Friday, June 21, 2002

IRRELEVANT INTENT: From the last paragraph of today's Washington Post article of stem cell research, referring to harvesting stem cells from human embryos:
The intent of the scientists who want to perform that procedure, a type of cloning, would be to derive healthy replacement cells that are a perfect genetic match for a human patient. But because the procedure would create a microscopic embryo that would be capable, briefly, of turning into a human clone if implanted into a woman's uterus, some groups oppose it, saying destruction of the microscopic embryo would be tantamount to murder.
(Emphasis added.) Note how the reporter carefully explains that the "intent" of researchers who kill embryos isn't killing but healing. Why? No one argues that scientists kill human embryos for the jollies, and the therapeutic purpose of embryonic stem cell research is well-known and granted. No, I think the reporter is attempting to make a fine distinction between knowledge and purpose that doesn't wash in these circumstances and misleads readers as to the nature of the moral debate about embryonic stem cell research. Here's the distinction I think the reporter is drawing. A person can do something not intending a consequence but with the knowledge that that consequence will likely, even certainly occur, like the general who orders his soldiers into battle not intending to kill them, but knowing that some will certainly die. But that distinction doesn't wash in this case because the researcher who harvests stem cells from an embryo not only knows this act will certainly kill the embryo, but is doing the very act that will kill the embryo. If there is still a difference between intent and knowledge in these circumstances, it's too fine for me to see. What I see is a researcher who intentionally kills an embryo for the benign purpose of healing other people. The reporter's explanation of researchers' "intent" is misleading because opponents of embryonic stem cell research don't deny the benign purpose of researchers, and supporters don't deny that the researchers are knowingly or intentionally killing embryos to accomplish that purpose. The debate centers on two questions: is an embryo a human being or just a potential human being, and is it OK to kill a human being or a potential human being for this benign purpose.

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