Bush's decision to allow government support of some human embryonic
stem-cell research has revealed again a distracting contradiction
in the thinking of the pro-life movement. Pro-life critics of Bush's
decision tend to speak of week-old cell clusters as "human
beings," "children," or "babies." Do we
really think that human beings, the moral equivalent of genuine
babies or adults, are being slaughtered for their stem cells?
In the days
after Mr. Bush movingly explained his decision, pro-life groups
were divided. Some applauded him for his mature leadership. But
others — like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Concerned
Women for America, Charles Colson's Prison Fellowship, and Family
Research Council — denounced the president. I believe this division
reflects an ambivalence in the pro-life ranks about the premise
of much of their political activity: namely that at conception a
human being, like you and me, undoubtedly has come into existence.
to Bush's move to limit funding to preexisting stem-cell lines,
the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke of "the destruction
of ... defenseless human beings." David O'Steen of the National
Right to Life Committee invoked the "lives of those children"
(embryos) snuffed out to create the stem-cell lines. Richard Land,
president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty
Commission, worried about "killing additional babies"
— again, meaning embryos. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas decried research
relying on "the destruction of human beings." The Christian
Legal Society flatly said "human embryos are human beings."
this is familiar from the abortion debate, which has also includes
statements about the "murder" of millions of "children"
in the abortion "Holocaust."
But it's hard
to accept that almost anyone in the mainstream pro-life movement
truly believes that embryos are, definitely and unambiguously, "babies."
Probably, very few truly believe that the abortion of a month-old
fetus is the moral equivalent of killing a baby or an adult. They
say one thing but their hearts say another.
How do I know?
Because, having worked with sincere, intelligent pro-lifers for
years, I know that their views are born of a profound moral sensitivity.
If they really and truly believed that "babies," "children,"
and "human beings" were being killed for research purposes
they would be doing something now besides sending out press releases.
Plenty of embryos
will continue to be destroyed in perfectly legal, privately funded
labs. If these embryos were really "children," then what
we would have here is state-tolerated mass murder — not unlike the
state-approved "Holocaust" of aborted fetuses ("babies").
If pro-lifers really believed a mass murder and Holocaust were proceeding
all around, we would be obliged to wage civil war to stop it. Those
who ground their activism in the belief that human life must never
be taken would at least be obliged to engage in radical civil disobedience.
Bombing labs (as well as abortion clinics), at night when nobody
is around, would seem a commendable endeavor.
at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Family Research
Council is contemplating any such thing. Instead they write press
releases, speak to reporters, go on television. They might tell
you that words are the best weapons, but in the circumstance of
a true holocaust or ongoing mass murder, words are for those too
cowardly or too poor in resources to take serious action. When a
genuine Holocaust happened in Europe, America went to war. If you
had a chance to kill Hitler, you would be badly remiss for failing
to do so.
insistence that a week-old embryo is a "baby," there are
other reasons to oppose research on human embryos, and to oppose
abortion. One is that God creates each human life.
When He starts
this process of creation at conception, we interfere only at the
risk of disrupting His designs, which a proper modesty, indeed a
fear of His mysterious majesty, should warn us away from doing.
At some point between conception and birth, a line is crossed, on
one side of which we have a genuine human life; but no appeal to
philosophical speculation can tell us where that line falls. The
safest approach is to protect the entity that can become a baby,
from conception onward. It does not follow that an embryo is a "child."
believes this, as I do, must hope that pro-life organizations will
maximize their effectiveness — that is, maximize the chances that
they will influence the moral judgements of our nation and its leaders.
Those chances depend on precision of speech, which includes not
saying things we don't really believe and thus discrediting ourselves
either as extremists or, at best, as sloppy thinkers. It would help
if pro-life spokesmen got it clearer in their minds that not everything
that is wrong is necessarily murder.