Connecting the Dots: Sanctity of Life Threatened on Many
Wesley J. Smith
[Pro-Life Infonet Note: Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow
at the Discovery Institute. He is the author of Culture of Death:
The Assault on Medical Ethics in America.]
Jack Kevorkian shocked consciences and turned stomachs a few years
ago when he advocated using assisted-suicide victims as subjects
of medical experimentation, a process he planned to call "obitiatry."
Even though Kevorkian is now in a prison in Michigan, it appears
that his idea of medically experimenting on the bodies of dying
people is gaining adherents in the bioethics and medical research
communities. Indeed, if a story in the January 19 Pittsburgh Gazette
is true, it appears that such a research is already being conducted.
Gazette science editor Byron Spice's story primarily concerned
the recent use by medical researchers of the bodies of persons
who had been declared "brain dead." Many may be shocked at the
idea, but assuming a proper diagnosis, a "brain dead" person is
as dead as someone whose heart and lungs have permanently ceased
functioning. However, unlike other cadavers, the body of a person
declared dead by neurological criteria-meaning the whole brain
and each of its constituent parts have permanently ceased all
brain function-is kept functioning temporarily, usually to permit
time to procure organs for transplantation. Since these are the
bodies of the dead and not the living, assuming proper regulation,
it would seem this research would be as appropriate as that using
The real bombshell in Spice's story concerned the potential that
catastrophically ill or injured people are also being used in
research, the "very sick people whose life support or drug therapy
is about to be withdrawn." Indeed, according to Spice, the bodies
of "nearly dead patients" have already been used in researching
a new cancer drug. But nearly dead isn't dead. Someone who is
very sick, whose life support is about to be withdrawn, isn't
To understand the full import of this story we need to connect
some important dots considering the context in which it arises.
Unbeknownst to many, the sanctity-of-human-life ethic is under
sustained attack. Indeed, the predominant view of contemporary
bioethics rejects the view that life is sacrosanct is simply and
merely because it is human. Rather, what matters morally is whether
a life-be it animal, human, space alien, or machine-is a "person,"
a status that must be earned by possessing relevant cognitive
This subjective view of life-as opposed to the objective approach
contained in the sanctity-of-life ethic-strips some humans of
their moral equality and threatens to transform them into moral
equivalent of lab animal or a natural resource. This was the very
point made by Georgetown University bioethicist Tom L. Beauchamp
in the December 1999 Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, one
of the most influential bioethics publications in the world. Since
"many humans lack properties of personhood or are less than full
Beauchamp wrote, they are "equal or inferior in moral standing"
to some animals. As a consequence, "relevantly similar humans"
might be available for use in the same ways, as are "relevantly
similar nonhumans. For example, they might be aggressively used
as human research subjects and sources of organs."
In a similar vein, philosopher and bioethicist R.G. Frey, of Bowling
Green University, has explicitly asserted that, for humans as
well as animals, the "value of life is a function of its quality."
This the so-called quality-of-life ethic leads to very dark conclusions.
"Because some human lives fare drastically below the quality of
life of normal (adult) human life," Frey writes, "we must face
the prospect that the lives of some perfectly healthy animals
have a higher quality and greater value than the lives of some
humans. And we must face this prospect, with all the implications
it may have for the use of these unfortunate humans by others"
including "the use of defective humans in [medical] research."
The kind of thinking is even more common in the organ-transplant
community. In order to increase the number of vital organs available
for transplantation, some bioethicists and transplant professionals
want to redefine death to include a diagnosis of permanent coma
or unconsciousness. If that were done, the thousands of people
in comas at any given time could have their organs procured. Pending
such a redefinition. Some have suggested that non-vital tissues
and organs be procured, such as corneas and single kidneys.
Meanwhile, Norman Frost, director of Program in Medical Ethics
at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has opined that we
should be able to take vital organs from the living, even if so
doing would kill them: "My contention is that there is ample precedent
in the law and good moral justification for removing [vital] organs
from persons who are not legally dead." Frost wrote. Such procurement
would not be limited to the unconscious- it could also include
conscious people who are terminally ill, whose organ harvesting
before dying would be considered "part of terminal care."
These same attitudes drive much of the thinking of bioethicists
and medical researchers in the embryonic-stem-cell and human-cloning
debates. Since embryos are sentient, the thinking goes, the fact
that they are human is not morally relevant. Indeed, it is their
very membership in the human species that makes them so attractive
for use in medical research and as a source of what could be a
very profitable commodity: human embryonic stem cells.
The desire to harvest embryonic stem cells has led bioethicists,
patient groups, ill and disabled movie stars, and politicians
to seek the legalization of human cloning for biomedical research.
At present, most of these cloning advocates would require all
human clones to be destroyed while still in the embryonic stage
of development. But this seems primarily a political expedient
rather than a never-to-be-violated moral boundary. Indeed, to
the applause of the biomedical research community and cloning
advocates, the New Jersey state senate recently passed a S. 1909,
a radical human-cloning-for-medical-research legalization bill.
Tellingly, S. 1909 would not prohibit the implantation of cloned
embryos into women's wombs. It would not outlaw their gestation
into fetuses. In fact, it only requires human clones to be killed
before they reach the "newborn" stage of life, meaning that New
Jersey is, quite literally, on the verge of permitting the creation
of - and experimentation upon - cloned human babies through the
ninth month of pregnancy.
Throughout life's spectrum - from the beginning to the end - the
value of human life is increasingly being measured through a distorting,
utilitarian prism. This is happening a little bit here, and a
little bit there, by small steps. But just as a roaring river
is created by the coming together of many streams, our current
piecemeal deconstruction of the sanctity-of-life ethic is leading
toward an explicit hierarchy of human life that would permit some
to be exploited and destroyed for the benefit of others deemed
to have superior moral worth. Seen in this light, research on
the near-dead as if they were already corpses is but one short
chapter in a much longer book.
(Source: National Review, January 24, 2003)
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