as much dormant human beings as fertilized embryos. So, every time a woman fails to become pregnant and mensturates, she is dooming to death a potential child (every sperm is sacred!). After all, unfertilized egg cells are just what human beings happen to look like at that stage in life, as Ramesh Ponnuru once said.

My position has always been that a particular sort of functionality is what is relevant to moral treatment: the present existence of a functioning capacity. Dead bodies are not re-murdered by further mutilation: they have already ceased to be anymore capable of functioning as feeling beings (but then, that isn’t a very good hard line either: once we acquire the technology to bring deader and deader bodies back to life, I expect that mutilating an only briefly dead person would rightly be seen as an aggrivation of murder or murder itself). Likewise, embryonic stem cells, whether derived from fertizllized or unfertilized eggs, are simply not functioning in any way shape or form relevant to prohibitions against killing them. They are, quite litterally, chemical machines tasked with carrying out the construction of that functionality. But at the stage of stem cells: heck even at most of the stages of the fetus, that functionality simply has not been constructed yet, and we are left considering not the being that might be, but the being that is. We might all come to all sorts of different conclusions about what sort of treatment is just given what state of functionality, but those arguments need to be based on some real grappling with the being before us.

I think the reaction in the article of the pro-life groups to parthogenetic research is telling. They are unwilling or unable to directly acknowledge its implications, and instead have to fall back on the much vaguer “playing god” complaints (complaints not without merit, but really a quite different subject and ethical matter, and having little to do with the very serious trouble facing their underlying core arguments).