How can one be pro-sex AND pro-life?

Sunday, 24 February, 2008

If sex destroys embryos, how can one be a pro-lifer and yet still seek to conceive naturally? John Harris, in his recent work Enhancing Evolution, asks this question in the chapter titled ‘The Irredeemable Paradox of the Embryo’. It brings up an interesting point, so I shall summarise the argument.

The argument stems from three separate premises. Firstly, the fact is that the stage of the embryo used in embryonic stem cell research would, in a normal conception, be the stage before pregnancy (a blastocyst is defined as the mass of cells that exist before implantation). The second premise used in the argument is that normal human procreation is very efficient at creating embryos, but very inefficient at seeing them lead to pregnancy (most experts agree that more embryos fail to implant than succeed). The final premise is that saving a life is more important than creating a new one (or else nurses and doctors would not be using hospital beds for their intended function).

The combination of these premises leads to the conclusions that if embryo loss is acceptable in sexual reproduction (creating a new life), then it is even more acceptable in embryonic stem cell therapy (saving lives) because both lead to the destruction of life at the same stage (the blastocyst stage). Therefore, unless one takes the view that normal sexual reproduction should be abandoned in favour of newer, more embryo-safe means of reproduction, then one must accept embryonic stem cell research. Even if the embryo is a full person, embryonic stem cell therapies should be not only better than having unprotected sex, but morally superior.

For those who didn’t follow, I shall try again. In ethics, one should be capable of determining how wrong something in a linear manner. Preventing verbal abuse is important, but preventing a theft is more important, and preventing murder is more important again. In general it should always be acceptable to verbally abuse somebody to prevent them from stealing a car, or to take away the guns of a known killer to prevent another murder. In the bioethical case that Harris brings up, there is a clear inconsistancy, which I have tried to demonstrate in a diagram:

There are a few easy ways to make such a circular system into a linear hierarchy.

  1. One could say that saving lives is not more important than sex, creating a hierarchy where sex trumps prevention of embryo destruction which in turn trumps saving lives. However, this would mean that having sex with a patient to conceive a child is more important than saving a patient from death. The health care system collapses, and infant mortality sky-rockets because the obstetricians and midwives are at home making babies of their own.
  2. One could say that sex is not more important than preventing embryo destruction, creating a hierarchy where preventing embryo destruction is more important than saving lives which is in turn more important than sex. This would result in similar bans on unprotected sex as exist on embryonic stem cell research. Assisted reproductive technologies would be required to have 100% success rates to justify their use. Humanity collapses due to extremely low birth rate.
  3. One could say that preventing embryonic death is not more important than saving lives, meaning that saving lives is the top priority, followed by having sex to reproduce and then preventing the destruction of embryos. If this is the route taken, having unprotected sex to conceive would be fine, as would embryonic stem cell research. Humanity survives (and has a better quality of life), but the pro-life camp doesn’t.

Therefore, unless the pro-lifers wants to take route 1 or 2, they need to abandon their irrational protection of little bundles of human cells and start to accept a logically consistent ethical framework.


One comment

  1. Perhaps I missed something. Where is it a given “sex destroys embryos”? If it did, I would venture a guess and say humans would probably have never come into existence for any appreciable period of time. Without that point guaranteed, the rest of the argument seems to fall apart.

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