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Is it legitimate to ask opponents of embryonic stem cell therapy whether they support IVF?

by Dominic Wilkinson

In the news this week is the first US officially-sanctioned human trial of embryonic stem cells. A patient with spinal cord injury has received an injection of embryo-derived stem cells.

Predictably, the news has not been received positively by those who are opposed to research with embryonic stem cells.

The development, however, was criticized by those with moral objections to research using the cells because days-old embryos are destroyed to obtain them.

"Geron is helping their stock price, not science and especially not patients," said David Prentice, senior fellow for life sciences at the Family Research Council.

The arguments in favour and against embryonic stem cells have been reviewed and rehearsed ad nauseam. I will not repeat them here.


But is it reasonable to ask or demand that those who are opposed to ES cells answer 'the question'. What are your views on IVF?

If, as we might suspect, the Family Research Council is implacably opposed to in-vitro fertilisation, we might be tempted to disregard their opposition to stem cell developments like this one. After all, when it comes to IVF we accept that some people are opposed to it, and would not choose to use it. They are entitled to their views and free to express them, however, we do not think that their views should be imposed on those who do not share them.

But perhaps it matters why we are asking the question

One reason for asking the IVF question might be as a demand for consistency. So, if someone is opposed to ES research because of the moral status of human embryos, it appears that they should hold a particular (unpopular) view about fertility treatment.

A second reason for asking the question might be in order to shortcircuit the arguments against ES research. Rather than needing to engage with the specific arguments about the relative merits of adult vs embryonic origin cells, or the commercial interests of stem cell companies, or the niceties of legislation about the use of federal funds we might simply want to jump to one of the most powerful arguments in its favour. Given that we support IVF, given that spare embryos are destroyed as part of IVF, why would we not take the opportunity to use those cells rather than throw them out, and potentially cure someone of Parkinsonism or paraplegia?

A third reason might be that pointing out that opponents are opposed to IVF has particular rhetorical force.

But is the question a legitimate tactic in public or philosophical debate? Is it simply a form of ad hominem argument – ie playing the (wo)man rather than the ball? What do you think?

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8 Comment on this post

  1. I don’t see how ESC research and IVF are mutually exclusive. I can believe (I don’t) that its a good thing to create life and embryos, but a bad thing to dispose of them or not implant them. IVF doesn’t REQUIRE us to make excess embryos. Sure it would cost a lot more money and require more labor and medical procedures, but that’s the cost of being a morally responsible person. The wrongness isn’t in the IVF procedure, the wrongness is in what is done to the embryos once they’ve been created.

    There even is a company called Nightlight ( that specializes in the donation and adoption of embryos.

  2. Thanks Wayne,

    my argument is not about whether it is possible to support IVF but oppose embryonic stem cells (or vice versa). Clearly, as you point out, it would be possible for someone to hold such a view.
    However, I was merely pointing to the fact that some vocal opponents of embryonic stem cell research are also opposed to IVF. I was suggesting that it may be tempting to ask ESC opponents about their views on IVF as a strategy for discounting their claims, arguments or views. The question is whether that is a legitimate approach to take.

  3. Why wouldn’t the first and second reasons for inquiring about IVF beliefs be legitimate in the debate? It seems perfectly fine to, in the course of discussions, ensure that one’s interlocutors are being consistent. If someone is not (say, someone supports IVF with destruction but opposes human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research), this is not just an ad hominem attack; it is an appeal a) for that individual to make his/her beliefs cohere in a way relative to the debate (and one way to cohere is concede that hESC reasearch is acceptable), and b) for those who might be persuaded one way or the other to realize what certain beliefs actually entail. Indeed, I think much of the growth in support for hESC research has been such an appeal to consistancy: You believe X (IVF with destruction is OK); X implies Y (hESC research is OK); you should accept all valid entailments of your beliefs; so you should believe Y. Premise 2 can be disputed, of course, (or premise 3, for that matter) but anyway it seems a perfectly legitimate way to argue one’s case. It’s a way of arguing one’s case without having to get into complex questions of the moral status of embryos and such.

    The third consideration is trickier. By analogy, if one were to point out one’s opponents were religious conservatives (implying their apparently-secular arguments aren’t to be trusted, and are in fact wrapped up in controversial theological claims), I think this would count as ad hominem – because strictly speaking, one’s religiosity or conservativeness does not bear on the soundness of the arguments presented. Similarly, the IVF question could be ad hominem, implying that one’s opponents are either incoherent people whose reasoning in general isn’t to be trusted, or people who hold otherwise repugnant beliefs and for that reason shouldn’t be listened to. But there’s a legitimate way of framing that rhetoric, in line with the first and second reasons: by informing the audience that, if they agree with hESC opponents on this, they must also aggree with the hESC opponents that IVF with destruction is wrong (and, more strongly, through asking the IVF question, getting one’s opponents to agree that the IVF-hESC entailment is valid). Again, this seems like a legitimate move in trying to convince others of one’s position.

  4. Thanks Owen,

    I agree with you that there are ways of defending the IVF question that are defensible. What I was interested in was whether something that more blatantly looked like the third consideration could be justified.
    The demand might be one of openness and honesty. ‘By all means’ we might say, ‘put forward your argument. But tell us straight whether you are opposed to IVF’.
    The IVF question isn’t as obviously ad hominem as a question about religious motivation might be, (or a question on a completely different topic like homosexuality).

    But perhaps those of a liberal bent who are inclined to ask the IVF question, and use it as a rhetorical tool for dismissing opposing arguments need to be prepared to answer other questions themselves, in this, or other areas.
    For example, the opponent of assisted suicide might ask of supporters – ‘what is your view on non-voluntary euthanasia – is it ever acceptable’?

  5. Dominic: short answer yes. Consistency is very important. Also the bias question is a perfectly valid question to ask and is no way an ad hom. The problem is even if they are inconsistent that doesn’t mean all their other arguments are flawed, nor that you are right by default. Also if for the sake of argument intelligent well informed religious conservative academics are biased to such an extent that their arguments are confined to supporting their bias -and to make things worse, not know it- can you be at all sure that you aren’t doing the same thing from a Liberal or Progressive bias? Personally I don’t see either of the traditional opponents being consistent; even Tooley won’t bite the bullet in the end.

    From my POV the mains groups who oppose ES cells and abortion in general are religious conservatives so it is easy for people like your-self to make the error that this is stems purely from religious opposition. To a certain degree you are right, this is much more an identity affiliation issue for the major groupings both sides; but no, the underlying anti-abortion/ES cell/ant-IVF arguments aren’t religious arguments. It is just easy for an association bias to creep in to dismiss most if not all their arguments, as the religious conservatives hold many other ‘odd’ views.

    As a strongly Left leaning ant-general abortionist strong atheist, I see both sides making fundamental errors due to their ideological identification, and it is purely down to psychology and historical circumstance that both sides have ended up where they are; not just the case that one side is biased –the religious- while the other isn’t.
    BTW Dom how many Liberal, atheist or Feminist Pro-Lifers have you discussed this topic with?

  6. Simon,

    I do not claim above, nor do I think it likely that all of those who oppose embryonic stem cell research are religious. Nor am I making any claims about bias – either way. I was interested in this post, in the appropriateness of a particular strategy in debate.
    As for your suggestion “the underlying anti-abortion/ES cell/ant-IVF arguments aren’t religious arguments” – that may be the case for some, but it is hard to believe that that is the case for most religious conservatives. It isn’t that the arguments against each of those couldn’t be expressed without religious premises (or premised derived from religion). Rather that in most cases religion will have played a major role in the derivation of that point of view. That does not mean it is wrong. People may have a view (based on divine command theory) that it is wrong to torture babies. The presence of religious premises doesn’t make the argument invalid, or the conclusion incorrect. It is just that arguments of that kind are highly unlikely to convince non-believers, or to get far in a pluralistic debate

  7. Yes Dominic the bias & religious aspect is more from me and should have made that clear in a more general context concerning when is a ad hom, an ad hom. An unintentioned hijack. & that I should only have said that you ‘may’ have had certain views, my apology.

    In the end, to me there is no real debate about having a need for consistency or being able to ask the question, as the underlying principles should apply across the board on closely related topics and are appropriate concerns to raise.

    I do wonder though, what one can take away from any apparent inconsistency when it is only inconsistent when viewed from a competing worldview. Or that it is more complex than others may think, in that we in fact have a complex mix or reasoning and rationalisations, so that a ad hom call is both justified in general, even if technically it still isn’t.

    A similar point on though is made about Pro-Life and consistency on the value of a life when many Pro-Life won’t support universal health care or oppose capital punishment. I’ve come across a Libertarian Atheist Pro-Lifer who opposes abortion and universal health care; and for that matter doesn’t think one would be obligated to save a drowning child at no risk or cost to your-self. Now that I know he has that last stance there is no point debating certain ‘inconsistencies’ from my POV concerning what a high value of a human life entails, because as a brute fact he just doesn’t think you need to save a drowning child, even if at the same time he opposes taking the life of a human offspring in a abortion.

    From my POV given the centrality of personhood and bodily autonomy, I see many Liberal philosophers who support most abortions, IV and ES cell treatments, as being inconsistent on infanticide and unwanted baby, body banks. Many of course would deny that. Nor do I see any reason that it is inappropriate to ask are you being consistent.

    So at least as far as the first reason how do you even know any side is being inconsistent?

  8. PS Dom I have found that the underlying anti-abortion/ES cell/ant-IVF views are played out at two levels on both sides. A lay street level and the academic one. As far as the academic conservative level like Patrick Lee, Francis Beckwith, Raymond Dennehey I have no problem with the secular nature of much-though not all- of their work. I have very similar views and I’m as secular as you can get.

    “Rather that in most cases religion will have played a major role in the derivation of that point of view.”

    I agree but just like the Liberal/Progressive POV I would argue identity and cultural issues(bias)come into it for both sides; & that it would be a mistake for either side to think they are immune to cultural influences.

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