“Stem Cells, Biotechnology, and Human Rights: Implications for a Posthuman Future”

(reprinted in the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 13, 2015)

Any reader of this blog knows that I am a transhumanist; I believe in using technology to overcome all human limitations. What follows is a summary of an anti-transhumanist article by Paul Lauritzen, a professor of Theology and Religious Studies. I believe his arguments are as harmful as they are worthless, and contrary to everything I believe in, but I will summarize them nonetheless. As I proceed I will provide a few parenthetical comments, as well as some critical remarks at the end.

Stem Cells, Biotechnology, and Human Rights: Implications for a Posthuman Future

The author discusses two broad concerns posed by stem cell research and related biotechnological interventions. The first has to do with the prospect of transforming the contours of human life in fairly dramatic ways. The second has to do with our attitudes toward the natural world.

As we move to change the meaning of human embodiment in fundamental ways, including the possibility of eroding species boundaries, we need to ask whether we are prepared to reduce the entire natural world to the status of artifact. (Is that what we would be doing? If so, is that bad?) These concerns raise questions about the meaning of human rights in a post-human future. (Can’t we have enhanced human rights? Or robot rights?)

Despite the overwhelming questions of embryo status, ultimately the fundamental question raised by stem cell research is not about the embryo. Instead, it is about the future toward which biotechnology beckons us. Does contemporary biotechnology, including stem cell research, open the door to a post-human future? (It obviously does, but is this bad, and if so why?)

Others raise this question explicitly when they discuss the combination of genetic engineering and stem cell therapy. They suggest that xenotransplantation forces us to confront the prospect of transgressing species boundaries. When a graft involves genetically engineered stem cells from another species, questions are raised not just about the ontological status of the graft recipient, but about the illnesses to which the biomedical technology is responding.

(Do species differ in degree or kind? If they differ only in degree, as modern biology maintains, then the transgressing species boundary argument makes little sense. And even if we do change the species, why is this bad? Perhaps Lauritzen’s argument is just a sophisticated version of the ”yuch” argument—I oppose this stuff because it seems yucky!)

Questions about the implications of pursuing stem cell research have not been systematically asked or answered. Given the potential for alleviating human suffering embedded in the prospects of stem cell research, it is not surprising that there appears to be widespread and largely uncritical acceptance of stem cell research. Nevertheless, if the promise of stem cell research is as revolutionary as is often claimed, we are going to need a much more expansive discussion of stem cell research than we have had. (Is this just another “the sky is falling” argument? Or the slippery slope argument?)

If stem cell research leads to therapies that change the natural contours of human life, it will unsettle our ethical commitments, including the very notion of a human right, and encourage us to see the entire natural world, the human body along with it, as having the status only of material to be manipulated.

Reflections – There is a lot to say in reply to this argument, but first of all let me say this. Lauritzen doesn’t want to avail himself of these or any other technologies he doesn’t want to, but he shouldn’t keep others from using them if they want to.

Also we might ask: Don’t we treat nature as artifact now? Will new technology really make us more likely to do this? Has he given a good argument for this, or any of the other supposed negative consequences that might result from biotech?  What of the positive consequences? And was the past and is the present really so good that we wouldn’t want to change human nature? Is it possible that he has to defend the goodness of the status quo—grow old, get sick, die and don’t intervene—because he is a religious thinker? After all, to grant that we can make this world better than the gods originally made it would undermine his world view. And surely he doesn’t want to do that.

What I can say is this. When science and technology defeat death, religion as we know it will end. Theologians will be out of jobs when there are superintelligences. Religion is always fighting the future, but the future will arrive nonetheless. And when biotechnology eliminates disease and improves the human condition, no one will care what the theologians have to say.

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