The issue of stem-cell research—which is back before the Senate—is often described as a moral dilemma, but it simply is not. Or at least it is not the moral dilemma often used in media shorthand: the rights of the unborn versus the needs of people suffering from diseases that embryonic stem cells might cure. As one of those people myself (I have Parkinson's), I am not an objective analyst of what the U.S. government's continuing near-ban on stem-cell research is costing our society and the world. Naturally, I think it's costing too much. No other potential
therapy—including adult stem cells—is nearly as promising for
my ailment and others. Evaluate that as you wish.
Against this, you have the fact that embryonic stem cells are
extracted from human embryos, killing them in the process. If you believe that
embryos a few days after conception have the same human rights as you or me,
killing innocent embryos is obviously intolerable. But do opponents of stem-cell
research really believe that? Stem cells test that belief, and sharpen the basic
right-to-life question, in a way abortion never has.
Here's why: Stem cells used in medical research generally come from
fertility clinics, which produce more embryos than they can use. This isn't an
accident—it is essential to their mission of helping people to have babies.
Often these are "test tube babies": the product of an egg fertilized in the lab
and then implanted in a womb to develop until birth….
In short, if embryos are human beings with full human rights,
fertility clinics are death camps—with a side order of cold-blooded eugenics. No
one who truly believes in the humanity of embryos could possibly think
And, by the way, when it comes to respecting the human dignity
of microscopic embryos, nature—or God—is as cavalier as the most godless
fertility clinic. The casual creation and destruction of embryos in normal
human reproduction is one reason some people, like me, find it hard to make
the necessary leap of faith to believe that an embryo and, say, Nelson
Mandela, are equal in the eyes of God.
Proponents of stem-cell research like to emphasize that it doesn't
cost the life of a single embryo. The embryos killed to extract their stem cells
were doomed already. But this argument gives too much ground, and it misses the
point. If embryos are human beings, it's not OK to kill them for their stem
cells just because you were going to kill them, or knowingly let them die,
anyway. The better point—the killer point, if you'll pardon the expression—is
that if embryos are human beings, the routine practices of fertility clinics are
far worse—both in numbers and in criminal intent—than stem-cell research.
And yet no one objects, or objects very loudly. President Bush actually
praised the work of fertility clinics in his first speech announcing
restrictions on stem cells.
Even strong believers in abortion rights (I'm one) ought to
acknowledge and respect the moral sincerity of many right-to-lifers. I cannot
share—or even fathom—their conviction that a microscopic dot—as oblivious as a
rock, more primitive than a worm—has the same human rights as anyone reading
this article. I don't have their problem with the question of when human life
begins. (When did "human" life begin during evolution? Obviously, there is no
magic point. But that doesn't prevent us from claiming humanity for ourselves
and denying it to the embryo-like entities we evolved from.) Nevertheless,
abortion opponents deserve respect for more than just their right to hold and
express an opinion we disagree with. Excluding, of course, the small minority
who believe that their righteousness puts them above the law, sincere
right-to-lifers deserve respect as that rarity in modern American politics:
a strong interest group defending the interest of someone other than
Or so I always thought—until the arrival of stem cells. Moral
sincerity is not impressive if it depends on willful ignorance
and indifference to logic….
You may read the entire essay here.