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Stem Cell Research the New Survival Lottery?

John Harris once proposed an experiment of thought entitled The Survival Lottery (1). The concept was quite simple: each person was assigned a number tied to the genetic makeup of her or his organs. When it could be shown that two or more lives would be saved by the death of a number’s carrier, that person was expected to surrender her or his life in order to save the two or more people.

Quite obviously the presupposition is a Utopia: there is a complete lack of corruptibility of the system; nobody is exempt from participation; everyone will participate as indicated. Those who generally would have advocated the idea that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” (to paraphrase Spock) find that agreement with a forced or enforced mode of saving lives appears to be unpalatable. After all, the person who is killed so that the two or more might live on is just as valuable as the people whose death is temporarily postponed. Thus, is it truly acceptable to trade one life for another? Or, in the alternative, is this akin the NAZI practice of allocating value to life, thus creating the doctrine of worthy and unworthy life?

Stem cell research presents similar challenges to those who accept a fetus as a living being. For those who regard it as a wad of tissue or mass of cells do not suffer the conflicting emotions associated with the killing of a viable fetus in order to save the lives of those already walking the earth or the generations that are still to come.

Yet even if you do not want to get bogged down in the philosophical mire that is the theorem of the Survival Lottery, the fact that the United States Constitution does not give Congress the right to allocate any funding for scientific research makes quick work of the battle over stem cell research. Article I, Section 8 is quite clear in its limitation of Congress’ powers.

It is somewhat staggering to consider that the heated debate that is taking place over stem cell research is being sacrificed at the altar that is the separation of church and state or lost at the splitting of hairs that seeks to determine when life begins; instead, the answer is oh so simple and rather short: the federal government has no business doing business with stem cell research. Who would have thought that an ethical dilemma could be resolved that easily?


(1) Harris, John (1975). "The survival lottery." Philosophy, 50: 81-87.

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