The Corner

Todd Seavey and Me

Todd Seavey is a smart guy, but he has written a silly critique of my position to embryonic stem-cell research—or rather, of what he takes my position to be. His method is to explain part of the basis for his own beliefs about the moral status of the early-stage embryo, and then to speculate about the alleged religious basis for my differing take. Let me try to clear up a few things.

1. I wrote that reflective pro-lifers oppose embryonic stem-cell research, abortion, and similar acts not because they destroy “potential life” but because they destroy actual lives. Seavey says that he has known pro-lifers who do make the argument from potential personhood. So have I. But I don’t think this casts much doubt on the accuracy of my description of the case that the pro-life movement makes. One of its most popular slogans has been that “life begins at conception,” after all, not that “potential life” does. Now I suppose it is possible that some pro-lifers who say this mean, “Life begins at conception, but that life doesn’t yet qualify as a person, but even potential persons deserve protection.” But I don’t think that is true of most pro-lifers.

2. Seavey argues that you have to have a mind to be a person. “There is a reason, after all, that we think someone who loses an arm is still a person while someone who loses a head ceases to be one, and it’s not just the fact that it’s much harder to keep someone’s heart and lungs pumping when he loses his head. It’s that his mind—which is what made him a person rather than just a big lump of flesh and blood—is gone.” If “we” thought what Seavey claims we think, then we would use cerebral death as the criterion for death. Instead, we count people as dead when their whole brains have died. When someone dies, we do not have an organism of the human species who is no longer a person (which is what Seavey thinks the early embryo is). We don’t have an organism any more. The implicit parallel doesn’t work.

3. My argument, boiled down, is that human organisms have an intrinsic right to life because they are human organisms, and that denying that right to some class of them because of accidental qualities they happen to possess is wrong and dangerous. (Moreover—although this is not central to my argument—I don’t believe that anyone would believe that the early human embryo is anything other than a human being if we did not see advantages in denying the proposition.) That’s the basic argument. Stated in that way, it’s open to various objections, all of which, I believe, could then be knocked down. But at no point does my argument either invoke or depend on any religious revelation. I do not believe, and have never claimed, that the Bible yields a definitive answer to the ethics of stem-cell research (although it may well be that it has something to say about the subject when read in light of a previous conviction on the issue that was reached for extra-biblical reasons). I do not believe that my church teaches that ensoulment happens at conception.

But Seavey, for whatever reason, wastes a lot of space suggesting that “what Ponnuru really thinks is that he knows exactly when God puts the magic in the blastocyst and knows that it’s the magic, not any mind, that makes a person” and that I should “come clean” (italics his). I suppose it is possible that there are various connections between my religious convictions and my views on the ethics of killing human embryos—just as it is possible that some people on the other side have allowed their hostility to certain religions, or other things, to distort their reasoning. But for what it’s worth, my convictions about embryo-killing predate my embrace of theism. And my actual view on ensoulment is this: It is because I think human embryos are human beings that I suspect they have souls, not the reverse.

4. Seavey says he has a “loftier vision of what a person is” than someone who thinks that “a microscopic ball of cells is a person.” I think what he’s getting at is something I’ve heard from other people on his side of the embryo-killing debate: Personhood has to mean something more than just having the right string of proteins, etc. People like me are “reductionist.” I don’t think so. The early embryo is a member of the human species. I think it’s Seavey is reductively redescribing it as a “microscopic ball of cells.” And I would rather not have a “lofty” vision that ends up sanctioning a lot of unjust killing.

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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