Stem Cell Controversy: The Ethics of Research with Human Eggs

Harvard Ethicist, Daniel Wikler, lays out a mind-blowing discussing of why members of the pro-life movement have more reason to support embryo research than to oppose it.


Daniel Wikler, PhD, Dinner Speaker “Could there ever be an international accord on the use of human eggs in research?”


Dr. Ann Kiessling: We’re really lucky to have Dan. We’re lucky to have Dan on our Ethics Advisory Board and we’re lucky to have Dan’s input for this very controversial topic that we have to deal with…

Daniel Wikler: Thank you.


Daniel Wikler: Thank you very much, Ann. So it’s a pleasure and a privilege to be talking to you. Ann had first suggested that what I talk about tonight is the question of whether or not there’s a possibility for some kind of international understanding or accord on embryo research and stem cells in particular; and that topic appealed to me because of a bit of my history that I will fill in a little bit of detail about.

I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin when Jamie Thompson was doing his original work with stem cells and he told the university that he had basically done the work and that he had gotten the signal from Science that it was going to be published and that the university should be on those, that this is going to be a really big deal.

So the university was on one hand delighted that they knew they were going to be put on the map by this and on the other hand, they were scared because they thought that maybe something in here is going to get us nailed to the wall. So they appointed a Bioethics Advisory Committee which I was on and basically they told us, “We want you to go over this from one end to the other and see if there’s anything here that has to be changed before it goes public so that we won’t really get hit.”

And Jamie, as some of you know, is an extremely methodical person. He had bent over way backward to make sure that there was absolutely no US government support for his work, to the point of changing clothes so that no molecules would adhere to his work day attire when he crossed the street over to this government-funded lab and so on.

So really there wasn’t a whole lot to change. I think we made some recommendations about the connection with Geron that were followed but we’re able to tell a university, “You really don’t have too much to worry about as long as you articulate your case well,” which I think they did.

Now having just been through it, I was then invited to WHO and I went over there and I said, “Hey, everybody. Listen. This incredible thing has happened, the stem cell business, A; and B, WHO can have a wonderful role here because it’s going to start up a big fuss,” and if WHO gets out in front and offers some guidelines that would say here’s a decent way of getting around some of these obstacles or questions – and in our view, any laboratory that follows the following guidelines should be regarded as having a safe harbor.

If WHO does that, then it can avoid what could be years of needless controversy and misunderstanding and I was just completely full of it. I mean I just thought this was a wonderful opportunity for a rather stodgy UN agency to be way out in front before anyone has ever heard of it. And they said, “Stem what?”


Daniel Wikler: Wisconsin. You know, forget it. I was whistling into the wind. It was years before – they – when it was published in Science, they said, “Oh, that’s sort of interesting,” but it took a long time for them to realize that this really was a big deal and by that time, it was too late for them to do anything. And basically – yes.

Participant: What year was that?

Daniel Wikler: ’99.

Participant: ’99.

Daniel Wikler: It had become so politicized by that time that there wasn’t any help and I will tell you something a little out of – probably not proper for me to say but that will make it all the more valuable. Now see, when I tell the story, it involves Tommy Thompson and I don’t want to say it in the way that attributes to him, things that he would [0:04:10] [Indiscernible] because I don’t want to put words in his mouth so this is just my impression of things.

Tommy Thompson used to be governor of Wisconsin and when I was working at the University of Wisconsin, he was governor of the state. Theoretically, he was my boss although I didn’t know him. And so there I went over to WHO and then he left Wisconsin and became head of Health and Human Services and in that role, he led the American Delegation to the World Health Assembly which is the governing board meeting of WHO.

And since I was on the staff and an American citizen, I was invited to the American Consulate to meet the delegation and he was in the receiving line. So we went down the receiving line. Instead of handing in my WHO card, I handed him my University of Wisconsin card and as I knew it would, he sat bolt upright and got interested.

So he wanted to chat and I got him to talk about stem cells a little bit. Now when he had been in Wisconsin, he was the world’s biggest backer of stem cells. He thought this was just great. Although he’s Catholic himself, he thought it was wonderful. It was going to be the key to Wisconsin’s economic development and he wanted credit for it and couldn’t stop talking about it.

But when he went to Washington, of course, all bets were off. That was not OK and he now is proud that he got Bush to sign on to the deal that he did but he couldn’t go any further than that.

So still I wanted to get to him about this idea of a safe harbor and now I’m just going to tell you my impression of what he was saying in response – he did find a chance to talk to me privately later and the message I got from that was that even though he was a member of the cabinet, he was being supervised and that if he gave any signal that he was conniving with the WHO official for anything like this, don’t go home. So, it’s just not something you could do.

So he was trying. I think he was trying and there were people with names like Rove and so on, I’m sure, who had much more power than he did and the rest is history although history isn’t finished being written yet.

Now, so I’m not going to talk further about that because in my view, the chance for international cooperation and understanding and agreement and condominium and so on, the chance for that basically was over once this got a political tailwind; and certain parties decided that they could make hay politically by using this issue and then you can kiss agreements goodbye.

So instead I’m going to change gears entirely and instead of talking about the chance to overlook differences and so on and negotiate, which I don’t think is really possible given the political access that are being drawn on this issue, instead I want to give a recent argument. Not a chance to overlook differences but a chance to appeal to commonalities and I want to share with you an argument that I’ve dealt, although never published, that could be offered in the form of a letter to a friend who is on the other side of the ideological divide on the status of embryos.

So imagine that the presentation I’m about to give addresses somebody in this group who considers himself or herself to be a right-to-lifer. Now I’m not addressing this to a leader of the right to life forces. It’s not James Dobson and it’s also not somebody who’s a professor of this stuff, who has got very sophisticated and articulate and consistent views. I’m talking about the rank and file, the people whose votes matter and whose feet are marching out on Election Day and whose support is essential if the opposition to embryo research is to succeed.

And my claim is that if they think deeply and carefully, they will switch sides. Now I’ve tried this argument on many of them and if you want to know later how many – what percentage I’ve converted, I will tell you but I’m not offering this as a sales technique. I’m offering it as a logical [0:08:46] [Indiscernible]. What I want to show is that the rank and file in the right to life movement – and I mean people who – not just the passive police but they’re actually out there picketing abortion clinics and so on.

That the rank and file has more reason to support embryo research than to oppose it. Now the way I’m going to argue this is this. I’m going to talk about certain beliefs that they typically have and my claim is going to be that if you take those beliefs as a given, I mean you start with those beliefs, to think of them as premises, that the position on embryo research that fits best is the one that’s more typical in this room than the ones that their leaders are advocating.

And so you have an army out there whose leaders really don’t have the same position on the crucial issue which is basically whether killing an embryo is something as wrong as killing a child or an adult. It’s really what it all comes down to, I think.

So again, just let me outline the structure of the argument. I’m going to point to some beliefs that they now have. This is the rank and file and the right to life movement. Beliefs that they widely share and we try to show that from these beliefs, one can argue a positive position on embryo research follows much better than opposition to it, although this will be the last thought that would ever occur to most of them.

So what are these beliefs? Let me start with one that is rather easily misunderstood but I think it’s an important premise anyway. You all know that a high percentage of eggs that are fertilized spontaneously abort. What percentages do you estimate? Thirty, I hear. Any others? Eighty. Yes. OK. So somewhere between 30 and 80. Why this should be such a mystery at this point amazes me but anyway, there we go.

So somewhere between 30 and 80 percent of all fertilized eggs spontaneously abort. Now this is not a crime. This is just a fact of nature. It’s just the way it is. But we can ask the question about the reaction of right-to-lifers to these events.

Suppose to take a hypothetical that you found out that in Missouri last year, 30 to 80 percent of all one-year-olds or three-year-olds died of some unknown cause. It was just a mass die-off among children in Missouri. No one would think it’s a crime as long as we thought this was not something that had been done deliberately but people would be very alarmed. Probably we might even shed a tear even though we didn’t know any of these children. We certainly sympathize with their relatives and their loved ones and we might resolve to do something about this, to investigate, find out what in the heck caused this terrible, catastrophic epidemic of whatever it was that killed them and try to make sure this doesn’t happen anymore.

Now this happens every single day in the United States in every other country with embryos, with fertilized eggs. Thirty to eighty percent of them die. Most people don’t know this, of course, but a lot of people do know this.

And what is their reaction? Well, I have no systematic surveys but in my informal questioning or exchanges with people from the right to life movement, it’s always – well, it’s sad because – mostly they say it’s sad because the women involved may have looked forward to getting pregnant. Of course that’s not true of all of them but many of them perhaps it is true of; but that’s not the point. The point is not that the parents missed the chance to have a child. The point is a human being died.

Now if their view is that human life begins at the moment of fertilization and that the death of a fertilized egg at any stage of its development is as much a tragedy as it is when – if one of us died or one of our children died, then you would look for some reaction. There’s no reaction whatever. I have yet to encounter anyone who has any reaction at all and then I will sometimes challenge them. I will say, “Look, don’t you think it should be a very high priority given the 30 to 80 percent of each generation, according to the way you define generation, is dying of spontaneous deaths?” Don’t you think it should be a high priority for NIH to sort of shift all those resources away from virtually everything it’s doing and try to figure out how to stop this?

No, not really, they say, because often the parents are unaware of it and sometimes it’s due to genetic anomalies. But look, suppose that there were children dying and their parents weren’t aware of it or it was due to genetic anomalies. Would we be so complacent? Or suppose it were teenagers. Of course not. Absolutely not.

So how are we to understand this lack of a reaction? The only way to understand it is that they really don’t think of that when a fertilized egg dies after 3 weeks or 6 weeks or 12 weeks that this is such a big deal because they sure don’t act like it’s a big deal. That’s A. OK.

B. Suppose that there is a rape and the rape results in pregnancy. Should the girl be free to have an abortion? Most state laws now say yes. I mean of course abortion is illegal anyway but even before that, there were exception clauses. Before [0:14:48] [Indiscernible] there were exception clauses that said that rape is legal in the case of – rape? Excuse me, abortion is legal in the case of rape and the right-to-lifers who I’ve talked to have generally said that they would be very uneasy about a statute that outlawed abortion even in the case of rape.

And that’s – I mean their reasoning is perfectly sound. They say that this isn’t something the woman invited, consented to, could be held responsible for. It was violently forced on her and this is just a question of choosing between tragic alternatives. None of the alternatives are good including abortion but it would be worst of all to force her to carry the child of her rapist.

Well, that sounds fine but if you think about just for a moment what they’ve just said, it doesn’t compute. What they basically said is that if there’s a child that results from a rape, you can kill him. Suppose that somebody was raped and then not long afterward had sex with her spouse and then after the child was four, five years old found out, actually through a DNA test, it was the rapist’s child and then shot the child. Would any of us think this is OK? I mean it’s tragic but it’s the best of a bunch of very bad alternatives. Of course not. This person would be put in jail for a long, long time.

Why don’t they think that about abortion in the case of rape? Because after all, if the fertilized egg is the same moral importance as you or I and our children do, that’s the only conclusion you could possibly draw; but I’ve almost never met anybody in the right to life movement who maintains that. So it doesn’t figure. OK. That’s number two.

Same thing for incest and then we will go through the argument. You could easily imagine it. Just because daddy forced himself on a girl and she got pregnant, does that mean it’s OK to kill their child? It can’t be OK if you think that that fertilized egg, that embryo, has the same rights that the rest of us do because the rest of us would have the right not to be killed even though we were the results of an incestuous union.

Now next case. Suppose there’s a genetic defect. There’s a quite bad genetic defect that runs through the family line and the girls who get pregnant who are from that family live in dread that they’re going to carry such a child. They get pregnant maybe in the context of marriage and then they find out that yes, it carries this defect.

Now here we have to divide cases. There are some genetic defects that are so awful that we can truly say the child is better off dead. If you had a chance to live but only on the condition that you have this defect, you would turn it down. You would rather die first. But there are many others that are extremely serious and I mean way beyond bounds, very, very serious defects and they’re not so bad that you would rather die first but it’s fairly close.

Now let’s take one of those cases. When I talk to right to life advocates and ask whether or not abortion would be justified in such a case, not all but the majority have said they thought it would. Again, terrible outcome but taking into account all the range of possibilities here, it’s the least bad one.

Well, you know the pattern of argument here. Now suppose that they waited three or four years after birth and this child was suffering. Yes, but not suffering so much that death was preferable from their point of view. Could we kill a child? Of course not.

So the only way to make sense of their view is that they just don’t think that that fertilized egg has the same rights that you and I do because otherwise, they wouldn’t allow the mother to kill that child or the doctor to kill that child in an abortion. This wouldn’t make any sense.

Now here comes one that’s tough and this is really the last in the series. Suppose you have one of these classic dilemmas where as a result of a problem in delivery, the doctor has to choose between the life of a child and the life of the fetus.

You all know that in the old days, the church taught that in most cases, you had to save the child’s life even if the mother died as a result and the classic case is where the child is – just cannot get through the birth canal and the only way you could save the mother’s life would be to crush the skull of the child, of the fetus.

The church said you can’t do it even if it means that the mother’s life will end. You have to try to save that child. Does anyone know how the church’s reasoning went in that case? How did they decide that the child’s life was more important than the mother’s life? Sorry?

Participant: [0:19:59] [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: No. What? Sorry? No. No. None of those, none of those.

Participant: It wasn’t because [Inaudible]?

Daniel Wikler: Uh-uh, no, no, no. All these things can be added on but the central reason.

Participant: [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: What?

Participant: [0:20:23] [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: No.

Participant: God’s will?

Daniel Wikler: No.

Participant: Another chance for …

Daniel Wikler: No, no, no, no, no. No, no, no. Anybody have any other guesses?

Participant: [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: No. No. They think this can be [0:20:44] [Indiscernible] coming back. No, all wrong, all wrong. Here’s the reason. There’s one thing. Second quiz question. Did the church say you must always save the life of the mother – save the life of the fetus? Were there any exceptions?

Participant: Yes.

Daniel Wikler: What? And why?


Daniel Wikler: Yes, yes, yes. That is correct. There were exceptions and the – what were the exceptions and why?

Participant: There were exceptions.

Daniel Wikler: What were they and why?

Participant: Jesus.

Daniel Wikler: No.

Participant: She had other children?

Daniel Wikler: No. No, no, no. [0:21:25] [Indiscernible] you’re wrong. No, sorry. Anybody know?

Participant: She was pregnant with twins.

Daniel Wikler: No, no, no.


Daniel Wikler: OK.

Participant: Colonel Mustard in the …

Daniel Wikler: No. OK. First, let’s look at one of the exceptions. I think this is sort of interesting, interesting that nobody knows. I didn’t know until I started looking at it but it’s instructive as you will see. First exception, ectopic pregnancy.

Participant: Ectopic?

Daniel Wikler: Yes. That was often an exception but a second – the most revealing exception is cancer of the uterus. The mother has cancer of the uterus. If you go in there and you take out the tumor, the child has nowhere to live. It’s going to die. “That’s OK,” they said. Even though the child will die, you have an obligation to save the mother’s life. That’s OK. Now why would they say that’s an OK exception?

Participant: Disease.

Daniel Wikler: Huh?

Participant: Disease.

Daniel Wikler: No.

Participant: [0:22:23] [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: No. Sorry?

Participant: [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: Yes, but that’s not really what it’s about. What it’s about is this. Have you ever heard of the Doctrine of Double Effect? This is a doctrine of Roman Catholic moral theology that plays a crucial role in this argument and it’s – I will tell you what the doctrine is and then we will apply it to this case and then we will see how it applies to the thing we’re talking about.

Doctrine of Double Effect first starts with a distinction between things that you can foresee and intend as opposed to things that you can foresee but not intend.

Now here’s a good example. Those of us who are old here know hand signals when you drive. How many people know how to signal left hand turn? OK.

So let’s suppose that your electronic signals are broken and you want to signal you’re going to do a left hand turn. What do you do? Yes. It’s like a Nazi salute, except straight to the side. Yes, if you’re turning left.

Now, suppose that it’s raining outside and you know it’s raining outside. Then when you stick your hand out to say a left turn, you foresee that your arm will get wet. Do you intend that your arm be wet – get wet? No. But you know it’s going to happen but if you ask why you do it or what’s your intention of sticking out your arm, you’re not going to say, “Oh, it needed wetting down,” you know. It’s a signal that you have a left – you want to make a left hand turn. So it’s a case of an effect. The wetting down of your arm is something that’s foreseen but it’s not intended.

Now the Doctrine of Double Effect says that there are some cases in which there is harm as a result of an action of yours that may be justified even though you foresee it, as long as it’s not intended and certain other conditions apply.

The most famous application of this apart from this abortion case is war time. There’s an ammo dump and you’re fighting on the right side of a war. You have a just cause and in order to defeat the enemy, you have to blow up this ammo dump but there are civilians in the neighborhood. Some of them are going to die if you hit the ammo dump. Can you do it?

Well, there’s a rule about proportionality. There’s a rule about what makes for a just war and so on but if you satisfied all those things, the answer is yes because you’re not blowing up the ammo supply in order to kill those people. That’s a foreseen but unintended result of what you do whereas if there were no ammo dump and you thought, “Well, let’s kill some civilians and that will demoralize the population and undermine the government, then we will win,” that would be forbidden even though your cause is just in both cases, equally just in both cases; and even if the strategy would be equally effective in both cases. So you get the idea.

Now what’s lying behind this is a doctrine that was a part of Roman Catholic moral theology for millennia. And it’s thought through by brilliant people and refined to a fine edge. You cannot intend evil even though the good may come of it. That’s basically – it’s [0:25:33] [Indiscernible] basic doctrine. You cannot intend evil even though good may come of it.

Now in the case of the ammo dump, if you hit it in order to hit – to defeat the enemy and you regret the collateral damage to the population and you satisfy the requirements about proportionality and just war, then this is not a case of intending evil so the good may come of it.

You do not intend evil either as a means or as an end but if you’re demoralizing the population, you kill some civilians to demoralize the population, you do intend that as a means and you can’t intend that as a means.

So that’s the doctrine. So the Catholic Church has an absolutist morality and it says you cannot intend evil even as a means, period. It’s just you cannot do that. It’s forbidden.

But the Doctrine of Double Effect is one of several supplementary principles that they use to engage this absolutist doctrine to the problems of your life.

Now let’s go back to the uterine cancer. If you try to cure the woman’s cancer, the baby will die. Is the death something you intend? No. Is this a good thing to do, to save a woman’s life? Yes, it is. Is the loss proportional to the gain? Well, it’s one – somebody is going to die either way. So it’s OK. So the church is actually – you should go in there and you should let the baby die. As a result of your intervention, the baby will die and you know that’s true. It’s 100 percent likely and you should do it. Now why doesn’t that apply to the standard case of a birth canal?

Participant: Because the action itself is killing it.

Daniel Wikler: Yes, because the only way to prevent the death of the mother would be to kill the child by crushing the skull and you intend the baby’s death as a means; and you can’t do it and that’s the origin of that doctrine.

Participant: But nor can you intentionally kill the mother in order to save the child.

Daniel Wikler: No, but you’re not doing that of course. What’s happening in this case is you’re saving the child and the mother will die as a result. It’s foreseen but not intended. Now, you can see how elaborate this moral reasoning is. It’s really – a thing of beauty, if you think moral arguments have a kind of architectural beauty, which I do.

It has been really, really thought-out by really, really smart people. But what’s the rule today? Well, even right-to-lifers who say that abortion should be illegal in the case of rape or genetic defect or incest, will still say it’s OK in the case of – to save a mother’s life and they don’t make a distinction between cancer of the uterus and other dilemmas and just across the board.

Now is that consistent with this reasoning? N-O. It is not and there’s no way to make it so. The underlying moral principle here is you cannot intend evil even as a means. Now as long as you see the fetus as having the same rights as we do or its death having – being the same kind of tragedy as the death of one of us or one of our children would be, you’re forced to this conclusion but that’s not what they say. It’s not what they believe. Almost all right-to-lifers think – and even their leaders here echo this, that abortion when you have to save – doing it to save the life of a mother is OK but it doesn’t compute.

Participant: Well, it doesn’t compute with Catholic knowledge.

Daniel Wikler: Yes, that’s right.

Participant: But it does compute with still – you can still argue that they’re both lives and if you – I mean in strict Jewish law, it’s – in fact you are required by law – if the child is endangering the mother, then the child is labeled a [0:29:27] [Indiscernible] someone who is chasing after you to kill you.

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: And you’re required to actually – you’re required to kill the fetus.

Daniel Wikler: Right. Very few of these people are Jewish.


Daniel Wikler: If they were, you would have a – we could make a deal, you know, but they’re not.

Participant: Well, the thing is, it is necessarily – although many of them are Catholic …

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: … you can still say …

Daniel Wikler: Yes, if they …

Participant: [0:29:50] [Indiscernible]

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: You can have …

Daniel Wikler: Your point is very well-taken. If you could reconstruct this according to a very different way of looking at moral choice, in a way that … [0:30:00]


Daniel Wikler: Your point is very well-taken. If you could reconstruct this according to a very different way of looking at moral choice, in a way that …

Participant: [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: Yes, yes. You could. You could. In a – the standard Catholic way of doing it does not allow this exception but right-to-lifers who subscribe to Catholic – Roman Catholic moral theology do make this exception.

Now take this whole list of exceptions, why it’s OK to do things that cause deaths of fetuses or embryos. What kind of pattern does this make? What should we include about what these people believe about embryos and fetuses? That they think that it’s just this greater tragedy when an embryo or a fetus dies as it is if we died or one of our kids died? I can’t – it doesn’t compute. It makes no sense. The only thing that makes sense is that they think it’s a tragedy but not quite seen a tragedy or they think it’s a tragedy especially for a later term fetus but if it happens the first two or three weeks when the parent is even unaware of it, then it’s mostly a tragedy for the parent who might have wanted to have a child, the same way any of us would think about it.

But if you ascribe to them the belief they claim to have which is that embryos are people from the moment of conception and that is just as great a tragedy if life is lost at that point as any other point in the lifespan and they have the same rights that we do, then none of this will make any sense. They would all have to be extremists on every one of these issues.

Now you can say, “Well, they probably do believe this but they know that it wouldn’t sell.” Well, that’s not my experience in talking to them. As far as I can tell, the people who I have talked to, not any kind of scientific sample, but I have had the advantage of talking to them for hours.

So I do think they’re being totally sincere with me. They haven’t thought it through really. They will still insist that you’re a human being from the moment of conception but then they endorse all these exceptions. So a few of them have been patient enough to allow me to spell all this out and not one of them has been able to wiggle out of this because you can’t. You just can’t.

So what do you do? Well, what they used to do is they would realize they were wrong to make any exceptions. They would snap back into line and when I said I’m addressing this to the rank and file, the reason I said that was that the leadership presumably is not afraid to, in their moments of total candor, take the hard line and they’re presumably aware of the need to in order to be consistent because what they can’t give up is this premise that – from the moment of conception, embryos are just as much people as you and I. They give that up, all the rest is gone so they’re never going to give it up; and for them, giving up the exception on the right to have an abortion after rape or in the case of a threat to the mother’s life is peanuts compared to that.

But that’s not true for the rank and file. Ask members of the rank and file if you know them. What would you think about a statute that banned abortion even in the case of a loss of the mother’s life or a rape or any of these other things? And I’ll be amazed if you find any who will say, “Well, I think that’s OK.” To be consistent, we have to say that that’s OK.

So when I talk to them, they never switch over [0:33:31] [Indiscernible] but it does put them in a period of – into a state of puzzlement because they don’t have an answer. And now what? So, it is a big problem for them and it should be a problem.

Now my own claim here, it’s not one that I’ve gotten any of them to endorse but my own claim is that although they’ve always interpreted their – or they’ve always sort of understood their beliefs as having a centerpiece, this premise that embryos are people like you and I, they don’t really believe it.

You take the whole web of belief and you try to make sense of their web – the panoply of their beliefs in its entirety. Only the premise that embryos while human, of course they’re human, are not people like you and I. That’s the only belief that makes sense of the rest of their beliefs.

So that’s – when I say this is an appeal to the rank and file, what I mean is I would like them to see how things that they already believe – assume that what their leaders want them to insist on isn’t true in their own eyes. Not in anybody else’s eyes but in their own eyes.

Now what kind of argument is this, when these are people active in the right to life movement? So the slogan of the right to life movement is that human beings are people from the moment of conception and I’m saying you don’t really believe that. Why don’t you just drop that premise?

Well, you could say it’s arrogant. I mean who am I to tell them what they believe? But it’s not me. It’s some arguments and they should take the argument seriously. If they can’t answer the arguments, then if they’re morally serious people which almost all these people are, then they just have to think it through.

And so it’s just like when talking with – I grew up in the south and I talk to racists a lot because I’m surrounded by them and they would – when we talk about black-white differences and whether blacks had the same rights as whites did, they always came up with all these arguments about black-white natural differences.

So clearly, they were premised on the idea that blacks are not as smart as whites or whatever it is and when you came up – if you force them to focus on this, they would finally admit that yes, that is what they’re basing this on. And if it turned out that that wasn’t true, they should give up those attitudes.

Now, if [0:35:51] [Indiscernible] brought along 20 biology books and disproved every one of those beliefs, they would still have an [Indiscernible] against blacks. That’s why there are very few black dentists outside of black communities because whites don’t like having black fingers in their mouths and these people would have been revolted by the idea and no number of biology books would have changed that. That’s just the kind of attitude that they have.

But nevertheless, if they were morally serious people, then it would be common on them to say, “Look, I still have these feelings but I admit that I can’t square it with these arguments.” Just think about it. And that’s what I would expect from a right-to-lifer. I do expect of the right-to-lifers when they present this series of arguments and some of them do go away a bit puzzled.

Now on occasion, one of them will say, “Look, I don’t have an answer to these arguments but I’m not going to give up the central belief that you want me to give up. So, I’m just going to take this hard line that you’re talking about.” So I say, “OK. Now that means I want to see some tears about all these spontaneous abortions and I want you writing letters to the president urging NIH to shift money out of cancer and mental health into preventing spontaneous abortion the first three to six weeks of pregnancy,” and they say, “I will.” And …


Daniel Wikler: … one time, I saw him again. I said, “Have you?” Uh-uh.


Daniel Wikler: So I think they did mean it at the time because they saw that they had to say that or else they have to say, “I’m not really very morally serious,” and they were morally serious so they had good intentions at the time but they didn’t do anything about it. And what that shows me, it shows to me, I think is they didn’t really believe that thing although they’re very attached to the idea that they do.

Participant: Well, would you – how many – what percentage of people who are 100 years old that die every year?

Daniel Wikler: Well, actually longevity increases the older you get. You know that. If you want to find the people with the longest life expectancy, go to an old folks’ home.

Participant: Less than 50 percent would be the answer.

Daniel Wikler: Thank you.

Participant: Less than 50 percent will die.

Daniel Wikler: Right.

Participant: But greater than 30 percent, 20 percent? A greater percentage of people – there is a year. My point is that …

Participant: People will age to a hundred.

Participant: They’re going to die …


Participant: … will die in the next year. Surprisingly few.

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: But surprisingly a large number will die in the next 10 years.

Daniel Wikler: Yes, they will [0:38:28] [Indiscernible].


Participant: So what if you found out that every 10 years, like 100 percent of the people who are 100 …

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: … are dying?

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: You wouldn’t shed a tear for them either because …

Daniel Wikler: No …

Participant: Because – and why? Because you would say this is the natural …

Daniel Wikler: Far from it. You would say these are the most fortunate people who ever lived.

Participant: But you would also – you wouldn’t send out special letters to the president …

Daniel Wikler: But you know what? When a three-year-old dies, you do.

Participant: When a three-year-old dies, you do.

Daniel Wikler: Yes. And even if it happened from natural causes that could not have been averted, they had a genetic defect and you found out about it or there was an epidemic you couldn’t pretend, you would shed a tear, wouldn’t you? It’s because they only lived three years. When a hundred – when a centenarian dies, you say, “It’s sad that they’re gone. We love them.” I hope. But you say, “Boy, a hundred years? Great!”

Participant: But those who haven’t lived at all, would you shed a tear necessarily? I don’t know that it’s necessarily …

Daniel Wikler: Well, probably somebody in the room has had a baby die, stillbirth or death occurring in the first year, and it hasn’t happened to me but it has happened to people I know and yes, it’s a terrible experience. So it’s the thought that this young wife, full of potential, is never going to have a life and that’s terribly sad. Now why don’t we have it about embryos that wash down the tubes and – we don’t because guess why. There’s only one explanation, I think. Yes.

Participant: Yes. I’ve always thought – and I just want to play devil’s advocate. I’ve always thought that [0:40:00] one of the reasons that people become focused on the fact that every fertilized egg has value is that the counterargument to that, that this is entirely a woman’s choice, seems too cavalier. That to make a fertilized egg not valuable at all is very repugnant to these people.

Daniel Wikler: OK, but that’s not the view of attack. The attack is …


Daniel Wikler: … they have the same value as the rest of us have.

Participant: But their view, I think, is hanging on to how important for [0:40:31] [Inaudible] might stem partly from the fact that there’s a whole group of people that are treating this very cavalierly.

Daniel Wikler: It might. It might but I’m addressing one particular belief which is that as soon as a fertilization occurs, this is a human being with the same rights, the same importance as the rest of us.

Participant: That’s right.

Daniel Wikler: Now the view that it’s now human and so it has more importance than it did when it was a sperm and an egg or more than a rock is one that’s shared by a lot of people who think of themselves as pro choice. And so that’s why a lot of people who would never think of themselves as pro life would still want some kind of special regulations about how embryos should be handled and so that’s just not uncommon to find. There’s a division of opinion.

Participant: Right.

Daniel Wikler: But that puts them in the other side of the divide.

Participant: Right.

Daniel Wikler: If they [0:41:18] [Indiscernible] view.

Participant: But I’ve always felt that part of that polarization was because the other polar side is more cavalier than any of these [Inaudible].

Daniel Wikler: Some are and some aren’t. The caricature of the pro choice person is but many pro choice people aren’t so that’s part of it. Now, in fact, I think – it seems to me that this issue is demagogue beyond recognition and that the desire to take up this confusion or this sympathy toward the idea that fertilized eggs are people like you and I, the idea to loft that up to the level of principle and make it the central issue in American politics is just a passing temporary fact about how to – about the desire of some people to meld together a coalition that’s allowing a lot of their allies to do things that they want to do that they couldn’t otherwise do.

So in other words, some people have a big stake in fanning this idea and making sure that for a lot of people, it’s the only thing that they think about. I was just talking with a colleague this week about the fact that – in wonderment that the obsession with this part of the right wing on the status of embryos, strangely enough has caused a counter reaction so that there are people who basically should have more interest in social security and so on.

But for them, the only thing they think about is the same issue on the other side of course; and so, the idea that someone like Harry Reid is now the senate minority leader should be regarded as a good democrat even though he’s prolife is anathema and that any senator who would ever vote to confirm a supreme court nominee who would not support Roe v. Wade, that’s absolutely out. You should make sure they’re defeated in the next primary and all this stuff.

It’s just the mirror image on the other side and it’s a very strange moment in American politics where this question about embryos has for many people on both sides of the issue displaced everything else in this time of – where some of these issues are so important but that’s personal appraisal.

But the main point I’ve – just to repeat the earlier one is that I don’t know whether there would be any actual gain by strenuously addressing this kind of argument to the rank and file of the pro life movement. I would think so partly because I do it in all sincerity. What I try to do when I offer these arguments is to show that first of all, I take their view very seriously to the point where I have to actually tell them – reconstruct their view for them especially with this double effect thing and that is a sign of respect. I’m not doing it just so I can stomp their views into the ground.

But instead, to see whether or not there’s something in there that I might agree with and whether or not I’ve missed something and I would think they owed me the same respect from my point of view.

So just the attempt might have a solitary [0:44:28] [Phonetic] effect but the main thing is that by engaging people who are on the side of what I think is rather blind rejection of embryo research, engaging them in this kind of dialogue is already raising the exchange to the level of rational argument where it usually isn’t and that can’t be a bad thing either. Yes.

Participant: How would you expect this – the person who believes that life begins at fertilization, how would you help them handle having to fertilize an egg to create a special line of stem cells for some particular reason?

Daniel Wikler: Well, I don’t think it’s that hard. The first thing to do is to go through all this stuff and ask them to reflect on whether they think fertilized eggs really are people like you and I. Now given the other things that I think that they will be ready to [0:45:22] [Indiscernible], the answer cannot be yes.

Now, suppose they say, “Well, all right. Not people like you and I but nevertheless human and holy and beloved by God and special in various ways.” Well as I say, there are a lot of pro choice people who believe some version of that.

So you might agree that you would never casually destroy an embryo, that when you handle an embryo, you do it in a manner that’s in keeping with its significance, moral significance if you share that view.

But still, when you put it on the scale with the potential that experimentation on embryos might have for relieving suffering for children and adults in the future, it is appropriate to see where the heaviest weight is.

So in this way, it’s different from absolute rights. Suppose that you said, “Look, if the doctors could just grab you, Wikler, and torture you and then kill you and dismember you, then come up with a cure for caner.” Now surely relieving cancer for all these people in the world would justify that of you very – well, I might – apart from the fear I have, I might say, “No, my life is not something you can put on a balance scale. You can’t kill me. You just can’t do it.” So that’s an absolute.

So if that’s where we are, then you can’t do this kind of research but if my argument is successful, then you will not be there anymore. The death of an embryo is just not the same kind of event as the death of one of us and even killing an embryo isn’t the same event as killing one of us. It just isn’t and so now the balance scale is wheeled out and we may disagree over how much weight it has and what it would take to make the scales tip the other way but we’re engaged in the same kind of haggling and there is some possibility of agreement. Yes.

Participant: I’ve been very interested in what you said and I think there is a slight difference between right-to-life people in this country and right-to-life people in the UK because I think right-to-life people here are more concerned with the rights of the woman in the abortion example that you’ve mentioned.

Daniel Wikler: The right-to-life people are.

Participant: The right-to-life people are.

Daniel Wikler: Uh-huh.

Participant: So I think the exceptions for abortion and the right to life of the fetus that you mentioned would not weigh so heavily …

Daniel Wikler: OK.

Participant: … in my country. So as far as I’m concerned, forget about abortion. I find that not a helpful argument.

Daniel Wikler: I see. Yes. What percentage of the British are right-to-lifers, do you think?

Participant: Very few.

Daniel Wikler: So …

Participant: Ten percent …

Daniel Wikler: OK. See, if you took the 10 percent here, the core …


Participant: Mainly strict Roman Catholic.

Daniel Wikler: Yes. OK. Right.

Participant: Here it’s much wider.

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: And yes, so I hesitate …

Daniel Wikler: Yes, exactly. There you are.

Participant: OK. But I think [0:48:32] [Indiscernible] the embryo argument which I have been more involved with and I think you’re absolutely right there and I think one can make a lot of headway there because although – probably a number of women in this room have had spontaneous abortions [Indiscernible] and it has been very sad than ones [Indiscernible].

On the other hand, there are many women in this room who have had unprotected sex and then had a period. So the products for conception, if there had been any, have been lost and they have not thought too much …

Daniel Wikler: No.

Participant: … about it.

Daniel Wikler: No. And no one does.

Participant: And if you talk to Roman Catholics, they have never considered wanting to give Christian value to the possible products of conception …

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: … in that situation. Indeed they’re rather embarrassed they have even thought it.

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: So they clearly …

Daniel Wikler: Yes, indeed. And that is the puzzle, isn’t it?

Participant: [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: So …

Daniel Wikler: They have an out though.

Participant: That’s right. That’s right.

Participant: What’s their out?

Daniel Wikler: I’m not Catholic and so I hesitate to speak [0:50:00] about what the true Catholic position is but here’s my understanding of it. The true Catholic position is not that life begins at conception although my guess is most Catholics think that is the true position. Does anyone know what the true Catholic position is?

Participant: It’s from the embryo [Indiscernible].

Daniel Wikler: No.

Participant: No?

Daniel Wikler: No.

Participant: [Indiscernible]

Daniel Wikler: No. No, no, no.

Participant: [Indiscernible]

Participant: Twinkle in the eye.

Daniel Wikler: No.


Daniel Wikler: No, no, no.

Participant: Because the good Catholics [0:50:29] [Indiscernible].

Daniel Wikler: The official view is that it is a mystery and we have no idea. So then why – so why then is abortion wrong? The reason is that it may have occurred at conception for all we know and so to be casual about the death of a – to kill a fetus as in an abortion is to act regardless of human life and that is a crime right next to – I mean it’s wrong as killing. It’s like shooting into a barn when there may be kids playing in there who would be killed by your bullet. You just can’t do it but it’s not that they claim to know when God infuses the developing embryo with life. That’s one of the great mysteries. So …

Participant: But even so, accepting that, if they believe there was a possibility with the products of conception being lost …

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: … they should …

Daniel Wikler: Yes. Well, you’re right.

Participant: [Inaudible]

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: And if one talks to an intelligent Jesuit – some of those Jesuits are very intelligent. You can have a very good argument along those lines.

Daniel Wikler: And how do they defend not burying them?

Participant: Huh?

Daniel Wikler: How do they defend not failing to bury them?

Participant: Well, very often you can distinguish between the genetic individuality that begins at fertilization and the individual which begins later.

Daniel Wikler: Ah.

Participant: At the end of implantation.

Daniel Wikler: I see.

Participant: So until the embryo is implanted, well there’s a certain ambiguity which would cover that case.

Daniel Wikler: These are not standard issue Jesuits.

Participant: These are not standard issues.

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: But of course the Roman Catholic Church [0:52:32] [Indiscernible] established this, regards IVF as [Indiscernible] unacceptable.

Daniel Wikler: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

Participant: Yes.

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: [Inaudible] and yet many good Catholic women, good Catholic couples go in for IVF.

Daniel Wikler: As they do abortion.

Participant: As they do …

Daniel Wikler: But in fact they …

Participant: As they do …

Daniel Wikler: And contraception. Self-identified Catholic women …

Participant: Yes.

Daniel Wikler: … have a disproportionately high abortion rate. Yes. Right.

Participant: Certainly not in Catholic [0:53:00] [Inaudible].

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: It’s OK …

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: … in IVF.

Daniel Wikler: Right. The thing that I have to say about IVF that when I was working on stem cells, I thought, OK, the main objection that’s going to be raised about stem cells is that you have to kill some embryos in order to get the stem cells but then I thought, OK, there are thousands and thousands of embryos killed every year in IVF clinics and no one says anything about that anymore. So no one who is not upset about what IVF clinics do would have any reason I could ever think of to be upset about stem cells.

So I gravely underestimated the potential for stem cells to become a big ethical issue because at the time – I mean I think there are some interesting issues now with – you know as well as I do they have to do with sort of the far reaches of experimentation; but certainly in the first few years of stem cells, the only issue really was that you had to kill some embryos to get stem cells. And given that we were killing far more through the standard operation of IVF clinics that are widely accepted, how can anyone object, unless they also object to the IVF clinics which very few people did?

Now what happened was the press kept referring to the serious ethical issues raised by stem cells and I would read them. I think, “What are they?” I would ask my colleagues. Could you tell me what is the serious ethical issue with stem cells? It can’t be that you had to kill some embryos because the IVF clinics do that much more and no one could ever tell me.

And so for years, I would look at these newspaper accounts about these serious ethical issues and I think, “What are they talking about?” Sometimes they ask a reporter. I would say, “What are you talking about?” They didn’t – weren’t able to really tell me apart from the fact that they had to kill some embryos.

So what this indicated to me was there was a very big blast of political agenda here that lofted this thing and used it as a means toward a certain political end but for that, if the politicians – if all politicians have said, “Look, for people who are upset about IVF, you will be upset about this too and for the same reasons although not to the same extent and no one else should bat an eye.” If they had said that, my guess is the public would have said, “Oh, stem cell.” But that’s not what happened.

Participant: There’s an interesting view about stem cells that I heard [0:55:22] [Indiscernible] by a patient which is that any embryo has a unique genetic identity established at fertilization. If that embryo dies, that genetic identity is lost forever and ever which …

Daniel Wikler: True.

Participant: … is perhaps tragic.

Daniel Wikler: Yes, I think that’s – only I think …

Participant: But …

Daniel Wikler: One can imagine a feeling of reverence toward an embryo for that reason.

Participant: Yes.

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: But if stem cells are made, that particular genetic identity goes on indefinitely as long as the stem cells go on. That unique genetic identity is still there and I have heard an IVF patient, who’s donating embryos, expressed …

Daniel Wikler: Kind of immortality.

Participant: … that she would much rather have her embryo with its unique genetic identity go on indefinitely and maybe those cells will help somebody someday or whatever rather than simply get flushed on whatever.

Daniel Wikler: Very interesting.


Daniel Wikler: And you can imagine how Helen Lane’s family feels if you know about Helen Lane. In fact, I did read an interview with a relative at home and he was delighted that Helen Lane is taking over cell labs all over the world. So …

Participant: I think that the [0:56:56] [Indiscernible] in general public is not fully aware of the individual criteria that IVF labs use. They simply set up what should stay in the freezer and what should be discarded. And I would suspect that the extreme right wing [0:57:20] [Indiscernible] satisfied no matter what criteria you present. I mean I think there will a certain moral outrage by certain sects of the community if they realize for one second that there are thousands and thousands of embryos that are just routinely discarded [Indiscernible] there’s no measure in terms of the viability and the vitality of those embryos. It’s purely subjective.

Daniel Wikler: But they would be upset even if it weren’t subjective as long as you were destroying embryos.

Participant: Oh, no, no. That’s exactly …

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: That’s – so I don’t think that the general public realizes …

Daniel Wikler: Yes, they might have …

Participant: … they have done all this. Just exactly how many embryos on a routine basis are discarded everyday …

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: … through IVF clinics.

Daniel Wikler: No, absolutely not.

Participant: The other thing I wanted to make – I’m sure John could probably correct me far better here. He studied this topic and that is, I think – isn’t – initially the word “conception” was used because of the uncertainty of when life begins [Inaudible].

Participant: Well, conception is an old [0:58:25] [Indiscernible] word. It means acceptance into the womb and this was – Sir Thomas Aquinas [Indiscernible] sense of the words animatus [Indiscernible] came in. It was in 1863 when Pope Pius the Ninth abolished all that and they said life begins at conception but you’re right. It was a myth. He didn’t know what conception meant scientifically because fertilization wasn’t discovered until eight years later.

Daniel Wikler: Yes. Well, he had a special adviser.

Participant: Yes.

Daniel Wikler: Yes.


Daniel Wikler: Thank you for that by the way.

Participant: That is true that the Catholic Church – that there was that decree but – at that time.

Daniel Wikler: Yes, they have talked that way. Yes.

Participant: And that has not been changed. So when you say that it’s something that none of us know, maybe you don’t have …

Daniel Wikler: Yes.

Participant: [0:59:20] [Indiscernible] Catholic Church. I don’t think that’s what …

Daniel Wikler: No. It’s no question that popes have said this. They have said it begins at conception but Catholic moral theologians have said this is for the public to understand. The other thing is it’s very difficult. What the pope meant was that it’s a great mystery and so we have to act as if this were true. But as I say, I’m not – I can’t speak with any authority on that.

Female Speaker: Thank you very much.

Daniel Wikler: My pleasure. Thank you.



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