Stem Cells And Deep, Deep Questions

Posted: Jul 17, 2001 12:00 AM
I could lay down a pretty good pro-life case against stem cell research -- which involves the destruction of living human embryos -- but if you're the average American, you're likely to yawn as to phone the White House, saying, "Don't allow this monstrosity." Or, alternatively, "Do allow it." Life questions, such are their complexities, always throw the living a curve: abortion, euthanasia, cloning, stem cell research. Ever seen a stem cell? Know to a certainty that scientific destruction of embryos/"potential" humans takes a back seat to development of cell regeneration methods? I've the intuition that 99-plus percent of us must bow our heads in ignorance. The confusion inherent in the matter suggests profound implications. The profound deserves our rapt attention. To trifle with it is to invite ... you never know. That's why the great organs of communication keep a few of us conservatives around, so that we may say: "Hmm ... a tough one here for sure, better go slowly." The profundity of the life question seems built-in. But recognizing built-in qualities is not the same as acknowledging profundity. Life questions are these days more political than anything else. Does this surprise you? Most questions in our time are political. President Bush's position at the center of the present debate seems fitting: a democratically elected president weighing -- with a view, of course, to political gain or loss -- the various competing considerations at stake, no one of which is very profound. Roe vs. Wade, which initiated our latest tussle over life, is supremely political. A vote for Al Gore last year (as the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League portrayed the matter) was a vote for "the health, safety, and reproductive rights of American women." These rights had been inspected -- by the NARAL, of course -- and declared superior to any other rights, including the rights of those who enter abortion clinics via the womb and exit in trash bags. It's that simple: The woman -- the one already born, at least -- comes first. In the stem cell brouhaha, the same calculus is certain to hold good. We scout the profundities. We see the politics. And the politics is: Baby boomers are aging while science flourishes, and scientists see ways (if they could just get federal permission) of instructing cells not yet committed to some other work to repair damaged organs and rejuvenate worn-out ones. But first, there must be research on these cells, and the quickest way to get them is through extracting them from embryos. Against this humane policy, the "religious right" (so we hear) locks arms: Them vs. Us. Among the clearest signs of a debased culture -- like ours, could it be said? -- is the endless propensity for turning all questions into political questions: matters of head-counting and electioneering. The boomers against the Catholic Church, Republicans against Democrats, "liberals" against "conservatives." We write some editorials, we take a vote. Yippee! Got it. The only real trouble here is whether the vote comes out right or wrong. Not right or wrong in who-wins-the-next-election terms. Right or wrong in congruency (or lack of it) with the highest purposes for which mankind exists now and always has. I am not preaching high-church Episcopalianism, may it please the court. (For all I know, many fellow high-church Episcopalians are hot to trot on stem cell research.) The lack of a higher standard of any kind is the troubling matter here -- the argument that transcends mere appetite and opportunity. The agnostic bioethicist may take up the argument with as much zest as the Thomist philosopher: so long as the profundity and sheer scariness of the matter (all profound matters terrify) are kept firmly in view. Life as special. An individual life as unique. And -- oh, yes -- destiny. Whither bound? To the polls, and just the polls? And afterwards, the rest home? Then the crematorium? Could something more than that be at stake? See, I told you this life stuff was profound. If only, for a change, we could treat it that way!