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Letters from readers about the bioethics of cloning

November 22, 2002

Printing Katherine Hande’s letter under the title "embryo cloning" was misleading. Ms. Hande, as I understand her position, was not addressing the cloning debate but was addressing the free exchange of ideas. She points out, using his own words, that Mr. Blackmar does not believe the opinions of Mr. George should be forced on others. She asserts that this suggests Mr. Blackmar has little respect for the free exchange of ideas other than his and asserts that the free exchange of ideas is crucial to education at Princeton and crucial to a free society. Mr. Blackmar did not directly answer Ms. Hande’s questions in his most recent letter; I was hoping for a response to her assertion that he condones silencing, or at least rejecting out of hand, the position of Mr. George, or ideas that do not agree with his. Please, Mr. Blackmar, answer the questions Ms. Hande tendered and reassure us that you do not believe that those opinions contrary to yours "should not be forced on others."

This leads me to my second point, Mr. Blackmar’s most recent letter. Mr. Blackmar states the "an embryo produced outside the womb…is not a ‘moral person’." Here is another question for Mr. Blackmar: What then is it? It is not a lizard or duck embryo; it is a human embryo. A live human embryo. This live human embryo will not continue to develop, if it is allowed, into any other species except a human. One cannot fertilize a human ovum with a human sperm and get anything but a human embryo. Indulge me, if you will, to continue along this line of thought for a moment longer.

Let us assume, for argument's sake, that a human embryo is an underdeveloped human – but never the less a human being. If, then, this human life is ended for research, who is forcing their views on others? It would be Mr. Blackmar who is forcing his view on the human being in question that it is not "a moral person." Mr. Blackmar would be imposing his views, hopefully at least through legislation and not judicial activism, on a human seeking to live. This, at best, would be "insensitive." All of this, of course, hangs on the assumption that the embryo is a human, which is precisely my point. It seems the question that must be addressed first and foremost in the embryo cloning debate is whether or not the human embryos in question are indeed humans. I established they are not reptiles or birds. You conclude whether they are mammals or amphibians, and if mammals, what kind exactly. If a conclusion cannot be reached, then let us not force anyone’s opinions on these unknown beings.

Perhaps, we should not create them, and this dilemma in the first place. Alas, that last comment may open a whole other can of worms…

Matt Abel ’00
Signal Mountain, Tenn.

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November 21, 2002

Charles Blackmar '42 discounts "an embryo produced outside the womb, which can become a human being only if the massively invasive process of implantation is employed."

Suppose for a moment that future technology makes implantation incredibly simple. Would this embryo then be a "moral person" after all? And if circumstances of technology govern our definition of who is and who is not entitled to the protections of the Constitution, circumstances which could change quite suddenly — well, we don't have much of a definition, then, do we.

It strikes me, moreover, that we undertake "massively invasive processes," however defined, to preserve life at its other endpoint, when our citizens approach death. So by itself the degree of difficulty of any particular medical procedure would seem not to ring clear as a bell here.

Rob Slocum ’71
Stamford, Conn.

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November 20, 2002

This is in response to a letter from Judge Charles Blackmar '42, published in the November 20 PAW.

A human life begins at fertilization, when a male human sperm combines with a female human egg to create a one-cell human. This one-cell has a full complement of 46 chromosomes. It is a human life, with all of the instructions to build a human baby. This one-cell human being has its own unique DNA. It is true that if this one-cell human is not implanted in a woman's uterus, it has no chance of maturing into a baby and being born. That does not make it any less worthy. It is not a pre-human. We can not, must not continue creating human embryos just to experiment on them. In-vitro fertilization is morally wrong because it creates these fertilized embryos outside of the womb, knowing that most will be destroyed. All of us started as a one-cell fertilized egg.

Stephen F. Sipos '71
Middletown, N.Y.

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November 14, 2002

Katherine Hande ’02 in her letter in the November 6 issue misunderstands my position in my letter in the October 9 issue.

When I said that Professor George's beliefs on research cloning should not "be imposed on others," I was referring to his advocacy as a member of the President's Council on Bioethics of legislation prohibiting "research cloning." I had no purpose of complaining about his, or others', expressions of opinion on the subject.

I indeed regret the absence of more discourse on this subject, which I consider to have great importance.

Charles B. Blackmar
Jefferson City, Mo.

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October 29, 2002

In a recent exchange of letters ("Embryo Cloning," Oct. 9, 2002) Judge Charles Blackmar took Prof. Robert George to task for opposing nonreproductive cloning of human embryos for research and therapy. George in turn criticized Blackmar for rejecting his conclusions without refuting, or even addressing, his reasons.

In the report of the President's Council on Bioethics (of which he is a member), George argues that all human embryos are human beings entitled to full respect. Note, however, that this assertion leads to the repugnant conclusion that abortion is wrong even in cases of rape. This suggests that George's argument may be flawed, and indeed it is.

George reasons that since the path from an embryo to a complete, adult human being is a continuous developmental process, the embryo must also be a complete (though immature) human being. "If the embryo were not a complete organism," he asks, "then what could it be?" He argues that there is no qualitative difference between the embryo and the adult human being, only a quantitative difference because the embryo has progressed a shorter distance along its pathway of development. Hence, he claims, both deserve equal respect. 

But this is a logical fallacy. (It is called the "Argument of the Beard" after the obviously fallacious argument that being clean-shaven must be the same as having a full beard, since there is a continuous series of imperceptibly different in-between beards linking those two states.) Just because one cannot define a precise point at which the developing organism becomes morally equivalent to an adult does not mean that it is equivalent to an adult from conception.

George goes on to contrast the embryo and the unfertilized egg. There is a qualitative difference between these two, he says, because the former can, of itself, develop into an adult human being, whereas the latter needs major help from outside namely, fusion with a sperm cell. The difference in this case is qualitative rather than merely quantitative, he argues, and therefore the unfertilized egg is not a human being.

But this argument undermines George‚s opposition to non-reproductive cloning. There is also a qualitative (not merely quantitative) difference between an embryo in utero, and an embryo obtained by nuclear transplantation, sitting in a culture dish! The latter, like the unfertilized egg, cannot develop by itself into an adult human being. It must be artificially implanted into a surrogate mother. 

I was disappointed that Prof. George accused Judge Blackmar of the "view that embryonic human beings may legitimately be treated as disposable research material."Such an accusation has emotional impact and probably scores points with many people. It is certainly abhorrent to think of human beings as "disposable"! But George's accusation begs the question whether the cloned embryo is really a human being, something that George assumes but has certainly not demonstrated. Emotional appeals should not be taken as the basis for rational argument.

Another way of looking at the issue is to ask — who is harmed by the use of cloned embryos in medical research? I would say (and I suppose Judge Blackmar would say) that no one is harmed, whereas Prof. George would presumably say that one "person" is harmed — the embryo itself. But how can this be? George's statements indicate that he would not object to a woman voluntarily donating an unfertilized egg to be used for research and finally discarded. Now suppose that a diploid nucleus is transplanted into that egg and it develops into an embryo which is then used for research and discarded. On what basis can it be said that any "person" is worse off than if the nuclear transplantation had never been done at all?

There is at least one good reason to pursue nuclear transplantation research (nonreproductive cloning) — it may lead to significant advances in the treatment of disease. There may also be good reasons why it should not be pursued, but Prof. George has yet to provide any.

James R. Paulson ’72 *77
Oshkosh, Wis.

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October 10, 2002

Thank you for printing my letter regarding research cloning together with Professor Robert George’s response (October 9). He tenders some questions to me, and this is my response.

An embryo produced outside the womb, which can become a human being only if the massively invasive process of implantation is employed, is not a “moral person,” with rights equal to those of living, breathing human beings. The use of such embryos in research, which might benefit grievously afflicted people, is in no sense immoral.

I do not argue that my position is morally superior to his, but his support of legislation that would impose his arcane views on scientists seeking to alleviate human suffering is at best insensitive.

Charles Blackmar ’42
Jefferson City, Mo.

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October 7, 2002

I am writing in response to the letter by Charles Blackmar ’42 criticizing Robert George's view that cloning – even for the purposes of research — violates the fundamental purpose for creating life. Mr. Blackmar declares that “opinions such as these should not be forced on others,” perhaps referring to Professor George’s appointment to the president’s bioethics council.

Which opinions are “these,” exactly? Opinions that do not agree with yours?

Princeton alumni boldly call for a University (and a society) where all voices are heard; one need only look toward more recent faculty appointments to see the broad range of beliefs and attitudes represented there.

If, as Mr. Blackmar’s comment suggests, we attempt to silence all those whose perspectives do not fit our own, we do not celebrate a democratic society, we only celebrate our own inconsistency. When did expressing one’s opinion translate into “forcing it on others?” We should be thrilled, as alumni and as citizens, to have professors who challenge and confront our views, both at the university level and in our nation’s capital.

Katherine Hande ’02
Princeton, N.J.

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July 24, 2002

Arguments and reasons are the currency of intellectual discourse.

I have set forth in detail in my contribution to the Bioethics Council's report on human cloning
(1) my reasons for believing that human embryos are human beings, and
(2) my arguments for the proposition that creating human beings and destroying them in the embryonic stage or at any other point for purposes of biomedical research is unjust.

Judge Blackmar vehemently rejects my conclusions, but fails to rebut, or even report, the arguments and reasons I adduced in their support.

Worse yet, he offers no arguments or reasons for his own view that embryonic human beings may legitimately be treated as disposable research material.

Does he maintain that human embryos are something other than human beings in the embryonic stage of their natural development? Does he deny that all of us were once embryos? If so, I would refer him to the standard embryology texts in use in American medical schools.

Does he concede that human embryos are human beings but hold that age, size, stage of development, or condition of dependency are legitimate grounds for treating some human beings as less worthy of respect than others? If so, I wonder how he answers the arguments I and others set forth in defense of the principle of human equality in the Bioethics Council's report.

As for the judge's assertion that by stating a moral judgment I implicitly claim moral superiority to those who disagree, I would ask him to consider that his assertion is itself in the form of a moral judgment. In stating it, does he implicitly claim moral superiority to others?

I confront the judge with the retorsive implications of what he says against me not to score a debater's point, but to emphasize the need for interlocutors in difficult ethical debates to place the focus where it belongs, namely, on each others' arguments and reasons.

Robert George
Princeton University

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July 17, 2002

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence, is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics. In his statement in the Council Is pre-publication release of July 10, 2002, he takes a firm and unyielding stand gainst "cloning for purposes of research."

This is to be regretted. There are many indications that embryos created outside the womb may be of assistance in treating diseases and disabilities for which no therapies are presently available. I am confident that Princeton's fine departments dealing with the life sciences have the means for further research making use of cells from cloned embryos.

Professor George would cut this research off at the outset. He bases his position on the argument that an embryo created outside the womb is "a human being deserving of full moral respect," even though, without the affirmative act of implantation, it can never become a functioning human being. He frequently uses the word "moral," thereby suggesting that those who disagree with him are less moral than he is.

He is entitled to his opinion, just as Jehovah's Witnesses are entitled to believe that a blood transfusion is the "drinking of blood," and therefore prohibited by the scriptures. But opinions of this kind should not be forced on others.

There is no necessity or justification for forbidding or delaying experiments in research cloning, when there is no danger of the use of such cloning to produce functional human beings.

Charles B. Blackmar ’42
Senior Judge
Jefferson City, Mo.

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