I watched the film The Boy in the Striped Pajamas today and, aside from being a very depressing movie, one interaction stood out to me. It was between the protagonist 8 year old boy and his antagonist Nazi father, who is the Comendant for the local concentration camp. The boy had just seen Jews in their Nazi-issues clothing working on a farm (he didn’t know it was a concentration camp and to him it looked like a farm) and inquired to the father about them:
Boy: “Who are the people that work on the farm?”
Father: “Well, you see, those people aren’t really people.”
In other words, the father was telling the boy, “They might look human, but they’re not really human persons; they have no value, so we can do to them as we wish.”
This has been the reasoning for the Nazis, the Soviets (for political prisoners), the slavers, and multiple other nationalities throughout history. The Romans, in an effort to boost “manliness” believed that the patriarch of the family was able to decide who was and was not a human person. This led to weaker boys in the family being killed off. The Spartans viewed the fail and fragile as not being human, to the point that infanticide was a common practice. The reasoning always goes back to one argument, “No matter how much they look like a human or biologically/genetically resemble a human, they’re not a human person.”
The above actions would be, to most people, detestable. If we woke up tomorrow morning and read about a father killing his 13 year old son because he believed his son to be weak or not “manly” enough, every group from Christian organizations to organizations that support transvestites would be declaring such an act to be deplorable, and rightfully so.
Imagine the outrage if we read about the University of Kansas Medical Center taking in the severely retarded and disabled and using them for medical experiments. Imagine what would be done if, against their will, such individuals were forced to give up their organs for some “therapeutic organ relocation program” that took vital organs from the severely disabled and gave it to able-bodied patients who needed the organs. Would anyone in the news media laud the benefits of such a practice, or would the focus be on whether or not such victims (or experiments depending on one’s point of view) are human persons? What if it were done to the homeless? Considering the vast medical benefits, would anyone object?
I would argue that most decent human people would object to such views. We can look to how we treat the Nazi medical experimentation on prisoners to determine the public’s reaction to the aforementioned scenario. Though such experiments offered the prospect of great medical advancements, such prospects are completely ignored and viewed as irrelevant by the vast majority of people. Why is this? Because most humans, no matter what they argue, generally hold the view that human persons have value.
So it is quite baffling that when it comes to the issue of embryonic stem cell research (ES) or abortion, we hardly stop to consider whether or not what we are killing is a human person. Now, at this point many people are going to throw up the objection, “How dare you compare such a thing to the Nazis!” or “How dare you say it’s like slavery!” Though such heated rhetoric can cause even hotter reactions, I would ask such readers to calm down and consider the following:
How are the arguments for ES or abortion any different than the arguments the Nazis, Romans, Soviets, or anyone else has used in the past? What is the difference? “Well embryos aren’t humans!” But isn’t that what is being contested? Isn’t by using that argument – without any sound reasoning behind it – exactly what is being compared to the rhetoric of past regimes? Like it or not, the argument “An embryo is not a human person” uses the exact same rational as “A Jew is not a human person” or “A slave is not a human person.” The arguments for both are the same.
For instance, the argument that we shouldn’t use religion in public life to decide political issues did not develop in the 1950’s when mandatory prayer was removed from public schools. Rather, one of the first times we see secularism used is in the United Kingdom in the 18th century (it hardly began here, but it was used widely during the latter 18th century). Here we have Lord Melborn lamenting the idea of religion mixing with politics concerning morality. What issue is he applying his secular point of view to? The slave trade. You see, William Wilberforce was arguing from rational, scientific, and religious grounds that slavery was immoral as it was the ruining of human persons. Lord Melborn and others hated such an argument because it brought religion into the public sphere.
So though one can avoid an appeal to religion concerning the morality of handling a human embryo, those who are against ES research are often thrown into the “religious” camp. This tactic, however, is common and, as shown, was used in the 18th century against abolitionist. It would appear that one’s religious convictions have little bearing on the truthfulness of one’s stance on public issues (unless, of course, we want to argue that slavery is good).
Now, by comparing such arguments to similar arguments for Nazi policies or defenses in the slave trade, I am not saying that ES research is automatically wrong. I’m merely pointing out a very simple truth; in the past when we have avoided the issue of, “is this a human person or not,” we have suffered dire consequences. A failure on the German populace to examine whether or not Jews were truly human persons led to the death of 6 million human persons (and more when we consider the other groups of people deemed “non-person”). The failure on the American populace to examine whether blacks, latinos, or other minorities are really humans led to the slave trade and the genocide against the Native Americans. This failure has left us with the spectre of racism, one that we still suffer through to this very day.
It is my belief that if we don’t learn the lessons of the past, we are doomed to repeat their mistakes. In our bid to increase our medical technology, to keep up with other nations, and to be “compassionate” to those in need of medical help, we have left the question of whether or not an embryo is a human person to nothing more than a forgone conclusion. We are told, “Oh, it’s just a mass of cells.” Well, yes and no. No, it is not just a mass of cells, but yes, it is a mass of cells in the same sense that you and I are a mass of cells. It simply has less cells that are less developed than our own.
Regardless, our legislatures and scientists have put little effort into determine whether or not an embryo is a human person or simply something lesser than human. Like it or not, this is the same mistake of the Nazis, the slavers, and of other societies that engaged in genocides. By failing to answer the question, “Is this human,” they killed millions and suffer the consequences to this very day. We should learn from our mistakes and rather than talking about how ESR can advance our understanding of medicine, we should instead be dedicating our resources to discovering whether or not an embryo is a human person or not. If an embryo is a human person, then there is no defense for ESR.
As a side note: A Time article happens to agree (somewhat) with my evaluation. Though the writer is ignorant of basic human biology, he states that if we believe that human embryos are human persons, then killing these embryos is the same as the Holocaust. The author disagrees with my position and mocks it, yet he too agrees that if these are human persons, then killing them for medical purposes is the equivalent to genocide.