In most struggles over the unborn, the pro-life cause begins with a profound disadvantage. Developed human beings, with all their sins, struggles and dreams, are easier to embrace than an unknown, invisible human being without a winning personality. It is why we have more sympathy for the plight of turtles than we do unborn children.
Now double that problem, or perhaps multiply it by 10, for the debate over embryo-destroying stem cell research.
The developed humans can't be accused of callously disposing with their own flesh for convenience, for an undisturbed prom or an uninterrupted college education. Instead, we see innocent victims of debilitating diseases or accidents; a shaking Michael J. Fox; a paralyzed Christopher Reeve. In the other corner of this fight are small, fertilized embryos, created by scientists for birth parents who wanted a child of their own to love and raise. But left behind in the laboratories is a neglected tide of unborn children, frozen in clusters of five or 10. They are, we are told, simply garbage waiting to happen. So why not destroy ("kill" is not a word we use, of course) them if others might live?
Their humanity is rarely visualized. A few weeks ago, several parents who adopted frozen embryos and gave birth to children made the abstraction concrete. But how many TV pictures did the country see? How many kitchen table discussions empathetically considered how we all began as tiny embryos grasping for a uterine home?
With the very serious ethical questions blazing on this new scientific frontier, nobody could envy President Bush's moral quandary. The disease lobbies and the abortion advocates argued that we don't hold memorial services for embryos that are swept away by contraceptives or even young fetuses that don't grow to the size of a fist. But the question remained: Should these abandoned lives be sacrificed for the greater good?
The president said this decision was not about politics, and that's true, to a point. How callous did reporters sound in evaluating whether he would consent to funding embryo destruction to appear centrist and gain points with independents and moderates on the Eastern seaboard? Even more ridiculously, some suggested that a stand for endless embryo sacrifice would be a victory for "compassionate conservatism."
But considering the administration's months of delay, followed by a summer filled with White House leaks about presidential "agonizing," a quick and principled stand for human life in its earliest stages became politically unthinkable. Why dilly-dally for months and then not, as Newsweek's Howard Fineman coldly put it, "take a deal"? If he hadn't, journalists would have ripped him apart as politically oblivious, building up a national issue, only to take an "extremist" stand.
So Bush's decision could not help but be political. His speech stroked the strongest arguments of both sides, and then put aside principle in favor of a dilatory deal that will end up satisfying no serious participant in the debate. Federal funds will now support research from embryos already destroyed. But the can of worms is now open. Can we now raid abortion clinic dumpsters and take, for testing, the remains of aborted third-trimester babies?
It wasn't shocking that the dominant media culture packed their stem-cell coverage with the usual wallop of arrogance. Not only was "taking a deal" the obvious smart move to the "middle," but one side represented only "science," while the other was trapped by its primitive (read: useless) religious beliefs. For two weeks in a row, CBS's Bob Schieffer compared his side to Galileo, the bold astronomer, oppressed by ignorant churchmen.
One media criticism of Bush that rang true was the notion that his attempt to please all sides was "Clintonian." It took a campaign promise of opposing embryo-destroying research and then amending it to oppose the exploitation of "living" embryos. Was it a case of like father, like son? Was it a read-my-lips moment? Unlike his father, W didn't shout his stem-cell promise from a convention podium. It usually seeped out from spokesmen, was ignored by most reporters, and therefore also by most voters.
But like the father's tax pledge, the events that follow the cave-in will dictate how this president will look. If the disease lobbies and their major media sympathizers press on and demand more embryo sacrifice -- as surely they will -- can Bush stand firm? If embryo destruction creates any cure, how will he resist a much greater harvest? It's then that the betrayal of the unborn and the pro-life cause will itself grow like a cancer.