Saturday, October 28, 2006

My Interview with Michael J. Fox*

Father: Mr. Fox, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. It's quite a coup for my insigificant blog.

Actor: Well, you said we were cousins!

Father: I didn't do that!

Actor: I know; I'm just kidding.

Father: Mr. Fox, obviously we're going to discuss your recent foray into electoral politics. And I want to say I think the attention given to whether you've taken your medicine, or how you might move about--I think these are distasteful. And, if you don't mind me saying so, a little dopey, because isn't what you actually said in your recent ads and appearances what we should talk about?

Actor: No, I agree.

Father: That's fair game isn't it? You have a position--and there's nothing wrong with you advocating it--but your position is part of the debate, that's fair game to respond to, to criticize?

Actor: Sure, absolutely.

Father: We're talking about research, involving stem-cells. You've said they hold a lot of promise.

Actor: That's right. Some very exciting things are happening, and as I said, millions of people care very deeply about the promise of this research. A lot of lives could be changed for the better.

Father: True. Now, to explicate this subject, let me offer this description, and you say if you think it's fair. There are many ways to characterize this stem-cell research, but you can divide it into the following two categories: one set of means of research that involves no significant moral and ethical controversy, and another, that does.

Actor: That's true.

Father: You have stem-cells from adults, from unbilical-cord blood, that--as far as I know--no one has said its immoral, or ethically troubling. That research is happening now, and it receives tax funding.

Actor: That's right.

Father: And you're for that research?

Actor: Absolutely.

Father: Now, you are well aware of the other aspect of this: that much of the research involves deriving stem-cells from human embryos. And in deriving those cells, the embryo is destroyed.

Actor: Yes, but they would have been destroyed anyway.

Father: I'm not trying to put you on the spot--I'm just trying to be explicit about why this is a controversial issue for anyone. You understand it's because there's a human embryo involved, that's why anyone has a problem with this.

Actor: Yes, I realize that. But that's a moral viewpoint, and I respect it, but we need to see where science will take us.

Father: OK, but you do acknowledge these two categories of this research--that which involves no significant moral questions, and that which does?

Actor: No, that's fair to say.

Father: Because, in your ads, you didn't make that distinction.

Actor: Well, things like that are going to be summary.

Father: But do you think this is a significant aspect of the question?

Actor: I think we need to pursue the research, without being held back. Jim Talent would have made a large measure of the research illegal.

Father: As would I.

Actor: There you go.

Father: You understand why?

Actor: I realize it's part of your church teaching. No disrespect, but it's a religious viewpoint, and I respect that, but I think we should pursue this on the basis of science.

Father: This may surprise you, but I agree with you to a large extent. Not entirely, but maybe more than you know. Neither of us is an expert in biology or genetics and so forth--let's concede that--

Actor: True.

Father: --but it happens to be a fact of science that when a sperm and an egg come together, what results is a new life. Not part of either parent. This isn't religion--it's science. So an embryo is not part of someone's body; it's a new life. And by definition, a human embryo is a new human life.

Actor: But we're not talking about a baby, or a full grown human being--not even a set of cells, but a single cell!

Father: I understand that. That's how all of us started life.

Actor: The religious part--I shouldn't try to talk to a priest about religion, but oh well!--but the religious part is when you say that one cell is the same as a full grown person.

Father: That's true. But may I subsitute for "religious," "moral"?

Actor: But it is religious dogma, isn't it? Is for you?

Father: Certainly. My point is that many agree with me about this without sharing my religious dogma. Jews and Muslims and those who don't believe in God, who nonetheless agree with me about the value of that human embryo, clearly can't be said to do so on the basis of my religious beliefs, can they?

Actor: No, but they do it on their own religion.

Father: Not atheists. Do you claim all athiests agree with you? For that matter, are you really saying that this is a matter where God-believers are on one side, vs. all athiests on the other? I don't know your beliefs, and I make no assumptions about them in any way...

Actor: No, no, I don't mean that.

Father: I didn't think you did. What I'm saying is, you can't say it's simply "religious" when you have religious people on both sides; and also, non-religious people on both sides.

Actor: OK, so what do you call it?

Father: As I said, I'd call it a moral viewpoint.

Actor: Are you saying those who disagree with you are immoral?

Father: No, not at all. I'm saying, the difference reflects a different moral calculus.

Actor: All right, but then it's just semantic--I'd still say, we shouldn't bring morality into it.

Father: Now, let's think about that, okay? You don't really mean that.

Actor: Sure I do. People are entitled to their own moral values, but we're a pluralistic society.

Father: Right. And in various ways, we make collective judgments about what's good or bad for our society as a whole. That's what we're going to do in a few days--the election.

Actor: But what I'm saying is that morality shouldn't be forced into this, because it's holding back where we need to go.

Father: But you, yourself, are making an argument from morality -- don't you see that?

Actor: How so? I'm arguing for science, that's all.

Father: Well, I'm not obtuse, but let's take this apart and look closely at the question. Why is it important even to do this research? In your words.

Actor: Because it could save lives!

Father: Right, exactly. Now, here's the question: why is that important?

Actor: I don't understand. Surely you of all people want to save lives.

Father: Yes, certainly. I think we all do. My point is, that's a moral impulse. Or are you advocating saving lives purely as a matter of some scientific advantage? What's your reason for wanting to save lives?

Actor: All right, I think I see your point. But the thing is, that's something we all agree on.

Father: Granted. We all agree on saving lives.

Actor: But we don't all agree on an embryo being human--

Father: Pardon me, but can we say, "we don't agree on the value placed on the embryo, in relation to other human lives"? Because, I have to say, that an embryo is human is scientifically not in dispute.

Actor: Well, that seems like you're quibbling over terminology.

Father: Maybe; but maybe the reason it matters is precisely because merely calling an embryo "human"--carries a moral connotation with it? See what I mean? Language expresses moral values; so depending on our moral values, we prefer or avoid certain words.

Actor: And, as I said, we should leave the morality out of it.

Father: Yes, but it seems to me we can't; especially if our very language, which we use to talk to each other, has morality imbedded in it. What I'm saying is, all of us--you, me, the candidates you are endorsing or opposing--all bring moral values to this question. To put it very simply, we are all trying "to do the right thing." Isn't that true?

Actor: Well...

Father: Well--I think you are. I don't believe you are acting out of hateful or evil purpose. You want to save lives. Senator Talent--do you deny he wants to do the right thing?

Actor: Well, as he sees it.

Father: As he sees it. And you, as you see it. And me, et cetera. All of us are bringing our own moral values to this question. You can't take the morality out of it. I'd argue if you took the morality out of it completely, I'm not sure what reason there would be for pursuing this research at all.

Actor: Why do you say that?

Father: Well, this is going to sound shocking, I understand: but if we completely removed all moral impulses from this, I'm not sure we'd even care that people died of diseases. We wouldn't even feel bad about it. I'm not sure what we'd say, but perhaps something like, that's natural selection at work. Or, that's what happens. What would be our motive to save the lives of people facing so many diseases, if not the moral impulse that--because they are our fellow humans, we ought to save them?

Actor: I don't know anyone who thinks that way.

Father: Neither do I; or, at least, I hope I don't. But I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue this value-judgment we make about caring for one another as a matter of "science." What's "scientific" about it?

Actor: Aren't we better off, as a human family, if we defeat these diseases? Wouldn't it be good economically? I guess we could even talk about creating jobs...

Father: We might well be. I think so, personally, yes; but I am not claiming I necessarily can prove that, empirically. But I think I detected some distaste on your part, in offering that, particular argument just now. Am I wrong.

Actor: No; to be honest, I think this is a very strange way to talk about this issue--it's so...bloodless and cold.

Father: I totally agree. But I think you're making my point. Look: when have you, or anyone who feels as you do about this, made the argument in terms of Gross National Product, or jobs, or some, concrete measure? The argument you're making isn't of that sort. Rather, you're for this because it's the right thing to do.

Actor: Because it saves lives!

Father: Right--but's the right thing to do. Not jobs; not some concrete, this-world material-value. None of that enters in. Because you're making a moral argument: we should save more lives.

Actor: All right; so what?

Father: So--don't both sides get to make a moral argument? When you say, to your opponents, don't drag morality into it, that's disingenuous, because--as we've seen--you've dragged your morality into it. In fact, you've dragged everyones morality into it: you appeal to a moral impulse we all share.

Actor: I don't see what's wrong with that.

Father: I don't see anything wrong with it. My point is, your opponents are allowed to do that, as well. My criticism of your ad--of the position you advocate there--is that you didn't seem to concede that your opponents also have a valid, moral point to make.

Actor: I don't see that that is my job. That's their job in their ads.

Father: Okay, but--do you think Mr. Talent wants you to die?

Actor: No. I didn't say he did.

Father: No, you didn't. But when I saw your ad--which was very compelling--I thought, "will anyone wonder just why Jim Talent wanted to "criminalize" "research"? We've been talking about "research" for I don't know how many years in this country, for I don't know how many serious problems--when I was kid, the Muscular Dystrophy telethon seemed to be a major thing, and I helped a little with it one year. I can't remember there ever being any question of "criminalizing" any of that research. It never came up.

Actor: Right. And it shouldn't come up here.

Father: But my point is, the very fact anyone even brings it up ought to be a red flag--I mean, unless you're going to accuse the Jim Talents and Martin Foxes and everyone else--and there are millions of us, we're not just a few cranks (maybe cranks but not a few!)

Actor: Laughing. You said it, I didn't!

Father: I did. My point--are you simply going to dismiss all of us who oppose you on this as people with nothing valid to say? That we are, what--morally obtuse?

Actor: No, not at all.

Father: All right then--so my point: that in most cases, most of the time, no one gets concerned about research being problematic. Then along comes this particular question--and now we do have significant numbers of people with very strong concerns. Something is very different here. It's not just another form of research. Regardless of who really is right on this question--it's not simply just another form of research.

Actor: Pause. Is there something you wanted me to say to that?

Father: I guess...I wanted either you to say you agree or disagree.

Actor: I agree, of course. I think it's kind of an obvious point.

Father: Well, if it is obvious, then it undercuts the argument you just made that this is only a question of "science" and that we should just let science go where it will go. Because, of course, that's not what we do.

Actor: Sure it is. You just said in most cases, we let research go where it will.

Father: Well, that's not exactly what I said, certainly not my meaning. What I said was, it seems to me almost all the time, we don't have these debates about the research--and I think that's because most of the time, the research takes place within the boundaries that define what's acceptable and unacceptable. Boundaries that are, in fact, moral rather than "scientific." And it's precisely because this particular question, of research that involves destroying human embryos, we are crossing a boundary--and that is what is awakening lots of reaction.
But I totally dispute the assertion that science simply goes where it will. In fact, as a society, we do place boundaries on where science may go, and how it may carry out its ends.

Actor: How so?

Father: Well, for one, when people participate in research, they must give informed consent. There was a day that wasn't true, as you and I both know. For another, even when we don't involve people, but rather, animals, we insist on being "humane," and even with that, we do have real controversy over whether it's right--note that, that's a moral term--whether it's right even to use all. And--as you know, there have been times scientists have conducted research on human beings, in cruel and obscene ways--unspeakable ways--but the fact is, it was "research" . . . and while that is past--we hope!--the question remains: is it moral, is it ethical, to draw on the fruits of that horrible research?

Actor: you're speaking of the Holocaust.

Father: In part; but the principle applies any time you have research that crosses ethical boundaries we all agree on. In this country, African-Americans were involved in so-called research without their knowledge or consent. It was--we all agree--wrong. My point is, it is simply fallacious to say we let science go where it will. No we don't. We do set ethical--and here I go again!--moral boundaries.

Actor: So...what's your point?

Father: My point is, it would be nice if you acknowleged that more often. That it's not illegitimate to set boundaries on research. That's what I and everyone else, opposed to embryonic stem-cell research are doing.

Actor: You really think not using those embryos--which will be destroyed anyway--is more important than the cures we could obtain?

Father: I don't accept that either-or. Who says we can't do both?

Actor: But you're putting a huge chunk of the research off-limits. Doesn't that guarantee we'll take longer to get there?

Father: I don't know. It may. But, may I point out, that argument applies as well to every other boundary we place on research. But we still do confine scientific research to certain ethical boundaries, such as we talked about. By your argument, those, too, "slow us down." Isn't that the price we pay to be a civilized society?

Actor: You're saying my disease is the price we pay?

Father: Perhaps we could advance research by cutting off people's left hands--their right hands if they're left-handed. Why don't we do that?

Actor: but that's hypothetical. There is no such research.

Father: All right. There is research we could conduct on human fetuses--babies in the womb. Right now it's legal to get an abortion--

Actor: Wait--I'm not talking about abortion.

Father: No, you're not. I am. Let me finish. Right now, this is legal--and the tissue from the fetus can and is used for research. We could do things we don't, now, do, to have more fetal tissue.

Actor: Like what?

Father: Like, we could pay women to conceive babies, and then...well do you need me to spell it out. It's repulsive.

Actor: It is repulsive. Why do you bring it up?

Father: Because it's a real example of what you just said isn't true: where we slow down research because of a moral scruple. After all, abortion is legal. Using the remains for research is happening. So what holds us back from doing that a lot more -- other than we all find it repulsive? After all, it could save lives...don't you care? You see my point? I'm not trying to accuse you; I'm trying to illustrate another application of your own argument.

Actor: I don't see how this is connected.

Father: Well, it is connected to the question of cloning...

Actor: No it isn't. We're not talking about cloning...

Father: Well, I guess we have to decide what we mean by that. By cloning, I mean creating new embryos, but not in the way we've always created them--that is, with a man and woman contributing a sperm and an egg. As of right now, that's the only way we can "create" a human embryo. But if we go ahead with massive, full-bore embryonic stem-cell research, we eventually run out of the embryos in fertility clinics. Then what?

Actor: But no one is advocating--I mean, I'm not--advocating having cloned people walk around.

Father: That's true. But my point was, you agree that the question of producing embryos eventually comes up.

Actor: Well, but they aren't really embryos--they're just cells.

Father: Oh, now Mr. Fox, I want to be courteous and all, but come on! You can't talk about "embryonic stem-cell research" in one breath, and then quibble over the word embryo! If they aren't "embryos" then it's not "embryonic stem-cell research. The fact is, the proposal is to replicate, through what is commonly called "cloning," an embryo that otherwise would be created by uniting a sperm and an egg. And at some point, that's likely to become necessary.

Actor: But you're calling that an embryo.

Father: With all respect, I think as a matter of science, that's the proper term. We're talking about something that is factually indistinguishable from an embryo. Call it a "synthetic" embryo if you want; but the whole point is that it is an embryo, for purposes of science.

Actor: Well, all this seems pretty arcane.

Father: Are you saying it's not important? These details, and their significance, are irrelevant?

Actor: I don't know. For me, it's pretty simple, I guess; and I think it is for a lot of folks.

Father: Are you saying, in that, that it's "simple" for a majority of folks?

Actor: Well, I guess so. Yes.

Father: Are you appealing to the majority on this? I mean, is your argument, now, that your position is superior, or should win the say, because more people agree with you?

Actor: Well, are you saying your position should carry the day because a majority disagrees with you?

Father: Not at all. What I'm questioning is whether which side is in the majority settles the question of right-versus-wrong.

Actor: How else do you settle it?

Father: You and I are both white males. We haven't, historically, had to worry about being part of a marginalized minority. At least, far less so than many others. I'm saying, sometimes you have to put these questions beyond majority-rule.

Actor: So you don't even want the question placed on the ballot?

Father: That's exactly what I'm saying. I'm saying, I don't care if 99% of the people vote for something--that doesn't make it right. After all--suppose that referendum goes down in Missouri--it may--does that make you wrong? Will you change your position.

Actor: No.

Father: I suppose this is as good a place to conclude our talk; I mean, we can't settle this. But I hope you feel you had your say.

Actor: to some extent.

Father: Well, I wrote both parts, so it's a lot harder and riskier to try to come up with what you'd say. I figured this was less unfair to you.

Actor: Hmmm, that's a different way to look at it.

Father: You were gracious to take part. I didn't think I would convince you, although one always hopes! But I thought this is important to get into the substance of the question. Do you disagree? I mean, with that last part?

Actor: No, not at all.

Father: Wonderful to meet you. I've been asked if we were related...

Actor: Funny--no one has ever asked me that about you!

Father: I can't imagine why. Thanks a lot.

*As I rather doubted Mr. Fox would make himself available for such an interview, I have imagined what he might say. Too much cold medicine can have this effect.


Anonymous said...

Were you on the debate team in seminary? LOL Good points! I pray you feel better soon, seems like you've been sick forever!

Anonymous said...

That was really funny. I'm glad you won that argument! Really though, it was very well done and informative.

Tim said...

Wow, Father, that was great. WOuldthat all of us learned how to think critically as you do.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear just shows what out of date cough syrup does for you. Of course your argument outlines your position well but not so the advocates of such research.

I don’t know anyone who argues the embryos are not genetically human. Of course they are. Does that mean I equate an embryo with say Mr Fox’s life. No and nor do most people.

We can test this proposition. If a building is burning down do I save a Hollywood actor or a tray of vials containing 8 cell embryos. My gut reaction is that the ill actor is more deserving of saving than the embryos. Would I be morally perturbed at not saving the embryos? Not at all. While they are human they are not as human as Mr Fox.

My view is that because the embryos are not capable of independent life they are the property of the parents. If the parents decide to donate them for use in scientific research that results in the destruction of the embryos, I cannot see what interest the Government has in the matter. Likewise in principle if the parents wish to donate the embryo to another couple who cannot conceive.

I agree Fr Fox if you wish to strengthen the robustness of the species by allowing disease processes to take their “natural course” for yourself then that is entirely up to you – I had a relative who refused treatment for religious reasons – she died.

Likewise if you have a terminal disease and wish to participate in drug trialling that might have adverse consequences to you but might save millions that is entirely up to you so long as you can freely consent.

I strongly support individuals making moral decisions for themselves, their dependants and in this case their property with minimal interference from the State.

The fact there is a moral outrage from some over this issues signifies nothing other than there is a moral outrage. Moralisers often hold the view that their morality is so self evident, so compelling that it must be backed by the coercive power of the State. What’s new?

Now riddle me this: We have identified the tiny few genes in chimpanzees and humans that result in the capacity for speech. Assuming we genetically modified chimps so that they could speak would they be deserving of more or less or similar protections in research programmes as do say human embryos? What if chimps had the capacity of say a five year old human child?

Colleen said...

atiyah wrote: "Likewise if you have a terminal disease and wish to participate in drug trialling that might have adverse consequences to you but might save millions that is entirely up to you so long as you can freely consent.
Likewise if you have a terminal disease and wish to participate in drug trialling that might have adverse consequences to you but might save millions that is entirely up to you so long as you can freely consent."

Free consent. YOU can participate in whatever drug trials you like because YOU are consenting to it. The unborn cannot consent to medical trials. And when you mention them being "not as human" as a Hollywood actor, doesn't this argument break down when you consider than not everyone who has actually been born is able to speak for themselves?

What if that burning building in your scenerio contained an ill person who couldn't shout to let you know they were in there, are they less of a human than the one who can shout for help?

Don't get me started on the chimps. They are my favorite non-human primate. But animal research is entirely different from research on humans, born or unborn. And the truth is that there seems to be more of that "moral outrage" about animals than about humans! Pick up an issue of National Geographic if you don't believe me.

Of course, there is the odd person who kills an abortion doctor. But take a look at some of the insanity that surrounds the lives of animal researchers: activists threaten the lives of their spouse and children, all because they do research on animals! If anyone were threatening the families of embryonic stem cell researchers, we'd know about it, because EVERYONE who opposes such work would get lumped together as being like-minded with the extremists.

Fr Martin Fox said...


The "petri dish" illustration is clever and seemingly compelling -- except it's invalid, without a host of stipulations you didn't spell out, and I don't know if you assumed.

It can only be valid if the two compared are alike in all other respects, but the difference of maturity; but that is not the case.

The "petri dish" of embryonic human beings can't survive in the same fashion as a fully grown human being. A possible way to imagine the state of these embryonic human beings is that they are like folks bound to an iron lung -- the difference being that people actually in iron lungs are there because of a disease; whereas these tiny human beings are in this state because of a human intervention: they were conceived outside the womb -- itself morally repugnant -- and then, denied the environment -- the womb -- in which they belong at this stage of development.

So picking up the "petri dish" is like taking the patients in iron lungs, without their iron lungs. Same result.

So if faced with the choice between an actor who needs no iron lung, vs eight people who do, I'd have to go for the actor, for purely practical considerations, not because of any greater moral claim represented by his life or state of dependency.

The fact that these unborn children are in this situation as a result of human action reveals the depravity of it.

It's hard to supply an analogy for it, but I would offer this...

Suppose we took a child of, say 3 years old, and induced a coma, and attached her to a machine with imputs that neutralized all in-built instructions to grow: so that this 3-year-old lived and breathed, but did not advance beyond the physiological state of being 3 years old.

And, as a result of this intervention, the child now was dependent on the machine to survive. I.e., if removed from the machine, she would die.

And, after allowing this obscene treatment of developing human beings, along comes an industry that says, "Tsk, tsk! How shameful that we keep turning off these machines, and these semi-people 'go to waste'! At least with our industrial research project, we can make some good use of this situation."

And it is an industry -- don't kid yourself! Both at the "fertility" end of it, as well as the "research" end of it.

Oh, and about your chimpanzee question. My answer is, when it happens, we'll be able to evaluate the situation. It strikes me very strange that anyone needs convincing why even doing that is abhorrent.

But oh, what fun we can have! How about a human body, with a brain deliberately programmed at a "lower" level. Hmmm, what would the status of that being be? What use could be made of that?

Rich Leonardi said...

Great job, Fr. Fox. I'm going to send it to the Catholic Educators Resource Center.

Anonymous said...

I'd save the vials, but that's just me.

Anonymous said...

Catholic Wife and Mother:

Mmmm but assume that we gave the embryos the ability to speak what would they say? Nothing of course because there is no brain. In this regard they have less capacity that any insect on the planet.

If a burning building contains ill people who cannot speak I would of course be upset at their death more so than a tray of vials containing 8 cell embryos being killed in the fire. But let us use your example: who do you rescue the vials containing the 8 cell embryos or the comatose patient? Again my answer is the comatose patient without any doubt.

Fr. Fox:

I enjoy occasionally visiting your blog because you do consider the big issues and a broad range of them.

All models by their nature are artificial but they can still be helpful. Of course those that do not share your view do not concede that embryos are “tiny human beings” or “immature human children” rather they would say that they are tiny potential human beings. Consider the millions of skin cells I cast off each contains my complete genetic make-up. From these cell a cloned me could be made. Should I regard these cells as tiny human beings?

Contrast the embryo with the patient connected to the iron lung. For my part one is clearly a human being – has a brain, personality, reflexes, was capable of independence and still has some. The other has the potential to be a human being. Consider our model: if I cannot rescue the patient in the iron lung but could rescue the tray of vials containing 8 cell embryos at personal risk would I do it? No. Would I mourn the loss of the iron lung patient: yes – the embryos: No.

I don’t know why one would want to use a human child for research purposes by reducing their capacity which essentially increases their dependence. The key point is of course that they are a human child, whereas an embryo is an embryo. One has many of the incidences of humanity the other only a few. Inducing dependence in one human upon another is always questionable surely?

Nor do I know why one would want to genetically modify humans to lower capacity. In our complex world this reduced capacity wouldn’t be particularly advantageous. Machines for menial tasks are cheaper and lower maintenance surely?

Is it morally abhorrent to give chimpanzees the gift of language? They are our closest relatives – very high functioning, tool using, warring, murdering, with highly complex social groups with clearly discernable individual personalities – and the occasional meal for the odd African. Initially we would not be changing their reasoning ability just the ability to form words and express them – the ideas expressed would be theirs and initially very basic like that of young human children. One could work up a moral duty to give them the gift of speech could one not? It is only the smallest of genetic differences that gives us the gift of speech and them not.


Yes I somewhat compromised the strength of my argument when asking you to choose between a Hollywood actor and the vials.

Anonymous said...

Aityah - A chimp who can talk, use a reed to eat termites, enjoy complex social structures to include murder is genetically a chimp, always will be. Manipulate a gene to make it talk and it is a talking chimp, due the same dignity as a mute chimp. Turn on another gene to make it play piano and it will be a piano playing chimp with the same dignity and "rights" as a termite eating chimp. A chimp will always be a chimp, just with different skill sets.

A human embryo is human. The nature of the "value" of the embryo is the same to the scientist and the person of faith. The value is found in the human nature of the embryo. The unjust scientist values the human embryo because of the utility of its human parts. The person of faith values the embryo because it is in the image and likeness of God, because of its humanity. The dignity of a human is based solely on their humanity, not on their ability and it is always what it is, never changes in nature only in ability.

No matter what genetic manipulation a object undergoes, it is still what it is. A chimp is always a chimp (even if it not only speaks but writes music) and a human is always a human (even if the brain is yet to develop or develops at all). Humans and chimps have particular dignity not on what they can do or not do but because of what they are and always will be.

An eight day human embryo unjustly consigned to a petri dish, frozen solid, is just what every other human is at that stage of existence. It is only unjustly denied the comfort and love of a mother and consigned by some to be disemboweled for spare parts. This is an unjust choice made by others, as the embryo, being human has a right to its own parts, event if it can not formulate that concept intellectually (yet).

It would seem common sense that as a matter of science, the human embryo is human in every way consistent with age and a genetically engineered chimp is an ape in every way but with better speech as it seems that they do communicate with sound already. Thus, both the human and chimp have particular dignities based on what they are from the start, not what they can possibly be or do at some point in the future.

Terry said...

If the parents decide to donate them for use in scientific research that results in the destruction of the embryos, I cannot see what interest the Government has in the matter...I strongly support individuals making moral decisions for themselves, their dependants and in this case their property with minimal interference from the State.

The primary reason this issue is an issue is because those of us who see it as morally reprehensible don't want our tax dollars being spent on it. If it's such a private matter apart from the government, then let the mega rich Hollywood elites including Michael J. Fox fund it with their own money.

Anonymous said...


Of course I never said that a chimp given the genetic gift of speech is no longer a chimp. The point was to examine the issue of capacity.

I agree that initially such chimps would be the same as their non talking cousins. Perhaps eventually such talking chimps would evolve to be higher functioning than their non talking cousins though. Nor do we know that a chimp language would necessarily be English. But let us assume we teach these chimps as we teach young children for that is the capacity they probably have now. This would be a huge developmental leap for the chimps as they plug directly into our 10,000 years of language development let alone all other human progress.

The question of what rights one should assign such animals is much more complex.

Do you not feel at all morally queasy if the chimp sitting on a branch were to say to the hungry African hunting for dinner: “please don’t murder me.” Things are getting tricky. Being aware of self, that one is living and in risk of being killed, having an understanding of past and future, all of these are indicators of high functioning. Using the word “murder” is problematic as it indicates some moral system. Such chimps might express an interest in religion which is probably more likely than not and it may or may not resemble human religions.

Is such an animal just an ape and therefore food for hungry Africans as they always have been? I am not saying that such chimps are human what I am suggesting is that there are incidences of humanity which really is a statement about both form and functioning.

Nor have I said that a human embryo is not human - of course it is. There is more to being human than sharing the same genetic or similar genetic material, or the same developmental stage. After all for a while the human foetus resembles a reptile but that does not a lizard make.

I am perfectly happy for you to adopt a view about a human embryo resembling the image and likeness of God. I am also happy for you to adopt a view about the soul and at what point it becomes part of the embryo. However as Fr Fox acknowledges such views are not universally held and therefore we should be wary of imposing them through the law.


When did Government ever promise to tax you only for purposes that you morally approve of? Catholics pay taxes for Protestant faith based initiatives. Racists for bussing in public schools. Pacifists for the Iraq war. Republicans for the Federal subsidies for the Democratic presidential nominee. Home owners pay property taxes that are used against them for imminent domain claims by local government for their home. This list is endless. And if you refuse the pay taxes the Government will coerce the money out of you. There is much government activity that is morally questionable. I agree that if no government funds were spent on research your moral objection to being taxed for research using embryonic sourced stem cells would be strong. I guess the bigger question is why any of your taxes go to any research of any type.

Oh by the way stems cells sourced from the umbilical cord have just been used to grow a small piece of human liver.

Terry said...


The bottom line is that you contradict yourself by saying it should be a private matter when the whole issue revolves around whether the federal government should be spending money on it.

Anonymous said...


Contradiction? Not at all. My point is taxation has little to do with the morality of how taxes are spent. Government has never made any undertaking to you that your taxes are spent only for those purposes you morally approve of.

If only wish it were so, since I have moral objections to much of what governments do.

If there were no taxpayer subsidisation of ANY research of ANY type then I guess one could object to a proposal for subsidisation of this particular incidence of research. If your proposal is to have zero taxpayer subsidisation of all research I suggest you float the idea at your university and work up some support of the idea.

Of course as you know the debate in the US is wider than just taxpayer subsidisation of research.

Anonymous said...

Making up interviews with celebrities, Father? It must be nice to have that much free time on your hands.

Fr Martin Fox said...


Because of your repeated, rude behavior here, you are not welcome here.

Anonymous said...

There is a world of difference between "rude" and "critical," Father. It is a shame you are, seemingly, incapable of drawing that distinction.

Hang in there. Maybe Santa will bring you a dictionary for Christmas.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I created a thread all for you -- you'll find it here.

Any posts elsewhere will be deleted . . .

Of course, if you decide to behave courteously, you are welcome back to the rest of site.

Kasia said...


"Oh by the way stems cells sourced from the umbilical cord have just been used to grow a small piece of human liver."

Yes, and I don't know anyone who has raised objections to umbilical-cord or adult stem cell research, as Father addressed in the post. If anything, that seems to me to strengthen the Father's argument: we can get, and are getting, results from uncontroversial stem cell research. Why insist on using embryos?

I have difficulty with your argument that the embryo, being incapable of independent life at its stage of development, should be considered the property of the parents. It seems to me a short step to saying that persons who can't care for themselves - i.e. the profoundly handicapped or those with advanced Alzheimers - could likewise become property, since they cannot function on their own.

As for your point that you don't know why anyone would *want* to create the situations Fr. Fox proposed as analogies, I would point you back to your own (correct) observation: that all models are artificial. I don't see that the fact that the situation has not actually arisen, and that you and I don't see why it would, should mean that the model should automatically be discarded. Could you expand on that, please?

Anonymous said...


“we can get, and are getting, results from uncontroversial stem cell research. Why insist on using embryos”

I am neither insisting on such research nor suggesting it desist. I merely offer the example as evidence of the potential of such research wherever such cells are sourced.

“I have difficulty with your argument that the embryo, being incapable of independent life at its stage of development, should be considered the property of the parents”

Well, whose property is it? Should the government assign it the rights of a child? Should it enjoy the “right” to full gestation? Consider the public policy problems with this.

“It seems to me a short step to saying that persons who can't care for themselves - i.e. the profoundly handicapped or those with advanced Alzheimer’s - could likewise become property, since they cannot function on their own”

Unlikely as they have many more of the incidences of humanity than an 8 cell embryo does. Interestingly with children the Courts do have a big ‘Mother and Father’ role and often act similarity to this in cases of a dispute surrounding the wishes of a profoundly ill individual who is unable to communicate their wishes or has not made those clear.

“As for your point that you don't know why anyone would *want* to create the situations Fr. Fox proposed as analogies I would point you back to your own (correct) observation: that all models are artificial.”

Well done. Yes all models are artificial but not all models are both artificial and fanciful.

Fr. Fox’s scenarios are what is called “floodgate” or “slippery slope” arguments in public policy: “if you do ‘W’ then ‘X’ ‘Y’ & ‘Z’ will follow with ‘Z’ usually being end of civilisation as we know it. . I have seen more such floodgate or slippery slope arguments than in most hydro schemes.

Simply I don’t know what research advantages flow from reducing children to dependency on machines but there are overwhelming disadvantages and nor do I know what advantages flow from reducing the capacity of humans but again there are overwhelming disadvantages. This is of course aside from any ethical issues.

There are however many advantages that might flow from giving some chimpanzees the gift of speech. Developmentally it would be very interesting as is in some ways they might mimic our own development. When a talking chimp kills another, what would it say (if anything) to explain this behaviour. What sort of moral system (if any) does it. have.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I am not sure what "slippery slope" scenarios I proposed.

The idea of a human designed with lower mental ability was simply a response to what you, yourself, proposed -- the idea of chimpanzees that could talk. I offered it as the flip-side, if you will, of what you offered, because it seems to me the same questions are raised.

I don't know what other "slippery slope" argument I raised.

As to why someone would deliberately design a sub-human human -- as opposed to a machine: well, it's not true that machines can do what people can do -- let alone cheaper. People are hard at work trying to create replacements for various body parts, and they simply can't do it. Maybe someday; but I would guess we're pretty far away from that. After all, isn't that one of the reasons why stem-cell research is so urgent? To fashion replacement parts for people?

So if we can't fashion parts, it's hard to see how we're going to fashion a whole, robotic person.

That is why a sub-human would be an attractive option.

Am I predicting that, as a result of the slippery slope? No; simply responding to your question about a talking chimpanzee. Seems to me a sub-human is as likely as a talking chimp. And if upgrading a chimp somehow suggests an upgrade in status or worth . . .well, then why doesn't it work the other way?

Anonymous said...

Fr. Fox

But you actually dismissed any consideration of genetically modifying chimpanzees to give them the gift of speech as fanciful as self evidently morally objectionable. Remember genetically modifying them so that the can form words merely allows them to express themselves whatever that ‘self’is. We think they already have the capacity of a young human child the proposal is not to give them this capacity.

Here is your “civilization will end” proposition:

“But oh, what fun we can have! How about a human body, with a brain deliberately programmed at a "lower" level. Hmmm, what would the status of that being be? What use could be made of that”

Classic floodgates or slippery slope argument. If the harvesting of embryonic stem cells can be rationalised then this could/will result in rationalising babies connected to matrix styled machines and troglodyte humans for menial work or organ harvesting. Oh the depravity is there no end to the wickedness and immorality.

If one wanted to harvest human organs, why would one want them in a human body with all the moral and legal issues that arise with this, why not use an animal? But it still seems less the ideal when one could repair organs in situ or in the lab. Regenerative issues are interesting – very young children can have fingers and toes that grow back should they loose them. We are all born with this capacity but loose it. Now that we are (in the western world) living at least double our designed for lifespan renewing failing organs will become ever more important.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I did not so much dismiss the chimp thing as "fanciful" but as hypothetical.

I quote myself:

Oh, and about your chimpanzee question. My answer is, when it happens, we'll be able to evaluate the situation. It strikes me very strange that anyone needs convincing why even doing that is abhorrent."

When did I call it "fanciful"?

Yes, I did respond with a counter-scenario of sub-human humans.

However, I never linked that to embryonic stem-cell research. I made no prediction that it would happen. I offered it simply as the flip-side of your chimp example. Was your chimp scenario slippery slope?

I have twice now told you what my meaning was. Why is that insufficient?

Yes, I do think that would be a bad thing if it did happen.

Do you care to disagree with that?

Anonymous said...

Fr Fox:

Let us agree that both talking chimps and matrix babies/sub humans are both hypothetical I rather took that for granted. Nevertheless it can be helpful to restate the obvious. However while both are hypothetical one is more likely than the other.

But why on earth would one be the “flipside” of the other? I guess “flipside” is Ohio coda for the slippery slope.

One proposes to give voice to an existing intellectual capacity. The other proposes to actively reduce intellectual capacity and induce dependency in humans that have most of the incidences of humanity – to remove the richness of the human voice.

The fact that you equate the former with the morality of the latter is odd. Why would the former make morally permissible the latter, or the latter more likely?

I think that you are being way too cute. The scenario you outline is similar to language deployed by some to characterise the harvesting of embryonic stem cells.

That aside let us take your scenario at face value.

I don’t need to wait until “it happens” to assess the morality of both scenarios. While genetically modifying the ten genes in chimpanzees that would permit them to form words presents us with ethical problems, these are dwarfed by actively reducing human children to dependency on machines or genetically modifying humans to actively reduce their intellectual capacity for menial labour or organ harvest.

I doubt any system of ethics could adequately rationalise inducing dependence and reducing intellect capacity in humans where they exhibit most of the incidences of humanity.

Nor do I doubt that a system of ethics would evolve to rationalise the protection of other high functioning species should they exhibit some of the incidences of humanity.

Anonymous said...

I read thru the blog and greatly appreciate learning more. I have to say that in my opinion it all boils down to what value a person places on human life. As a Catholic and a person of faith I place infinite value on human life. Not all scientist do. They agree the embryo is human but with out faith, with out believing in God's revelation to us telling us that the human is immortal they can never come to the conclusions that a person of faith should come to. We simply believe that the human is above all creation and there is a soul at conception. I would like to see less scientific arguements made and get more on with educating people of faith and converting hearts to the truth. As long as there is a difference of opinion on when life begins and each life is immortal then there will be a grid lock. Yes, there are some things that are written in all human hearts although some choose to suppress the truth but unless a heart recieve faith from above they can never make sense of why we would uphold the sanctity of an embryo's life! This is revelation give to the church. Our glorious churchs duty is to make disciples which necessarily depends on conversion of hearts. How can the church be a converting voice when people look at us and discount us. They do not know us or believe we have any viable thing to offer because we do not resemble the people that love one another that points the world to God as scripture teaches us.

I am not saying that we should not enter into the scientific debate. We should because there are those little lost lambs that will hear you. I am saying we should not run from the opponent because they accuse of bringing "religion" into it.

I say admit we are, be proud of it and proceed to intelligently and compassionately evangelize. Read the Holy Father's works. The church has the perfect blue print to evangelize the scientific community. Again, thanks for an informative blog. God bless, Lynn

Anonymous said...

Atiyah's example misses the mark and ultimately begs the question posed in Father's hypothetical interview with Michael J. Fox. When we say that we place a greater value on A than on B, the word "greater" can have two different senses. It can mean either greater in degree or greater in kind. So, for instance, there are people dying every day and yet we do not mourn over them. We do, however, mourn over those who are near and dear to us. Does this mean that we place a greater value on the lives of our loved ones than on the life of the stranger? Well, the answer is "yes" if we mean greater in degree but "no" if we mean greater in kind. In so far as our loved ones and strangers are all human beings, we value their lives equally. But insofar as our loved ones are indeed loved and known to us, we feel their passing more deeply and, hence, can be said to value them to a greater degree. The same cannot be said for brutes, insects, and the like whose lives we do not value on a par with human life.
Now, in the case of the burning house, the reason we would save the life of the actor first is not because we do not equally value (in kind) the lives of the human embryos, but rather because we value the more developed human being to a greater degree. Why? Well, there are a variety of reasons. The adult human being may have a family which depends upon him and/or will miss him immensely if he dies, etc..... The point is that none of this entails that the human embryos are not of equal value qua human being. If we could, we would save both the actor and the embryos.
Atiyah's argument merely begs the question.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Still, I don't see where even that wonderful reason will convince anyone except the choir.

If a person does not have faith and believe that the human has a soul infused in it at conception and is made in the image of a good God these very logical and good reasonings will mean nothing.

I think the first thing in order is to explain and evangelize witnessing and proving our very personal God that we will all be held accountable and the embryo is actually His doing and creation. Until then, it is fruitless. It turns out to be some good, athletic mental gymnastics. Lynn

Anonymous said...

You have some good rhetoric, but with all due respect, perhaps you are being a little short-sighted when it comes to "intelligent" evangelizing. Sure grace is important - but so is reason. The exercise of reason can be the occasion of grace. You recommend reading JPII's writings, but I'm not sure why you think the position you've represented here is consistent with those writings (I'm thinking in particular of Evangelium vitae, Veritatis splendor, and Fides et ratio). The relationship of faith and reason is a complex matter; you seem to be in danger of assuming a nihilistic stance toward reason. Remember Fr. Fox's point about atheists (for example): they can be opposed to ESCR too and they can do so precisely because of good reasons. Certainly we should recognize when someone is just closed-minded and not ready to listen even to the clearest reasoning, but I don't think Atiyah has given us adequate grounds for drawing that conclusion about him/her yet (although I'd argue he/she has displayed a certain amount of stubborn obtuseness). You on the other hand seem to be coming close to this kind of close-mindedness - even if your beliefs about ESCR happen to be true. It takes a certain amount of courage (and who knows - perhaps even grace) for Atiyah to express views here. Surely our Christian duty is to respect that and not become defeatists about this kind of dialogue.

As for Ed's point only convincing the choir, that's probably correct in this case. It is clear that Atiyah doesn't think embryos deserve any consideration as humans. I'm sure that Atiyah would agree that we mourn the loss of friends more than that of strangers, but that obviously doesn't address the question of whether embryos are the kind of human strangers whose death we ought to care about (in the way that Atiyah obviously believes we ought to care about the deaths of more mature human strangers).

On to Atiyah:
As Fr. Fox has already pointed out regarding your use of "fanciful," you need to be more careful about creating straw-man arguments. Some other points:

"My point is taxation has little to do with the morality of how taxes are spent. Government has never made any undertaking to you that your taxes are spent only for those purposes you morally approve of. I only wish it were so, since I have moral objections to much of what governments do."

You really expect us to believe this (or to believe that you believe this)?? You're obviously fairly intelligent and I really don't think you should need it explained to you how silly this is. Anyway, your claim can be broken down like this: 1) the government already spends money on stuff that various people find immoral; 2) you don't like this (and neither do we); but 3) the government never agreed NOT to spend our money on immoral stuff; therefore 4)suck it up, just accept it, and stop whining about it. Can you say NON SEQUITUR?

"Fr. Fox’s scenarios are what is called “floodgate” or “slippery slope” arguments in public policy: “if you do ‘W’ then ‘X’ ‘Y’ & ‘Z’ will follow with ‘Z’ usually being end of civilisation as we know it. . I have seen more such floodgate or slippery slope arguments than in most hydro schemes."

In response to this, I would first ask, do you really think Fr. Fox doesn't know what a slippery slope argument is? When he claims he made no such argument, maybe you should take it a little more seriously and think over where you might have misunderstood what he said. Secondly, do you really not see the difference between (a)pointing out the logical consequences of a principle (and thus the problematic nature of that principle) and (b)your characterization above of slippery slope arguments (which, by the way, also obviously ignores the fact that not all slippery slopes are fanciful end-of-civilization type arguments)?

Anyway, I trust you'll bear out my contention that you're not just unreasonable and close-minded if you choose to respond to this. Inasmuch as you offer serious arguments, I believe your dissenting voice here can be valuable in promoting a robust understanding of both sides of this issue.

Anonymous said...

I have read all that you have mentioned and came to the Catholic faith thru reason and grace. I have no difficulty with that and I did say the speaking in the public and scientific forum is necessary. I only wanted to point out that it must be coupled with evangelization as far as evangelizing our culture back to God and the fullness of the Catholic faith. We must do both or should I say it must be one in the same. Lynn