The Corner

Derb’s Question

is an interesting one. Let me first note that it has come up in a variety of contexts. For example, the House version of the cloning ban has included a provision that prohibits the importation of cloned embryos or products derived from cloned embryos. The biotech lobby interpreted this to mean that if a person came back from a medical trip with a new organ derived from an act of cloning, he would be arrested at the border. (It was a strained interpretation, and the Senate version of the bill does not include this provision.)

The general question of whether it is licit to enjoy benefits from the wrongful acts of another does not admit of a simple yes-or-no answer. It would depend on the circumstances, and people who agree on the wrongfulness of the act in question will disagree about how to weigh these circumstances. (You may find it helpful, Derb, in thinking through this question, to start with a case where you yourself agree that the underlying act is evil. Let’s say we had a miracle cure discovered and produced in China by the extraction of organs from living, unanaesthetized political prisoners.)

The president believes that killing human embryos in the process of research is wrong, but that when that act has already taken place, it can be morally permissible to fund research on the stem cell lines derived in that act. I agree with him, but many other pro-lifers disagreed. The Catholic church has said that it is morally permissible for Catholics to see that their children get vaccines that were developed, in part, through the use of aborted fetuses.

I said the answer depended on circumstances. The questions I think should be asked include: Does getting the benefit require you to align his will with the wrongdoer? Is your getting of this benefit likely to lead to more of the evil in question?

The policy questions also depend on circumstances. W/r/t your analogy to the Christian Scientists: I think it would be wrong for the state to require parents to do a genuinely wrongful act–indeed, that parents would have a moral obligation to defy such a requirement. (Note that the wrongness or rightness of the requirement turns on whether the act is genuinely right or wrong. It does not depend on what the parents happen to believe about it or the sources of their conviction.)

I’m not sure what principles should guide us in thinking about trying to apply a life-protective law extraterritorially–nor, for that matter, what our practices are. My impression is that American law does not adhere to any consistent rule on this. We don’t do a lot to prevent American tourists from hiring prostitutes in countries where prostitution is tolerated, but I think we do rather more when children are involved.

Finally, let me suggest that you are wrong to avoid the word “kill” in connection with early human embryos. It seems to me that the word does not necessarily imply a negative value judgment–it is permissible to kill living things in many circumstances (and sometimes obligatory). If you want to say that killing a human embryo in an early stage of development is no more morally troubling than killing a fly–and that one may sometimes have good reasons to do it–that does not commit you to denying that what is going on is in fact killing: causing the death of something that was a living organism.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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