Last month I published an episode of Life Report on a complicated moral question that is very practical for pro-life advocates: should we boycott companies that support human embryonic stem cell research? (HESCR) Human embryonic stem cell research is when scientists take a living human embryo in the first two weeks of life, and kill her for her stem cells, with the hope to use them to help treat a disease. For some stem cell 101, check out this article. If you’re interested in reading other article I’ve written on stem cell research, click here.
We certainly didn’t cover all the ground that could be covered on the question of boycotting companies that participate or finance HESCR, but it at least started a discussion, which also turned out to be the most hotly debated topic among our cast in the 2011 season of Life Report. I had previously written articles on the boycott subject here and here.
Later that week, I received an email from Jonathan, a fan of Life Report, who disagreed with my position on this topic, and sent me a link to a very thoughtful blog post he wrote about it. In this article I’ll talk about some of the things Jonathan and I agree about, as well as clarify where we disagree and why. Jonathan and I both have an attitude of wanting to think carefully about these issues, and to demonstrate how two people can debate the ideas in a way that promotes unity, as opposed to causing disunity. Even if you disagree with some of Jonathan’s conclusions, (as I do,) he certainly provides a wonderful example of how to write a critique of somebody’s position in a very diplomatic way, and I respect that.
There are many of Jonathan’s conclusions that I agree with, for example, we both agree that it should be up to individuals whether or not to boycott a company. I agree with this, because I have not seen a convincing argument that every pro-life person is morally obligated to boycott every company that supports abortion or HESCR.
Jonathan makes a great point about this when he says:
Some people would say that if you know they are donating to bad organizations, regardless of the amount, then you should boycott them. This reasoning, however, seems ridiculous to me. This is not to say that people should not do so; it only means that people should not have to do so. To do so would mean, in order to be consistent, practically inhuman amounts of research into anything and everything that you buy from for the rest of your life. In all honesty, I do not think it is possible to do this without having to grow, build, and make everything yourself, since almost every organization/group of people working for an organization do something with the money they receive from you for immoral purposes.
I’ll focus the rest of this article on the areas that Jonathan and I disagree.
The Debate That Should Be Had
Jonathan summarizes the fundamental question at hand this way:
What is in dispute is if pro-lifers can be morally justified in donating to an organization, and in particular Relay for Life, even if that organization may very well give some of that money to a human embryonic stem cell researcher.
While some people may debate that question, I slightly disagree with this summary of the debate that should be had.
First, the debate is not about whether pro-lifers should fund an organization that “may” send some of those particular donation dollars to fund HESCR. The debate is whether pro-lifers should support an organization that has been proven to fund HESCR. I wouldn’t be making a fuss about the American Cancer Society (ACS) if I couldn’t find hard evidence that they support HESCR. Even if I suspected that the ACS funded HESCR, if I can’t demonstrate that, I’m not going public. (I’m linking to the evidence further below.)
Secondly, my concern is not whether the actual dollars given by the pro-life person are the same ones given to the HESCR scientist. My concern is that an organization that sends funding to HESCR is being given more money by pro-life people, period.
Confused? Consider President Obama’s current “compromise” for the HHS rule that will violate the religious liberty of many Catholic institutions if it’s not revoked. Obama responded, okay, we won’t make the Catholic hospital directly pay for the “ella” abortifacient. Instead we will make the insurance company pay for them.
Obviously the insurance company won’t just eat that cost. They will pass it on to the institution using that plan, namely the Catholic hospital. It’s an accounting trick.
All that to say, my actual concern is this: pro-life people across the country are vocally and financially supporting an organization that publicly funds HESCR, which is an absolute evil, because it’s the killing of very young human beings for medical research.
Am I a Hypocrite?
Josh says that he is not much into boycotting companies, such as food organizations, that donate money to Planned Parenthood or the like. Andrew then calls him out on it and questions why Josh doesn’t boycott those companies but decides that Relay for Life is worth boycotting, to which Josh responds that the research he has uncovered about the funding involved in Relay for Life in relation to HESCR (human embryonic stem cell research) appears to be very troubling.
I have a few thoughts about the apparent contradiction in that I support the ACS boycott but I don’t personally participate in boycotting every single company that donates to Planned Parenthood.
First, I’m not convinced that every person is morally obligated to boycott every company that supports something they oppose. However I think it’s wise for people in groups to coordinate and try to effect the world in a positive way through strategic boycotts of certain companies.
It’s simply not feasible for people to boycott every single company that supports Planned Parenthood at the same time. A few people try. They walk down the grocery story aisles with a long boycott list in their hands, and carefully choose brands that are not known to support Planned Parenthood. This is fine, but boycotts don’t work unless a bunch of people do it at the same time, while communicating with the boycotted company.
Another problem is that I have no way to know the factual accuracy of pro-life boycott lists, because the most popular one is by Life Decisions International and they refuse to tell anybody, even privately, how they get their information. In contrast, I was able to find for myself hard evidence that the ACS funds HESCR. (Again, all the links are below.)
Jonathan thinks my reasoning for paying taxes even though public funds are sent to Planned Parenthood is utilitarian. I agree with Jonathan that the argument I gave in the moment when Andrew brought up the subject was utilitarian in nature, (more good is done by me not being in jail then the minuscule amount of my tax-dollars that go to Planned Parenthood,) which is why I wish I had offered a different argument.
I’m not convinced that pro-life people are morally obligated to stop paying taxes in response to public funds being sent to Planned Parenthood. I don’t think this is controversial. I think we are obligated to “give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s,” and remain contributing citizens of our society. One of the good things that comes from that is we have a better opportunity to change society and government from within. Do you think congressmen are going to return the call from a would-be constituent who is in jail because he didn’t pay taxes? No, but they will talk to me instead. Our government is set up so that people can make changes on the grassroots level. I think many changes don’t happen because the people on the grassroots level are apathetic and don’t do all the things they could do to end moral evils like abortion. Many don’t even vote, and even worse, some people who agree that abortion is wrong voted for Obama because he is “pro-life” on other issues, like war, programs for the poor and the environment. (For a clear argument against this idea of pro-life “seamless garment voting,” click here.)
Unlike Liz and Andrew, I am not convinced that the amount of money being sent to fund moral evils is relevant. Liz would have made a better argument for continuing to eat a certain brand of ice cream (even though they supposedly fund Planned Parenthood) if she had argued that nothing will change until an organized boycott is started, and that she’s not morally culpable for what Ben and Jerry’s does with her money.
More Common Ground. Sort Of.
The next question, however, is probably the most important part of the discussion: is their a way to achieve the good effect without achieving the bad effect? For example, Starbucks is one company that is on the boycott list, for they have donated money to Planned Parenthood. This part of the Principle may very well suggest that it would be better to not go to Starbucks; after all, there are plenty of other places where you can buy overpriced coffee without having to worry about some of your money going to Planned Parenthood.
I agree that the best case scenario is not giving to companies that support Planned Parenthood. I’m just not yet convinced that pro-lifers are morally obligated to only go to coffee sellers that never support Planned Parenthood.
By the way, I don’t think Starbucks belongs on the boycott list. I have the inside track on them because my wife worked as a shift supervisor for several years. Starbucks has an employee partner program where they donate to various organizations that are important to their employees. So while Planned Parenthood does get some money from Starbucks, pro-life organizations can as well. That seems different to me from the board of a massive company sending a few million dollars to Planned Parenthood because they agree ideologically with what Planned Parenthood does.
Moral Culpability of ACS Donating to HESCR Mitigated By Their Easy Accessibility?
I would argue, however, that for many people, at least, Relay for Life may be the only opportunity for them to donate to a cancer-curing research organization. To be sure, there are a number of cancer research organizations that do not donate money to any HESCR companies (as Josh mentions in the podcast). However, many people cannot donate to these other organizations, either due to ignorance, lack of access to services, etc. Relay for Life, after all, is a massive organization that is easily accessible to the general public (it may very well be the only organization that is easily accessible to the general national public on the level that it is).
While Jonathan and I definitely agree on some things, I believe this is his weakest argument. In this day and age, it’s just not true that the Relay for Life is the only opportunity for people to donate to cancer-research organizations. The easy accessibility is not a good moral argument to defend people giving to the Relay for Life in spite of the money they spend on HESCR.
I also don’t think it’s morally relevant that the ACS may be the “best” or “most respected” organization fighting cancer. To many people, Planned Parenthood is the “best” or “most respected” birth control access organization, but that doesn’t mean we should donate to them.
The ACS Doesn’t Give Directly to HESCR
Does the good effect sufficiently compensate for the allowing of the bad effect? I think there is in fact sufficient compensation for the allowing of the bad effect. Cancer is an extremely serious issue and research needs to be funded for it. If the organization itself that you were donating to was doing the HESCR then the proportionality would not be acceptable. But seeing as how Relay for Life does not directly do HESCR and only gives money to an organization that uses some of its money to give to HESCR companies, it can be sufficiently compensated for by the millions of dollars that it uses in its cancer research.
I think this is a reasonable argument. I agree that the more steps away from HESCR, the thinner the case becomes for boycotting them. I think this is where people need to weigh the evidence and their conscience, and make their own decision. Since I didn’t get into the specific evidence or amount of money on Life Report, I’ll get more specific here, because this will help people to weigh the evidence.
According to page 60 of the ACS 2009 990 form, the ACS gave a $720,000 research grant to the University of Georgia Research Foundation (UGARF). The ACS gave $1,438,000 to the UGARF in 2008.
The UGARF is a 501c3 organization that serves as the legal recipient of public and private grants, as well as money from government agencies for research and education. According to their annual reports, the UGARF has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars directly to HESCR scientist Steve Stice every year since at least 2006, the smallest annual grant being $315,128 in 2007, and the largest being $1,439,171 in 2009. Not all of the money going to Stice would go to HESCR, as Stice also does Induced Pluripotent SCR and animal cloning, but certainly some would have gone to HESCR, as this does not include the money Stice received from federal tax dollars, that weren’t allowed to be used to kill embryos during the Bush presidency.
Here’s the point. We’re not talking about a few thousand bucks here. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more, and I think pro-life people ought to keep that in mind when they donate to the ACS.
In conclusion, I’m open to more discussion on this topic. I think boycotts are a tricky subject, and Jonathan treats the subject with much more care than many I’ve seen ranting on Facebook about various companies. I appreciate the chance to interact with some of Jonathan’s ideas so we can all weigh both sides and try to come to a correct conclusion about how to think about this, which will further result in correct actions. I look forward to reading and considering any rebuttals Jonathan or anybody else have to offer.