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Landsburg on Stem Cells

The current debate over stem-cell research prompted me to send the following letter to The Baltimore Sun in response to this op-ed by conservative columnist Cal Thomas.

To the Editor:

Like Cal Thomas, I oppose stem-cell research funded by government (“Our Nation Needs a Moral Home Base in Stem Cell Debate,” May 25).  Unlike him, I support such research if it’s funded privately.

Killing innocent human beings is wrong because human beings are moral agents.  In an ironic encomium to pure materialism, many folks on the right conclude that each human embryo is a moral agent merely because each one contains the genetic and chemical materials necessary for growth into a human being.  But because moral agency is created by far more than mere chemical compounds, there’s nothing obviously immoral about stem-cell research.

Donald J. Boudreaux

Steve Landsburg, who read my letter, sent this note to me – a note of far greater eloquence and insight than I can ever hope to achieve.

The embryo contains all the information necessary to create a moral agent.  True.  It’s also true that I could, in principle, write down on a piece of paper all the information that’s in the embryo, hence enough information to create a moral agent.  Does it follow that the piece of paper *is* a moral agent?

I agree completely with Steve.

One of my favorite treatments of the question of when life begins is in George C. Williams’s book The Pony Fish’s Glow: And Other Clues to Plan and Purpose in Nature.