Down the slippery slope – Mario Stellini

It is not like me to voice a strong opinion about anything. I believe that most issues can be examined from different perspectives and no opinion can be absolute and exclusive.

The recent debate on IVF, however, has brought me to tears, anger and yes, fear. Why fear? Maybe I should explain.

What are the main issues behind the IVF debate, if we can leave the political obfuscation aside? I think the first issue is whether an embryo is a human being or not and whether we have a right to do whatever we please with that embryo.

The other issue is whether we have a right to meddle in other people’s lives and their right to have children. These people have been discriminated against by nature and deserve our empathy and all manner of support. “Discrimination” seems to be a strong key word in this second debate.

Let’s start with the first issue. It is useless quoting very learned and sometimes very ignorant professors and authorities on the subject. We all know that an embryo is alive and has the potential to become a full human being.

The real point is, do we have a right to kill it, freeze it or put it in indefinite storage in order to make IVF easier and more successful? When does “it” become a he or a she? Is this when “it” can move or think or protest? A comatose person or an anaesthetised person is also incapable of moving or thinking or protesting. They may not even have a functional brain. Should we also kill these people? 

Or is it the form that makes us human? Is an embryo only human when it has formed limbs, a face, a fully formed brain? What about those people who are deformed in some manner with no limbs, a scarred face and a shrunken brain? Should they not be condemned to die as well? Should one’s past shape and form determine one’s fate or is maybe one’s potential development more important for the future?

Maybe it is size that determines humanity. After all an embryo is just a small bunch of cells, hardly visible with the naked eye. Does that make my obese, tall, multicellular, neighbour more human than me?

If we can agree that these embryos are human beings, then we must agree that we have no right to objectify these people. We cannot put them in a freezer indefinitely, until somebody decides to implant them, possibly into a surrogate mother. We cannot deliberately turn them into orphans, with unknown biological parents. We simply cannot play around with these people’s lives. They too have rights.

Which brings us to the second issue, the right of people to have babies without discrimination. What is a “right” anyway? Is it the possibility to do whatever I wish, no matter what? In other words, does the end, no matter how wonderful, justify the means? Do I have the right to take my neighbour’s car because I also have the right to luxury transport?

Why should I be discriminated against just because I was born into a poorer family? Or for that matter, do we have a right to kill all handicapped and senile people because they are weighing the nation down? Most of them will not protest or defend their rights, just as embryos cannot defend their rights. Do I have the right to eliminate my boss because he is blocking my career progress? After all, I am being discriminated against and I do have a right to better future prospects.

Where do we draw the line? Is the fact that we cannot see this “embryo”, and maybe think of it as something “theoretical” and not yet human, make it so much easier to kill and manipulate at will?

Sending a missile to the other side of the world and killing anonymous persons and maybe creating new orphans, is also quite painless for the perpetrator. Does that absolve him from his guilt? Stalin once said that a single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic. Is this the way we wish to treat embryos?

That is why this debate makes me fearful. It should also make you fearful. At some stage in your life, you may be deemed not worthy of living, an anchor to the progress of society. Or else your death or removal from society may help someone who has a “right” to something or other. Where will it end?

A very slippery slope indeed.

Mario Stellini is a physician and gastroenterologist.

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