What may “we” do with stem cells? Ruthless Criticism

GegenStandpunkt radio broadcast from October 22, 2001

The ethics debate on genetic research:

What may “we” do with stem cells?

Genetic engineering is considered to be one of the last growth sectors that are believed to have great potential for future development. A prerequisite for good business in this field is genetic research – especially on stem cells. A controversy has broken out in the republic over approval of this research, with fronts running across all parties.


Those who raise concerns are members of the moral elite who, as such, vouch for the high quality of our community in terms of human rights, and believe that it will not stop at anything so quickly. Their scenario, in the event that the politicians yield to the scientific curiosity about stem cells and permit the commercial exploitation of its results, is based on an ominous alliance of companies, social institutions, and the state, which aims at something like the following:

If research on human stem cells is permitted, then – according to the imaginings of the moral guardians – all ethical dams will burst asunder in our society, which has until now been judged to be morally very stable, and there will in principle no longer be any inhibitions about killing a fertilized egg cell or mass killing disabled people. In opposition, these ethicists see themselves challenged to save the “basic value of life” from genetic research. This perspective is quite far removed from the everyday existence of ordinary people. So much so that the question of how people cope with the adversities of their existence becomes completely irrelevant. When ethicists venerate “life” as the highest good, that is, when they praise purely biological existence to the skies, they are completely indifferent to the lives that most of their contemporaries actually lead.

All this is ignored by these worshippers of the “fundamental value of life.” They are concerned with the pure life of an 8-16 cell; it should be removed from any private use by the state and by virtue of public authority. They don’t care at all about the private and public uses which are legal and by no means non-violent, by which a “life” that has matured into a real human being with will and consciousness is practically subordinated to and made subject to. And they do not want to fight for a good life with their admonitions. Rather, they demand that the state define hard and fast what “life” is and thus deprive genetic research of the object of its scientific curiosity – the “totipotent stem cells.” So with their demand that the state define in law the beginning of “unavailable life,” they end up granting the state exclusive right to use the lives of its citizens.

It is just as fundamental when bio-ethicists see a second “fundamental value” threatened, namely the “fundamental value of freedom.” Again, it is not a question of what a person actually gets out of his freedom, whether he has the means to exercise it at all, and certainly not a question of what real constraints the exercise of this freedom is subject to. Rather, what is terrible for bioethicists is the idea that a human being, if he were to be born by means of genetic engineering, would be crafted according to the will of his creators and thus degraded to the status of a mere instrument of other peoples’ purposes. He is only free when he comes into the world the way a coincidence of nature has predestined him! – Who is interested in the fact that in his subsequent life he must constantly make himself a tool of other people’s purposes if he wants to make a living in this society? No, when it comes to the will-less and mindless heap of cells called an embryo, bioethicists get touchy and immediately believe all humankind in the form of clones is enslaved.


The supporters of genetic research similarly argue with a generally accepted lie: Actually, so goes the plea, genetic research is about nothing less than the elimination of disease and hunger. And who can be against that? “I can't explain to a child with cystic fibrosis why the necessary research shouldn’t be done to help him.” – Ex-President Roman Herzog suffers on behalf of many. Otherwise, the good man has no problems at all explaining to adults that “a jolt must go through society” and cuts must be made on, among other things, healthcare for the sick, because the German business location does not want to “continue oversupplying them.” But who wants to talk about money when it’s about the good of humanity! In this case, we prefer to forget that for the majority in this country, medical care is made into a luxury by “cost containment” and “good” medicines are a means of business.

The misery of the masses in the Third World also gets a different face from their perspective. It’s not that the poor there just can’t afford medicine and food. What is really missing in Africa and elsewhere is a new high-tech product against Parkinson’s or genetically modified corn made in Germany. Of course, the people suffering from hunger can’t afford that either, but who still wants to argue? Know how – and hunger and disease are already gone from the world. These supporters of genetic research are not bothered by the fact that the pharmaceutical companies run to court when their patent rights to maximum profits are violated somewhere by cheap imitation products to fight epidemics.

Instead, they come at the naysayers with the reverse moral club. They accuse them of being “upholders of an ethics of conviction” who only care about the purity of their convictions – regardless of the consequences this has for the rest of humanity. Therefore, they are making it too easy for themselves by thinking of “economy” only in terms of filthy lucre and irresponsibly disregarding the fact that “all our lives,” including all the higher basic values, would not be possible without the progress and the benefits that “the economy” provides us with. All one has to do is attest that the real task of an economy, in which mass unemployment is included in the price, is to “create jobs,” and that strengthening “Germany as a business location” by promoting new growth sectors is a responsible task that is above all ethical doubts. The fact that this is more of a competitive event against other locations than a service to humanity, i.e., securing as much of the new business as possible for German companies at the expense of foreign locations – who here exactly wants to question that?


Thankfully, Chancellor Schröder, exercising his authority to issue directives, has intervened “responsibly and ethically” in the dispute between ethicists and emphasized in his keynote speech on genetic research that “without a leading position in biotechnology and medical technology, our knowledge society has no chance of securing the prosperity that all people living among us want, can – and, incidentally, should – enjoy.” The sentiments of those who raise concerns and speak out against the use of genetic research in the name of the higher values may indeed be right, but have they ever considered that someone who has to bear responsibility in this “imperfect world” is responsible for the “well-being of people” in another way? This world is “imperfect” because, for example, other nations that do not move on the same moral level as us will simply disregard the higher values of those who have reservations: “In the age of the single market and the internet, a self-seclusion of Germany on licensed production and user solutions would only lead to our importing what is forbidden in our country but permitted in our neighboring countries.” (Speech on genetic engineering, Jan. 18, 2001). Thus, those with reservations have to accept the reproach that they are damaging the nation, for whose well-being they declare themselves responsible, when they take a one-sided stand on their values. So they have to be careful not to make their claims absolute, and they have to acknowledge that the arguments of the proponents are also ethically justified.


The beauty of the debate about the “curse and blessing of genetic research” alongside the highest state values of “life,” “freedom,” “service to humanity,” “prosperity of the nation” is that it goes on endlessly. The ethical criteria mentioned against each other all have their justification in the moral canon, so within this debate a decision based on “morally necessary or morally reprehensible” can never be made. The countless experts and their ethics committee have therefore characteristically postponed their professional decision, because they do not want to anticipate the parliamentary decision. This reveals the real benefit of this debate: If no decision can be made out of the diversity of ethical discussions, then there is ultimately nothing left to do but for the state to exercise its authority to issue directives and make this decision. What can then no longer be denied is that this decision came about under the most severe ethical birth pangs, and that consequently there is no longer any place for ethical objections.

By the way, it is no secret that the state decision for the use of genetic engineering had already been made before the panged ethical consciences handed the decision back to the state. What nation, especially one that wants to be a world leader, would let this – actual or even expected – business potential, this increase in national wealth, pass it by? It was not credible for a moment that Germany would leave this “technology of the future” to other countries and wave it off because of some value scruples. That’s why the idea of wrapping the whole affair in a debate about values was a nice one, since it would make the nation once again clear to itself and to the world what a morally superior community it is.