So overflowing with incident is modern life that newspaper readers encounter statements like: "The retrieval of tissues from abortuses (aborted fetuses) is a whole ticking time bomb. There are a lot of people who are just crazed at the thought of using abortuses for anything."
Those words are from a bioethicist quoted by the Los Angeles Times in a story concerning the use of tissue from fetuses in the treatment of diabetes. That disease causes much blindness, kidney failure and death. Scientists in Australia and now Denver have transplanted fetal pancreatic tissue into diabetics in the hope that such tissue will be more resistant to rejection than adult tissue. This use of fetal remains has some people worried -- not crazed, worried. Here is why.
Americans are adicted to reducing controversies to clashes of "rights." But questions about, say, experiments with human life that is begun in vitro, in laboratories, can be, and I think should be, considered without reference to the "right to life." Rather, the crucial consideration can be this: what respect should be shown to any sort of human body, even after life has left it?
You may wonder why anyone feels anxious about the use of aborted fetuses. After all, cadavers are dissected routinely for the social good of training doctors. Organ transplants are becoming routine. Babies are conceived in laboratory dishes and brought to term in surrogate wombs (and someday, perhaps, in artificial wombs). Cosmetic surgery that rearranges the body is common; gender-change surgery is no longer astonishing. So why view any use of any sort of human body as anything other than the subordination of the human body to human will -- an affirmation of our autonomy as reatures with minds?
However, consider this question: if the use of fetal tissue for therapeutic purposes is a matter of moral indifference, would the deliberate production of fetuses, either in women or laboratories, for that purpose be equally innocuous? And if the use of fetuses for medical purposes is a matter of moral indifference, what if some industrial use were found for fetal material -- say, in making cosmetics.
Professor Leon Kass, a University of Chicago biologist and physician and philosopher, notes that when a woman miscarries, we feel sorrow about the human potential that will be unrealized, but we do not accord the remains a funeral or other ritual disposal. However, we recoil (Kass apologizes for the shock required to illustrate a thought) from the idea of eating fetal remains, should someone decide they are a delicacy. We feel, as an irresistible intuition, that at no point should a human body be regarded as merely meat. We should listen to the language of such intuitions.
Human beings are neither mindless matter nor minds isolated from the physical matter of bodies. Ideas and even minds may be intangible, but particular ones belong to particular "embodied" persons -- persons with bodily natures. To be human is to be "embodied," to have the form, powers, capabilities and limits of the human body.
The instinct to show some respect toward any human body -- even a cadaver, even an aborted fetus -- is natural, and is not a mere residue of pre- scientific superstition. It expresses the felt conviction that a body is never "merely" a body, because a human being is never merely a ghost in a corporeal machine.
Diminishing suffering from diabetes is a noble goal. But diminishing suffering is not a goal that sweeps everything out of its way. The time-honored medical maxim is negative. It says, "Do no harm." It does not say, "Do good at any cost." The purpose of the maxim is to protect patients. But medicine can do social as well as personal harm. It can injure our understanding of ourselves -- our grounds of self-respect.
There is danger when we treat the material of "embodied" life as merely raw material in achieving whatever we desire. There is a danger even when what we desire is scientifically serious and morally sound. The danger is less tangible than medical advances, but is not less real. It is the habit of hubris. It is the belief that our willfulness should be autonomous, unconstrained by respect for the natural or awe when dealing with the material by which life is embodied.
War is a dangerous business, and the use of military metaphors should alert us to danger; we speak of the "conquest of nature" by science. But perhaps the result will be the surrender of human nature.
It is far from clear that the use of fetal tissue for therapeutic purposes is wrong. But it certainly is wrong to dismiss as "crazed" those of us who think there is something going on that justifies reflection, and worry.