Thursday, July 20, 2006

On the Stem Cell Veto: Right Said, Fred

In my return to serious blogging, I spent this morning trying to think and write about the ethical issues connected to stem cell research, prompted by the President's veto yesterday of legislation mandating Federal funding for this kind of research.

I am troubled by research on stem cells taken from human embryos. I cannot see any reasonable place to draw the line at where life begins other than conception. I know this perspective has problems, but not nearly as many as when one draws the line further along in the process.

I agree with the President when he said:
This bill would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect, so I vetoed it. ...

Embryonic stem cells come from human embryos that are destroyed for their cells. Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value. ...
The problem is that I'm not sure the President believes what he said.

It's true that the embryos used for stem cell research are destroyed when that research happens. But the elephant in the room, which the President didn't address, is that these embryos, which are largely the left-overs from in vitro fertilization procedures, will be destroyed anyway. Doctors routinely fertilize a number of eggs for each couple trying to conceive, and the embryos not used are routinely discarded after the couple concludes their conception efforts. As one who does believe that life begins at conception, I can't see how this is OK.

So for me, I don't see how we can talk about stem cell research without talking about the problem of "excess" embryos created by in vitro fertilization. Christian blogger Joe Carter, who provided an audio essay today supporting the President's veto on NPR, agrees with me, I think, but sees the President's action as preventing further progress down an already bad road. I agree with Joe, but sadly, there is nothing in the President's statement that says what Joe and I were wishing he'd said.

You see, the President's statement from yesterday seems to recognize this linkage and then proceeds as if it's not there. I guess I can give him points for not being as blatantly untruthful as Karl Rove has been this week, but then I would also be naive, since this Administration routinely coordinates its messages with the harshest or most mendacious coming from surrogates so the President can seem more reasonable.

But I can't even give him points for reasonableness, because he justifies his obviously incremental decision by appealing to absolute principles. And this is where I start to lose it.

I know the President likes to speak in broad principles and absolutes, but if those words are to have any meaning they must actually serve as principles and absolutes and not as merely rhetorical window dressing. So if we apply the principle the President claims - innocent life should not be destroyed to benefit others - as a genuine principle, then one also has to ask:
What about those embryos that are being destroyed after in vitro fertilization? And if this really is a principle and not merely a poll tested phrase, then one should ask: What about the loss of innocent life in Lebanon this week? You seem fine with the Israelis killing innocent Lebanese. Maybe there's a kind of ethical calculation you've made - I understand that world leaders are sometime forced to make those kinds of choices. But yesterday you claimed absolute principle when you vetoed the stem cell bill. And what about the manifestly innocent people you've imprisoned and had tortured and even killed in Guantanamo and other prisons? Where's the absolute principle in that?
At this point, my head exploded. Thankfully it was put back together by a very well-targeted post by Fred Clark at Slacktivist. Fred calmly and clearly punctures the nonsense of the President's statement, and makes some rather troubling conclusions about our leader. You really should go read the whole thing. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Here's the thing. We need to have a serious conversation about the issues underlying stem cell research. Sadly, the President's manifestly unserious statement (and I'm being charitable in calling it that - again, go read Fred Clark) has made it harder now to have that conversation. I and others can think very hard and well about the issue, but if the people charged with the decision by our Constitution and laws are unwilling to do even that simple work, then I don't know where we are.

1 comment:

duncan said...

hey bob,

i'm a long time reader of your blog and a huge galaxy fan. i came to your site from the RS boards and have been really impressed with your writing. as a non-christian i always enjoy reading rationale points of view from the christian community as it reminds me most christians are decent, intelligent people not the raving lunatics that seem to get all the press.

i have to say in general i find myself agreeing with you, but on stem cells i'm definitely on the other side of the fence.

in terms of life beginning at conception, my problem with this argument is it's highly selective. most of the time that the sanctity of life argument is used it refers very specifically to human life. which is awfully convenient for us, but not so good for my bacon and sausage omelet yesterday. if one were to truly believe that life were sacred we'd all be vegetarians and a significant number of our medical breakthroughs would not have happened.

taking a look at the problem from a buddhist point of view, who exemplify the above sentiment in that they are vegetarians for that very purpose. while in nepal however i found they do eat meat under rare circumstances. should an animal die of natural causes buddhists can eat the animal they just aren't allowed to kill it. as these stem cells already exist and as you say will be thrown away what's the greater sin, completely wasting what life you or i may believe they have or using their cells in research that may one day prevent scores of diseases. since we're already making distinctions on which kind of life is sacred if asked to choose between, a collection of living cells with no emotions, no ability to survive outside of very special circumstances, no guarantee of survival even then, weighed against healing a living breathing human being with family and friends well i choose the latter every single time.

finally, a fertilized egg is not a guarantee of life. there are many, many instances of a fertilized eggs failing to implant in the womb. we don't charge women with uterine fibroids or endometriosis with murder, or prevent them from having sex to avoid fertilized eggs failing to embed in the uterus. point being, i don't think you can make the argument that something with the potential to form a fetus is where life begins.

anyway just my tuppence keep up the blogging. it's great stuff.