William & Mary

Fuchs and Tiefel diverge on medical ethics

Fuchs (l) and Tiefel (r) pose with Frankenstein’s monster at Swem Library. By David Williard.Frankenstein had every moral right to create the monster in his attempt to advance medical science, Hans Tiefel and Alan Fuchs agreed, as they used Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus to discuss the ethics of stem-cell cloning.

Though Shelley’s scientist “dislikes scouring the charnel houses and the graveyards for the parts he needs, there is nothing troublesome about his quest and his research materials except for a certain unpleasantness—an aesthetic, not a moral, matter,” Tiefel, professor of religious studies, told approximately 150 people gathered in the Botetourt Gallery of the Swem Library for the forum “Recreating Frankenstein? Ethical Reflections on Contemporary Biotechnology.”

As to the possibilities of creating life through modern stem-cell manipulation, the professors, weighing damage to the “human-related material” against potential medical breakthroughs, diverged in their opinions. Tiefel turned to U.S. patent law to argue that a distinction exists between a “person” and “assorted body parts,” which served as research material for Frankenstein as well as serve for modern-day scientists. Patents are issued for gene-altered animals and for cultured human cells, but they cannot be issued for entities that have human potentiality. “That would violate the 13th amendment [to the U.S. Constitution] prohibiting slavery,” Tiefel said. The rights of personhood extend through the chain of human development to include human stem cells, he argued.

Countered Fuchs, professsor of philosophy, such rights gradually are bestowed upon the cells that develop into human beings. The potentials for good arising from experimenting with, and ultimately destroying, stem cells are so great that one could say we “have a moral imperative” to pursue the research. Related ethical decisions should be measured against the “test of public reason” involving “logical consistency,” “clarity of argumentation” and “reliance upon values that are shared by all reasonable members of [our] pluralistic society,” he said.

The event, which inaugurated the surprisingly intimate Swem-basement amphitheater, became a showcase for the professors to display the unique communication skills that have made them highly sought, and often controversial, speakers. Tiefel, dramatic and inflective, wove together pointed images of a monster who “displays superhuman speed and strengths” with wistful laments about the loss of dignity of the body in a world in which “there is nothing physical that is sacred.” Fuchs, with less strenuous gestures, pointed to the prizes of cloning research, suggesting that we could “rekindle damaged cells,” answer the problem of Alzheimer’s disease and potentially “illuminate problems of congestive heart failure, which kills millions of people.” Underlying each speaker’s argument was an acceptance that society, not any “revealed sectarian” belief, ultimately would define the ethical framework for the current stem-cell research debate. Tiefel seemed resigned to the fact; Fuchs gloried in it.

Indeed, Tiefel, while stressing his advocacy of societally sanctioned law-based rights for potential persons, decried society’s loss of respect for the physical body. “In Shelley’s 19th century, and in our own, science no longer pursues forbidden knowledge,” he said. “Earlier taboos that refused dissection of human cadavers or that hesitated to cut into the human breast because that was thought to be the seat of the soul [are] recognized as superstitious and as marked by the darkness of earlier times.” He accepted, yet questioned, how well such a “dualistic self-understanding” would serve mankind. At one point, he reminded the audience that major religious communities “insist that human bodies are not our own” and that “we belong to God and to each other, but none of us is property, no matter how young or how old.” At another point, he charged, Frankenstein’s “sin” was not in the creation of the monster but in his “abandonment” of it—the same thing scientists are doing today.

Fuchs suggested that rights for human-related material accrue with “status,” of which stem cells and deceased bodies have little. He, however, called for treating each with “respect” by pointing out that “there is a difference between utilizing corpses for research” and “hacking them up for the fun of it.” He further argued that development of the individual parallels that of evolution. Since we cannot know when the first human appeared or when a developing cluster of cells becomes a person, he called attempts to pinpoint those moments a result of “logical confusion.”

“My response is that it is a gradual process,” he said, describing development in terms of “potentiality” and “actuality.” So far, use of “reason” to determine rights for cells with human potential supports what we intuitively understand, he added. “We recognize that there is something morally different between the eighth-month abortion and the eighth-day abortion.”

Fuchs called for continued reliance upon reason, as exercised within a pluralistic society to balance the rights of human material and humans. The alternative, which admits “sectarian” perspectives—unreasonable in that one group cannot reasonably be expected to understand them as normative—will, he said, “lead us to tragedy.”

“Is [such consensus] a possibility? Is this a pipedream?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m optimistic,” he concluded.