Who Do We Think We Are?

Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett, Republican of Maryland, is quoted in today's online edition of the New York Times as saying that two new techniques for utilizing human stem cells will get "around all of the ethical arguments except for that small minority of the pro-life community that doesn't even support in vitro fertilization."

Some politicians tend to be somewhat Sophistic, so it pays to look closely at the words they use. Two things are worth noting here. First, the expression "this will get around all of the ethical arguments" makes it sound rather like Bartlett views such arguments as, well, things to be got around, rather than as serious propositions about the nature and value of human life. This is strange coming from someone who bills himself, on his website, as "a pro-life legislator". Second, note the subtle but telling use of the word "even." Those who are opposed to in-vitro fertilization--for whatever reasons they might muster, no matter how morally or logically compelling--are quickly characterized as the fringe by that one word. Fortunately, he seems to be saying, even those wackos can be "got around" with this new technology.

With friends like this, the pro-life movement hardly needs any enemies.

The two new techniques do represent something of a step in the right direction, or so the "gradualists" would have it. The "gradualists" are folks who argue that the pro-life movement must take what it can get, and move forward "gradually", step-by-step, one law at a time. The "gradualists" fear the "absolutists", folks who want abortion (mostly, but also euthanasia, assisted suicide, and other issues) to go away immediately and forever, on the grounds that it is the unjust taking of an innocent human life. Their fear does not (usually) lie in the position of the absolutists itself, since often enough the gradualists seek the same end. What they fear is, rather, the sort of marginalization that sophists like Bartlett will consign them to if they appear to be too zealous in pursuit of the pro-life agenda. Because they fear marginalization, which would, arguably, set back the cause, they opt instead for appeasement of a sort. Seek moderate goals, objectives that will be appealing to as many folks as possible, especially centrists. The more the merrier.

The moral question at issue is not as simple as the die-hard positivists in the scientific community would have us believe, however. The question is not necessarily merely one of whether the cell in question has been taken from a human embryo, but the far more complex question of whether permitting this sort of research will erode the boundaries between what is morally acceptable and what is not in the sphere of research using human subjects who cannot even in principle give consent. The Times makes not of this:
[The] technique is likely to be welcomed by many in the middle of the debate, although it has not won over the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Richard M. Doerflinger, its deputy director for pro-life activities, dismissed the technique, saying that pre-implantation genetic diagnosis itself is unethical. The technique "is done chiefly to select out genetically imperfect embryos for discarding, and poses unknown risks of future harm even to the child allowed to be born," he said in an e-mail message.

Only a procedure that generated embryonic stem cells without creating or destroying embryos "would address the Catholic Church's most fundamental moral objection to embryonic stem cell research as now pursued," Mr. Doerflinger said in testimony last December to the President's Council on Bioethics.
It will be difficult, if not impossible, however, to convince the positivists of this.

Who are the positivists? Those who regard scientific progress of a certain sort as worth virtually any cost that is comfortable to bear. Some costs are very high, but very comfortable to bear, at least for those who support the research. The exploration of space, for example, costs hundreds of millions of dollars that could easily be spent much more prudently, but the folks who favor such research are full of eloquent sounding arguments and high sounding ideals, and they can afford to pay the tax bill, so the real cost in human suffering of diverting those dollars to useless scientific projects is lost on them. Similarly, a human embryo is easy to ignore, not only because it does not really look all that human, but untold numbers of them die every day and nobody seems to be making much of a fuss about it except for those wackos on the religious right who think, for some bizarre reason, that "even" in vitro fertilization is morally questionable.

When we see public figures like Nancy Reagan or Christopher Reeves plumping for various kinds of scientific research in the most craven and self-serving of ways we begin to see whose ideals are really the high ones and whose arguments are really the most eloquent. We begin to realize that it is at least possible that some prices are too high to pay. William Bennett got himself into some hot water for making a rather inept sounding argument in this vein, but it is worth repeating: we could probably accomplish a lot of very nice things if we were willing to pay literally any price at all. Since children who perform poorly in school tend to be the ones who later on get involved with illegal drug use, why not just euthanize anyone who does poorly on some standardized test? It's a ridiculous idea, of course, but it is no more ridiculous than breeding up dozens of human beings, picking the one we like the most, and then killing the rest, which is something that is done every day in this country. But nobody notices that it's being done, and if you point out to somebody that it is being done you are likely to be regarded as something of a kook.

Stem cell research is particularly tempting because it appears to promise much. But of course we have no guarantee that it will have the big payoff that people like Nancy Reagan hope that it will, nor do we know for sure that it is the only research program that could possibly achieve the results that are hoped for from it. To paraphrase Nancy Reagan's much more prudent husband, who once gave a tepid argument against abortion along these line: given that there are no guarantees, isn't it better to err on the side of caution?

It's easy to forget that argument when the man who made it died a horrible death, and you had to watch him die it for a decade. Wouldn't life be a lot better if there were a cure for Alzheimer's? Better for people like Ronald Reagan, sure. Better for the untold numbers of human beings who had to sacrifice their lives so that he could keep his a little while longer? Who's to say? Wny do the Nancy Reagans get to say? Why do any of us get to say who lives and who dies? Who do we think we are?


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