It should come as no surprise to readers of this column that I find President Bush profoundly deficient in implementing his culture of life theme. Sometimes, when I fail in charity and am tempted to judge his character, I even suspect it a cynical move to use an expression famously invoked by Pope John Paul II, while omitting the pontiff’s passionate concern for world hunger, inequitable distribution of wealth, capital punishment and war. Be that as it may, President Bush, by his stand against embryonic stem cell research, is to be thanked for introducing an uncommonly serious debate about the status of nascent human life. With a carefully reasoned speech delivered in August 2001, the president offered not a credal statement or a religious claim, but a defense of human life from conception based upon genetic and cellular evidence. The speech is probably lost to our corporate memory, overwhelmed by the horrors of Sept. 11. Its serious spirit of rational discourse, however, is continued in the president’s Council on Bioethics.
Any voter, especially any politician, who wishes to weigh the arguments and evidence concerning cloning (whether therapeutic or reproductive, both of which require the nuclear transfer of an adult cell into an ovum whose nucleus had been removed, launching a twin-like new life) or stem cell research should study the council’s Web site at bioethics.gov. The council’s discussions and findings are free for your study in books like Human Cloning and Human Dignity and Monitoring Stem Cell Research. Individual position papers at the end of each document are particularly valuable for showing how various positions are defended with close reasoning and scientific data. You will also be challenged by physicians, scientists and philosophers who make strong competing cases that a human being’s life begins at conception, or at implantation, or at later stagesfor example, when organs and the central nervous system form.
If you judge, as I do, that the best logical and scientific case is made for conception as the moment our lives began, you should do so only after you have confronted the counterarguments. This is a matter of reasonable discourse and scientific data. And it is the only way to refute the charges that ours is an unscientific, emotional or religiously mandated position. It is not junk science, as one Wall Street Journal op-ed piece recently claimed. Our position is not fundamentally one of faith or the dogmatic, extreme rhetoric of true believers.
What is dogmatic about asking if some life is terminated when you harvest embryonic stem cells? What kind of life is it? Is it anything other than a human life that is started? To point out that an embryo is living, that it is human, that it is an individually unique genome, that it has the internal capacities to unfold as a human career, from fetus to newborn to toddler, then teenager and adult is neither dogmatic nor extreme. But it is to ask for some other reasonable account of when a human being begins.
The point of President Bush’s East Room introduction of adopted children who were once leftover embryos was not rhetoric. It was reality. Although not all embryos succeed in becoming babies, every baby was once an embryo. And these children, started in a Petri dish, are now with us because they were not destroyed or their cells harvested.
The humanity (or status of the embryo as a human person) raises crucial questions for both sides in the present stem cell debate. The president and his allies have to ask themselves: If this termination of a human life is as bad as the president says, why does he allow it to be privatized so that corporations can make money from it? Surely the moral issue is more profound than using taxpayers’ money. Or does privatizing embryonic stem cells make it morally acceptable? That trivializes it all.
Many Republicans, by joining with Democrats to pass a House bill that would allow cell-extraction from discarded embryos destined to be thrown away or to die anyway, have broken away from the president’s full position. But they, with their coalition Democrats, ought to examine the full implication of this position. The problem is not that we are all going to die anyway, or even that our bodies are going to be thrown away without our getting maximal use from them.
The big problem is with all those fetusesnot embryosthat are thrown away and wasted by abortion. Think of the scientific wonders we might work if we could only harvest the organs or immature reproductive cells of a 15-week fetus destined for the suction machine. Does it not make more sense to harvest their organs than toss them into garbage cans? Little hearts, livers, lungs could be transplanted to save lives or further research. This scenario might be for some researchers the fulfillment of their fondest dream. For me it is a moral nightmare.
There is almost a surreal quality to the embryonic stem cell debate. But at least it is a debate, the debate we never had about abortion itself. As it stands, stem cells strangely compel us to think about what we are doing. In the case of abortion, human fetuses amount to legal nullities. Perhaps something might be done to protect them better. If not, you can be sure that in 10 years’ time, under the imperatives of research, we will be putting them to much better use than just being thrown away.