Robert Spaemann on embryonic research, part II

English: 8-cell human embryo, day 3

English: 8-cell human embryo, day 3 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is the second half of my translation of the Die Zeit article by Robert Spaemann from November 20,, 2003: “Freiheit der Forschung oder Schutz des Embryos?” Notice especially the parallel he notes near the end of the piece concerning the situation of embryos in vitro and newly-born infants: both need the help of others to survive, and so one may not deprive one group of a “right to life” solely on this basis.

Human dignity is not something imparted by us

In the embryonic screening debate, Ms. Zypries speaks of a right to life of embryos generated in vitro in order to then deny this right to life by denying them human dignity when it is a matter of stem-cell research. And here everything is entirely confused. As the uncontroversial minimum requirements of what constitutes human dignity, she on the one hand mentions “respect for the intrinsic value of the person and the existence of all individuals,” and on the other, “the possibility of individual responsibility and a self-determined way of life.” I do not assume that the Minister would deny human dignity to the mentally disabled and senile, but she naively does so if she designates the actual presence of the aforementioned characteristics or the real capabilities for them as constitutive of human dignity.

And worse—even if it is, as I fear and hope at the same moment, again a mental lapse—is that she thinks that human dignity depends on its recognition. Whosever human dignity is not recognized and respected thus has nothing. Does the Minister really want to say this? At any rate, she says it. But what does she really want to say? She wants to say that, indeed, the embryo in the womb has dignity, but not an embryo generated in vitro. This is because his possibility to develop “as human” as the Federal Constitutional Courts says (not as “for humans”) is merely an “abstract possibility,” or rather, a point of view.

This argument is strange. The proponents of abortion’s legality and immunity from prosecution had always argued that the right to life of a fetus could not be considered apart from the willingness to carry it to full term, due to its indissoluble symbiosis with the mother. Thus did the Greens establish their position that demanded the unconditional protection of the human being in the petri dish {because the fetus is not yet in symbiosis}along with the legalization of abortion {because the fetus is in symbiosis}. Now, suddenly, the opposite is said to hold: the embryo found outside the womb, such that no implantation has taken place, is said to have even less of a claim to protection than an embryo inside the womb prior to implantation, whose hindrance by “the Spiral” (i.e. the intrauterine contraceptive device) is likewise unprohibited.

Against the argument of Ms. Zypries is to be held what she herself argued against it, that the legalized destruction of genetically damaged embryos in vitro would cause prejudice towards the woman who brings one to term. To the contrary, Ms. Zypries suggests that the generation of embryos in vitro in order to submit them to embryonic screening “only creates a conflict which is then required to be resolved to the detriment of the embryo.”

Generation in vitro brings the embyo into the unnatural position of existing outside the womb. From the fact that from the first days of his life he is bereft of the natural conditions for his development, Ms. Zypries concludes (as Schauble had previously), that the embryo has thereupon forfeited the right to have these conditions again procured as soon as possible. Let us assume someday it is eventually possible that the entire development of a human being generated in vitro could be allowed to take place in vitro, with the result that we would have adult human beings who were never in a mother and never born from a mother—then by their logic these human beings would, like small children, have no right to life and no human dignity.

And what does that mean, anyway: only an “abstract possibility?” It should rather say that the fetus generated in vitro do not develop automatically, but rather requires the help of others that is not given by nature in order to continue to live and to develop as human beings. But the same holds true for each newly born child. The conditions for his further development—yes, even his mere survival—cannot be achieved without continuous assistance from adult human beings. But does that mean that the small child has only an “abstract possibility” of developing, and thus no right to appropriate help?

Against this extreme individualism one must quote Aristotle: “what our friends can achieve, is in some sense achieved by us.” If we follow the logic of Ms. Zypries, the result is a complete circle: because the conditions {for the embryo’s development} have not been given, they must not be given. And this corresponds well to her real definition of human dignity, the constituting mark of which is “recognition”—an unrecognized and unrespected human dignity does not exist. Thus recognition is made to mean “bestowal.” Had Ms. Zypries said that, then she would have said what she really wanted to say. If that isn’t what she wanted to say, then she should reflect on this issue more.

However, one must not expect too much of logic. Above all, the sentence “Whoever says A, must also say B” unfolds a problematic effect into bioethical debates. The president of the German Research Foundation, Professor Winnacker, already pointed out years ago that with in vitro fertilization the Rubicon has already been crossed, because through it “superfluous embryos” are generated. There are still more such Rubicons, and ever the argument of “A and B say.” But ever since Socrates we have known the way back across a Rubicon: that is the case in which we, after having said a harmless A, are now daunted before B, and do not at all wish to say B. Seeing that the terrifying B follows from the seemingly harmless A, the possibility remains for us to rescind our consent to A. This possibility belongs to the dignity of the human being, and the courage to do so is matter of morality.

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