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Dr. Peter Gott writes a widely syndicated newspaper column giving medical advice, competing for space with Dear Abby , crossword puzzles, and Doonesbury .  In his column published in my local paper this morning (see it in a different paper here ) he takes up the matter of stem cells, and manages to spout shocking quantities of ignorance in an amazingly short space.

I will leave aside the dubious claims of Dr. Gott that embryonic stem cell research has so far shown great promise, while adult stem cells are of more limited use—except to point out that so far the truth has been exactly the reverse, with real therapeutic uses coming from adult, not embryonic, cell research.  (Okay, that wasn’t much of a “leaving aside,” but I’m done now.)

Instead, I want to focus on the doctor’s strange remark that embryonic stem cells come from “fertilized eggs.”  This phrase makes no real sense, and certainly not in describing the source of embryonic stem cells.  The truth is in the adjective Dr. Gott can’t quite avoid: embryonic.  A “fertilized egg” is an embryo , often called in its earliest stages a blastocyst.  Why this unscientific reference to the “fertilized egg”?  Apparently to avoid moral obstacles, and to enable writing such twaddle as this:

There is a belief by opponents that fertilized eggs are actually human beings with rights. Supporters take the position that fertilized eggs are donated with the approval of the couples involved and would likely be discarded, eliminating the potential for any eggs to become human beings.

“Fertilized egg” = embryo.  Human embryo = embryonic human being.  “Fertilized [human] egg” = human being.  Which part of the science of embryology did Dr. Gott sleep through in medical school?

Now as for “human beings with rights,” here’s a question for the good doctor: When, Dr. Gott, did you acquire your rights as a human being?  You were once an embryo—a “fertilized egg,” if you like.  Did you have your rights then?  Even one of them, like, say, the right to life?  If you have those rights now—to repeat—when did you get them?  From the beginning of your life—as an embryo—your development was and has been continuous.  Can you mark a discrete moment in your development, not arbitrarily chosen but demarcating a principled difference between “you before” and “you after,” when you transitioned from having no rights to having one or more of them?  I don’t think you can.  You either had those rights from the beginning of your existence, or you don’t have them now.  I think you had them, and have them.  I don’t see how you can think so.

As for the second sentence above, it’s a perfect noncontradiction of the first, as a statement of fact.  Yes, indeed, supporters of embryonic stem cell research “take the position that the fertilized eggs are donated with the approval of the couples involved.”  But if the position attributed to the opponents of such research is true—that the embryos are “human beings with rights”—and if this position is not even contradicted by the “position” taken by supporters, let alone refuted, as of course it is not, then the “approval of the couples involved” is nothing other than the approval of a great and terrible wrong to another human being. 

Dr. Gott has no evident awareness of what a moral jumble he has produced here.  Not that we would expect a medical practitioner so woefully ignorant of science to be any better at ethics.


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