oppose federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR). As
I have argued repeatedly on NRO and in many other venues, federally
funding ESCR is wrong because it would give the imprimatur of the
people of the United States to treating human life as a mere natural
resource, a crop, ripe for the harvest As I see it, once human embryos
are viewed as being akin to a corn field, such stark utilitarianism
will spread like a cancer to other areas of human medical concern.
I have also noted that we are not faced with the stark choice of
either destroying embryos for their cells or turning our backs on
medical advances. Happily, it appears that alternative sources of
stem cells offer at least equivalent potential to embryonic cells.
Yes, embryonic stem cells may be more flexible, that is, easy to
turn into any human tissue, but at least one published study has
found that stem cells from bone marrow may provide equivalent potential
for transformation. Yes, embryonic stem cells seem more active,
but that may actually make them less desirable for use in human
medical therapy since this aspect of their biology may be impossible
to control and could lead to embryonic stem cell therapy causing
tumors. Moreover, alternatives are already healing some human
illnesses. For example, stem cells from umbilical cord blood have
restored the immune systems of children whose cancer had previously
destroyed their abilities to fight infection and disease. Indeed,
it is a political triumph that opponents of ESCR have been able
to transform the paradigm of the debate from one in which adult/alternative
stem cells were damned with very faint praise to the point where
a just published National Institutes of Health study proclaims their
Unfortunately, these crucial issues, which should be the bases of
deciding whether or not to federally fund ESCR, have been all but
subsumed in the politics of abortion. This is truly disheartening.
ESCR has absolutely nothing to do with abortion. Whatever one thinks
of Roe v. Wade, the reason the Supreme Court created
a constitutional right to abortion was to prevent women from being
forced by law to use their bodies to gestate and give birth. But
stem-cell research does not involve a pregnant woman being required
by law to do anything. Thus the issue should be irrelevant. That
is one reason why the United Methodist Church, which institutionally
supports abortion rights, has just issued a proclamation urging
President Bush's to continue the current suspension of federal funding
Of course, logic and politics rarely inhabit the same space. The
reality is that abortion touches almost every important issue this
country has faces. It was at the heart of the impeachment imbroglio.
It impacts foreign policy. It is certainly the crucial lynchpin
in the appointment and confirmation of federal judges. It is thus
hardly surprising that abortion politics has become symbiotically
intertwined with the decision whether to federally fund embryonic
stem cell research (ESCR).
The immersion of abortion into the politics of ESCR has not proved
beneficial to the pro-life movement. Whatever one thinks of their
cause, it is clear that the power and momentum of the movement
which remains vital despite media and legislative hostility
is founded upon the fervent belief that human life begins at the
point of conception and that all humans possess a right to life
from that point through natural death. But now, several pro-life
senators have abandoned this foundational principle. Senators Orrin
Hatch (R., Utah) and Gordon Smith (R., Ore.), recently opined that
life begins in a mother's womb, not a Petri dish or refrigerator.
When I first heard the Hatch/Smith argument, I almost laughed out
loud. While such sentiments might reflect the senators' deeply held
metaphysical concepts, they surely are not biologically sound. After
all, a blastocyst (a one-week gestational embryo) is a blastocyst,
is blastocyst. If we were somehow able to take a one that had been
fertilized within it's mother's body and place it next to a lab-fertilized
blastocyst, there would be no biological difference between them.
Both would reflect the same state of human life, as it exists after
one week of embryonic development.
I am laughing no longer. I have appeared recently on several talk-radio
shows to express my opposition to federal funding of ESCR. I certainly
expected a good give and take from those who support ESCR about
the empirical and ethical issues involved in the debate. What I
was not expecting was for listeners who fervently claimed they oppose
abortion to declare, in their next breath, support for federal funding
because, as one caller put it, "the soul does not enter the body
unless it is in the mother's womb." Another caller expressed an
even more surprising view. "I oppose abortion but God would not
have permitted these embryos to be made unless he wanted them used
for medical research." In other words, these callers believe that
destroying an embryo at one week in woman's womb is the moral equivalent
of murder. But take the same embryo and destroy it in a Petri dish
and they proclaim themselves and God unconcerned.
How does one argue with such perspectives? In such a milieu, biological
facts are meaningless. The pros and cons of the different types
of cell research are irrelevant. The potential for alternatives
to ESCR to provide medical breakthroughs don't matter. The very
real potential that embryonic research leads directly to cloning
even the biotech industry says so makes not a dent.
I am not sure what to make of all of this. But it seems to me that
whatever side one is on in the great stem-cell debate, we should
all be concerned that when prominent United States senators proclaim
with a straight face that human life does not begin in a Petri dish
but only in a womb and the argument works, post modernism has triumphed.
If we don't like the scientific facts, we simply create our own
narratives. In such a milieu, anything is justifiable.