They say stem cell research will produce medical marvels. They say it could allow scientists to create replacements for defective organs and tissue, leading to cures for a wide range of disabling or deadly maladies, including diabetes, arthritis, heart failure, cirrhosis of the liver and Parkinson's disease.
All that is irrelevant, however, if the procedures needed to conduct stem cell research are morally indistinguishable from murder. If, as anti-abortion activists maintain, the microscopic embryos from which stem cells are taken (and which are destroyed in the process) are human beings, it does not matter how many lives the research could save or improve.
Both Kantian ethics and classical liberalism (whether grounded in natural law or utilitarianism) insist that people be treated as ends in themselves, not as means to an end. If a blastocyst, the 100-cell clump into which a fertilized ovum develops after a week or so, is a person, stem cell research is like killing someone to harvest his organs, which would not be morally acceptable even if it prevented several deaths.
"Such research involves the intentional destruction of embryonic human beings, which reason and science tell us are just as human as I am," writes Father Robert A. Sirico, president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, in The Wall Street Journal. "In short, the procedures ... involve the intentional killing of another human being."
If Sirico is right, the debate about whether cells taken from an adult could be as useful as cells taken from a blastocyst is a red herring. Once you assume that the moral status of stem cell research hinges on exactly how useful stem cells are compared to possible alternatives, you've already determined that harvesting the cells is not tantamount to homicide.
If it is, one can only be puzzled by the recently broken taboo against creating embryos specifically for research, as opposed to using surplus embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. For that matter, in vitro fertilization is itself condemned by the same logic that condemns stem cell research, since it results in the production of embryos that are either destroyed or kept frozen indefinitely.
If stem cell researchers are murderers, it is hardly enough to deny them federal funding, as conservatives want President Bush to do. Legislation sponsored by U.S. Reps. David Weldon, R-Fla., and Bart Stupak, D-Mich., would ban some forms of stem cell research, but their bill sets a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison and $1 million in fines -- rather light punishment for intentional homicide.
Until Congress passes a ban, private action, including the use of force to stop the slaughter of innocents, would seem to be justified. I've never understood the position of people who maintain that abortion is murder but insist that activists shouldn't try to prevent it through violent means. Violence may be imprudent because it ultimately hurts the cause, but it's hard to see why it's wrong in principle if you accept the premise that personhood begins at conception.
Clearly, though, most Americans do not, as the continued legal and social toleration of abortion shows. They could be wrong, but abortion opponents have not made much headway in convincing them that they are.
"Science tells us the human being doesn't begin as a 'non-human' entity from which a human life is later 'produced,'" Sirico writes. "Each of us was a human being from the point at which we became a distinct organism -- that is, conception."
But there is nothing inevitable about the development of a fertilized ovum into a person. About two-fifths of embryos never become implanted in the womb, and perhaps half of those that do spontaneously abort.
Given the proper environment, a fertilized ovum has a decent chance of becoming a baby. But as Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey has observed, the same could be said for any cell in your body, given the availability of cloning technology. Each contains the genetic code that's necessary to create a person, but failing to develop that potential is not the same as strangling a baby in its crib.
Abortion opponents are right that there is no room for compromise on this issue. As Ramesh Ponnuru writes in National Review, "Either conception results in a new human being deserving of legal protection or it doesn't." Regardless of the benefits promised by stem cell research, its moral status cannot be decided without addressing that question.