Logical Fallacies in the Literature on Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research


My intention in this paper has been to convey the idea not only that discussion of errors in thinking on human embryonic stem cell research is an important and neglected element of the debate, but also that a remedy to those errors can be found in linguistic analysis of those fallacies. It can be intimidating to debate scholars and writers who seem to make a case for human embryonic stem cell research. Seeming, however, is not being, and I believe that, with even the most rudimentary education in logical fallacies, today's students can determine for themselves whether someone has argued his or her case well or not. A common theme in literature which supports human embryonic stem cell research is that the technology should be implemented merely because it is available. It should be obvious that merely saying that one can do something does not mean necessarily that one must do something. However, given the state of critical thinking in the West, particularly in American society, what I have just said may itself be a hasty generalization. Today's students, who may be educated more by ideologues motivated by political correctivity than by professors seeking truth, need to know that an alternative voice to the use of human embryonic stem cell research exists.

I encourage those students to challenge those who have contorted an essentially life-affirming technological process into a function of an anti-life worldview. Much more work needs to be done to combat the errors in reasoning which some use to attack unborn life as a source of stem cells. Since this paper only reviews selected literature from 2000 onward, I ask that students and professors who are more competent or confident in argumentation and linguistics will accept the challenge to develop further the corpus of literature which examines the logical fallacies in human embryonic stem cell research. I hope that this paper has contributed to that effort.

Works Cited

Works Consulted


1 I wish to express my thanks to Dr. Robert Sweet of Clark State Community College for helpful comments regarding logic as he critiqued this paper. I thank Dr. Sweet for being patient with me as he explained finer points of logical fallacies. Any errors which may occur in this paper are to be attributed to my own ignorance. Some day I may have the fortune to achieve his intellectual level. [Back]

2 Ignorance per se is not a fallacy. For example, Robert Wachbroit writes in a 2003 essay:

If one believes, as many of the strongest opponents of abortion do, that "life begins at conception" -- i.e., that from the very moment of conception we are dealing with something that has the moral status of a person -- then the annual destruction of thousands of excess embryos should be at least as offensive as the destruction of presumably far fewer embryos from stem cell research. Perhaps this difference reflects an inconsistency and the antiabortion movement should include IVF centers in their protests. (79-80)

Instead of attacking him for this apparently ad hoministic statement (veiled in irony or sarcasm), perhaps one should be charitable and presume that Wachbroit is not aware that pro-life opposition to human lives destroyed by in vitro fertilization clinics is a constituent element of the pro-life position and that opposition to such killing could be achieved if the resources of the movement permitted. [Back]

3 For example, two grammar and rhetoric textbooks widely used in colleges and universities offer not only divergent taxonomies, but also differing registers of language within those taxonomies. Diana Hacker's The Bedford Handbook (2002, 6th ed.) identifies seven logical fallacies: the either/or fallacy (511), false analogy (508), hasty generalization (507), non sequitur (512), post hoc ergo propter hoc (510), straw man (516), and unfair emotional appeals (514). Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau, editors of Current Issues and Enduring Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking and Argument, with Readings (2002, 6th ed.), which has a much higher register of vocabulary, identify seventeen fallacies, only three of which are replicated in Hacker's work by the same term. Their seventeen fallacies are: ad hominem (322), ambiguity (318), appeal to authority (323), appeal to ignorance (325), composition (321), death by a thousand qualifications (318), division (321), equivocation (320), false dichotomy (either/or) (319), genetic fallacy (322), hasty generalization (320), many questions (318), oversimplification (319), poisoning the well (322), post hoc, ergo propter hoc (326), protecting the hypothesis (327), and slippery slope (324). [Back]

4 I found it interesting that the Geron Ethics Advisory Board argues against the "moral status" of the unborn child by suggesting that the mere existence of divergent views supports the ambiguity inherent in deciding the moral issue of human embryonic stem cell research. (Although this document falls two years before my arbitrary cut off of 2000, I include it here since it was reprinted in a 2003 monograph.) When discussing whether the blastocyst has "moral status", the Ethics Advisory Board suggested in its 1998 "Statement on Human Embryonic Stem Cells" that

This question has riveted political, religious, and ethical attention, and profound and substantial disagreement is based not only on contending biological interpretations but also on deeply held philosophical and theological considerations. Some have argued for conception as the relevant consideration, others for the development of the "primitive streak" (the precursor to the spinal cord of an individual fetus) as a defining moment, and some for utilizing implantation as the crucial threshold for moral status [. . . .] Drawing upon this wealth of philosophical and theological reflections and situating ourselves relative to it, the EAB affirmed our understanding of moral status as developmental and consonant with the pluralistic approach. (109-10)

For those interested in comparison, this language approximates that used by the United States Supreme Court in its Roe v. Wade ruling which legalized abortion throughout the nine months of pregnancy. The Supreme Court's attempt to argue that the mere existence of divergent opinions on the beginning of human life somehow points to inherent ambiguity is now well-known as feeble. The Ethics Advisory Board, similarly, bases its support for human embryonic stem cell research by noting that, although "[a] second source of cells is human embryonic germ (hEG) cells derived from gamete ridge tissue removed from early fetal tissue following elective abortion", it "cannot resolve the contentious abortion debate" (Geron 111). [Back]

5 At least Charles Krauthammer, who supports human embryonic stem cell research, does use the correct term "pro-lifers" in his essay. [Back]

6 It is possible to refer to divergent political opinion without engaging in ad hominem attacks. Marcia (Marti) A. Lewis and Carol D. Tamparo refer to such opposition in an appropriately neutral sentence in their 2002 monograph, Medical Law, Ethics, and Bioethics for Ambulatory Care: "Many pro-life politicians see [human embryonic stem cell research] as a positive outcome of a negative act [. . . .]" (178). [Back]

7 Interestingly, Steve Usdin noted recently in a 2003 essay that "The United Methodist Church, which has affirmed a woman's right to elective abortion, objects to the derivation of stem cells from embryos" (7). [Back]

8 Lest this sound like a non sequitur, consider other categories of humans who have been stripped of their humanity by the use of ambiguous terminology and thus were reduced to non-human entities. The research of William Brennan in his seminal 1995 monograph Dehumanizing the Vulnerable: When Word Games Take Lives has assisted scholars in understanding this principle for the past decade. Brennan writes, "Removal of individuals from membership in the human community and re-classifying them as animals has the effect of consigning them to a lower level of existence where their victimization can be more easily rationalized" (89). After this dehumanization occurs, of course, anything can then be done to the dehumanized entity. African-American slaves during the nineteenth century in the United States were dehumanized in a variety of "work animal" metaphors (95). Jews during the Nazi era were dehumanized as "beasts of prey" (93). Unborn children today are similarly dehumanized as "a form of lower animal" (180), or as the being behind "the 'disease' of an unwanted pregnancy" (114; internal quotes in original), or as subhuman (77). [Back]

9 Solomon's collapse of the moral objections starkly contrasts against the extensive recognition of pro-life objection to stem cells derived from abortions by Audrey R. Chapman, Mark S. Frankel, and Michele S. Garfinkel in their 2000 statement "Stem Cell Research and Applications: Monitoring the Frontiers of Biomedical Research" (published in the 2000 yearbook of the American Association for the Advancement of Science). While the authors consider embryos from fertility clinics to be "disposable" ("Embryonic stem cells should be obtained from embryos remaining from infertility procedures"), they also declare that

Human stem cell research can be conducted in a fully ethical manner, but it is true that the extraction of embryonic stem cells from the inner mass of blastocysts raises ethical questions for those who consider the intentional loss of embryonic life by intentional means to be morally wrong. Likewise, the derivation of embryonic germ cells from the gonadal tissue of aborted fetuses is problematic for those who oppose abortion [. . . .] Public funding should be provided for embryonic stem cell and embryonic germ cell research, but not at this time for activities involved in the isolation of embryonic stem cells, about which there remains continuing debate [. . . .] Although the derivation of human stem cells can be done in an ethical manner, there is enough objection to the process of deriving stem cells to consider recommending against its public funding. (411)


10 Greenhaven Press publishes a series called Opposing Viewpoints, each volume including pro and con essays on contemporary social issues. Based on my experience with students in community colleges and universities and, more importantly, on the opinions of librarians who have guided my research paper students in library orientation programs, the Opposing Viewpoints titles are considered reliable sources of information for essays which discuss social problems. The handy volumes may be a student's first source of information on controversial matters, especially if an instructor demands that the student cite a number of authorities to argue his or her case. The volumes, being anthologies, admirably meet this criterion. In fact, the companion website for the Opposing Viewpoints series may provide even greater access for students to essays within the volumes. Published by the Gale Group, this internet-based service, accessible to students through their colleges' libraries, provides the full texts of many articles published since 1980. [Back]

11 The two remaining single instances of logical fallacies are the fallacy of many questions and red herring. The fallacy of many questions, which suggests that there are unanswered questions or unsupported claims embedded within what seems to be one proposition, is evident in one compact sentence: "In the purported cause of forbidding others from playing God, Bush and like-minded people would themselves play God" (Cohen 129). This one sentence can be exploded with a barrage of epistemological questions which demand to be answered. How does Cohen know that pro-lifers have the goal of "forbidding others from playing God"? How does Cohen know that this is the "cause" of pro-lifers? How does Cohen know that Bush wants to play God? How does Cohen know that "like-minded people" want to "play God"?

The red herring fallacy suggests that one is trying to divert attention from the matter at hand by alluding or referring to another, sometimes completely unrelated matter. Cohen does so by diverting attention from discussing the morality of using human embryonic stem cells to claiming that opponents know "what God intended" (128). This is also the case when Cohen attacks President Bush for being privy to a similar divine enlightenment. Both of these cases are instances of the red herring diversionary tactic, for, when one is debating the morality of stem cells, one need not erroneously suggest that an opponent's position is based on a speculative and private divine revelation. [Back]

12 The first sentence of Cohen's above quote also illustrates the non sequitur fallacy. "Nature" does many things "all the time". Some in the animal kingdom kill their newborn, but it does not follow, just because a male cat will kill a newborn kitten, that "Nature" will "suggest" to human fathers not only that they could kill their newborn children but also that they "are entitled to do" so. [Back]

13 The two remaining uses of ambiguous language are relatively easy to identify. Cohen speaks of "embryos" or "mere embryos" as though they are not the same as "'human beings'" (internal quotes in original) in two locations (127, 129). [Back]

14 This is the sentence that the editors use as an attention getter to head the essay (126). [Back]

15 The URL indicates that Gentry's paper was produced for what appears to be the "2001-02" academic year. Keeping to the chronological ordering of my review of the literature, I conclude this essay with Gentry's article since, thanks to the immediacy of the internet, the chronology of this undated online article will always be current until the site carries an update. [Back]

16 This "classic example" can be found in Barnet and Bedau (67). [Back]

17 It is difficult for me to determine whether the language of this and subsequent premises in Gentry's work is merely hasty generalization or a more complex sequence of logical fallacies without more detailed analysis of his work. Barnet and Bedau discuss the fallacy of composition (not covered elsewhere in this paper) which may apply here. "The fallacy of composition [...] is called [such] because the reasoning commits the error of arguing from the true premise that each member of a group has a certain property to the not necessarily true conclusion that the group (the composition) itself has the property" (321). That fallacy could apply here, if we consider that Gentry is identifying the "human biological components" as the requisite "certain property" that he holds "a human being" to have. As I have discussed, though, the qualities (or properties) of a fingernail are not necessarily the qualities or properties of a human being him- or herself.

Arthur Lueders writes about another fallacy, the sorites fallacy, which he defines in terms which make it seem as though the error in thinking can be attributed solely to grammatical elements: "The Sorites Fallacy is an argument consisting of propositions so arranged that the predicate of any one forms the subject of the next and the conclusion unites the subject of the first proposition with the predicate of the last". This methodology could apply as Gentry's series of premises and conclusions is followed. Perhaps the difficulty in identifying the fallacy can be accounted for by different taxonomies as discussed earlier in this paper. [Back]

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