Letter to “This Week in Science”

I have a comment on the disclaimer that ran at the beginning of the December 8 show (I’m a bit behind).

You said,

“The following hour of programming contains language of a scientific nature, which may be offensive to some people.

If you believe that evolution is an attempt to undermine your creation;
if you are sure that the moon landing was a government hoax;
if you are certain of the age of the earth and that it is less than 10,000 years;
if you know global warming is fake because of an email you haven’t ever read;
if you think developing cures to human disease from ten-celled blastocysts shatters human dignity;
then you are listening to the right show.”

One of these things is not like the others. Evolution, the moon landing, the age of the earth, and global warming are matters of verifiable — if, in some cases, interpretable — fact. The question of whether it is ethical to destroy human embryos is not. It’s a philosophical matter, and it’s one on which scientifically literate people differ.

The construction and tone of the intro suggest that you consider your perspective on the status of human embryos to be the scientific one. There’s no such thing. Science can inform our views on philosophical questions, but it can’t resolve them. Calling those who disagree with you “sheeple” doesn’t do much to resolve them either.

In case you’re wondering, my perspective is that throughout human history, attempts to divide the human species into those who count and those who may be exploited or killed have always been destructive of human dignity.

3 thoughts on “Letter to “This Week in Science”

  1. 1) “In case you’re wondering, my perspective is that throughout human history, attempts to divide the human species into those who count and those who may be exploited or killed have always been destructive of human dignity.”

    As a staunch atheist pro-lifer, I have to say that I really admire this formulation.

    2) “The construction and tone of the intro suggest that you consider your perspective on the status of human embryos to be the scientific one. There’s no such thing.”

    I’ve been engaging in some vigorous back and forth lately over a similar but inversely correlated point.

    I’d welcome your input.

    X made a statement to the effect that every human zygote, embryo and fetus is a human life, and that this is not a matter of opinion, but a scientific fact.

    Y claims that ‘when human life begins’ is a value judgment. Whether an zygote/embryo/fetus counts as a human life, or whether it’s merely a group of living human cells (or a cell) is not a scientific question, but that it is a matter of philosophy.

    What I’ve been saying is that there is a scientific distinction between living cells which belong to a particular species but aren’t species members, and living cells/tissue which are members of the species. The question is whether the cell or cells qualify as an organism. Whether or not a human prenate should be considered a person, an individual, or even a human “being” (whatever one thinks that means) – as well as what moral status it has – is a philosophical question. nonetheless, that it is an organism is a scientific fact.

    X doesn’t want to concede as much as I do. Y is arguing over the definition of organism with the contention that prenatal life may (like viruses) be non-organisms.

  2. Thank you. There’s a time and a place for more rigorous arguments about fetal personhood, and I’ve certainly engaged in those, but lately I’ve been more inclined to take a step back and ask why it’s even in question. What does that say about us? Is this who we want to be?

    I’m entirely with you in your conversation with X and Y. There are two questions re: fetal personhood, one answerable by science and one not: is the zygote/embryo/fetus an organism of the species H. sapiens, and what organisms do we consider to be “persons”?

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