Knowing How to Treat Something Requires Knowing What It Is

December 29, 2014 • Posted in Blog

D. Joy Riley, M.D., M.A.

Here’s a riddle for you: what do you do with the above pictured item? Do you melt it, re-form it, and use it for jewelry? Do you add it to a paint base and cover your walls? Or do you include it in a rice dish and serve it to your family?

Truthfully, you do none of the above. The gold-colored powder pictured above is not real gold; it would not make good jewelry. It is not pigment to add to your wall paint. It is certainly not saffron or curry powder to add to a rice dish. The powder is actually gold eyeshadow — make-up.

Why is this important?

In order to treat something appropriately, you must first understand what the something is. This is one of the important messages The Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture works to communicate. After all, it was a mistake of this elemental sort — thinking one does not have to know what something is before deciding what one can do with it — that formed the basis of destructive embryo research in the United Kingdom. Parliament commissioned the Warnock Committee to advise them regarding in vitro fertilization and related research. The Warnock Report stated that the committee could not advise Parliament about what the embryo was, but could tell them what could be done with the embryo:

. . .the question was not, as is often suggested, whether the embryo was alive and human, or whether, if implanted, it might eventually become a full human being.  We conceded that all these things were true.  We nevertheless argued that, in practical terms, a collection of four or sixteen cells was so different from a full human being, from a new human baby or a fully formed human foetus, that it might quite legitimately be treated differently.  Specifically we argued that, unlike a full human being, it might legitimately be used as a means to an end that was good for other humans, both now and in the future.

Mary Warnock, A Question of Life (Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, Ltd, 1985), xiv-xv

From 1991 to 2011, in the UK, more than three million embryos were created. During that time, according to The Daily Mail, “fewer than 100,000” were “successfully implanted into women to result in live births during that period” while “nearly a million and a half were discarded . . . and more than 100,000 were given for research in destructive experiments.” That meant that 30 embryos were created for every baby born through IVF in the UK over a twenty-year period. These were embryos who could be used as a means to an end that was “good for other humans”  (in the parlance of the Warnock Committee).

What about the future? What happens when someone else — not an embryo — has something that other humans could use? Perhaps it is a kidney or a heart. Perhaps it is space on the planet. Or it could even be that because some humans require the outlay of more cash or resources than others, their “absence” could enrich the rest of us. What then? Who speaks for the vulnerable in our society?

We, the Tennessee Center for Bioethics & Culture, are working day after day to be a voice for the voiceless, raising the oft-uncomfortable questions to help people think through the issues involved on a variety of fronts. In addition to a monthly e-newsletter designed to inform our readers, this year we have hosted several public events integrating art and bioethics. Using art to communicate bioethics concepts allows the audience to think on new levels about important issues — like understanding what something is before deciding how to treat it, or understanding that an embryo is not a “what” but a “who.”

Also this year, our center has been able to supply public testimony regarding three-parent embryos before an FDA subcommittee, (p.198-202) and our positions have been quoted in The New York Times Magazine as well as published in the United Kingdom — again, about three-parent embryos.