Pro-Lifers Going Wobbly On Stem Cell

Posted: Jul 18, 2001 12:00 AM
Pro-lifers who are opposed to human embryonic stem cell research are not being fanatical, but consistent and principled. But pro-lifers in favor of such research are on shaky ground. Since I arrived at the belief that life begins at conception, I have had difficulty comprehending the logic of arguments in favor of abortion, except in those cases where the mother's life is genuinely in jeopardy. To me, all other justifications -- no matter how compellingly and emotionally presented -- fall short. That is to say, human life trumps everything else, except other human life. Period. I'm not trying to be dogmatic here, nor even to proselytize you pro-choicers. The point of this column is not to convince you that life begins at conception (though the contrary view admittedly strikes me as inconceivable -- no pun intended.) Rather, I'm speaking to you pro-lifers who've fallen off the life wagon. Stem cell research is wrong if in the process human embryos are discarded, i.e., killed. It doesn't matter if the research involves potentially life-saving cures, though that is an emotionally appealing argument. It doesn't matter that we are currently destroying "surplus" embryos. It's either killing or it isn't; the fact that we are already killing is shameful, not an argument that justifies the practice. Certain pro-life advocates, such as Senator Orrin Hatch, are contending that there is no inconsistency in their position. Despite what they have been arguing for years alongside their pro-life colleagues, they now contend that life begins not at conception, but when the embryo is implanted in the mother's womb. They seem to be falling prey to the seductiveness of the pro-choice appeal. Pro-choicers have long been rationalizing that a zygote, morula, blastocyst, embryo or fetus is not worthy of legal protection (at least from its own mother) until it reaches a certain stage. Different choicers draw the lines at different points, e.g., "viability," etc. But this very act of line drawing, such as the United States Supreme Court did in Roe v. Wade, demonstrates its own arbitrary absurdity. How can anyone countenance arbitrariness about life itself? Now, the pro-lifers who have recently been "enlightened" to the notion that life begins not at conception -- forget their myriad past pronouncements on the issue -- but at implantation, are engaging in that dangerous line-drawing themselves. And their logic will not hold up, no matter how benignly motivated. Many of them want stem cell research to proceed so badly that they are willing to close their eyes to the implications of snuffing out a frozen embryo. It's too primitive in its development, they say -- too invisible to be considered human life, much less afforded legal protection. It's easy to opt for human research that could lead to life-saving cures when you don't allow yourself to face the fact that human life is being forfeited in the process. It's nearly impossible if you do. Could it be that these pro-lifers are allowing their emotions to overcome their reason? People do it all the time, as illustrated by an e-mail I recently received. The e-mailer took issue with my last column, championing gun rights. He said that in his extended family, three out of four family units who owned guns had "been visited by gun violence ... Of the other tens of families that don't have guns, none has been the victim of gun violence. None." I responded that although I was sorry for his family's personal experiences, I didn't believe it would be prudent to make society-wide decisions on the basis of them. Never mind that with all three incidents (an accidental leg injury, an accidental death and a suicide) another weapon or instrument could have been used. What about the hundreds of thousands (some say millions) of injuries, deaths and thefts that are prevented each year by the defensive use of weapons? What about freedom? It is natural and understandable for individuals to make moral judgments primarily on the basis of their own personal situations and experiences, but it is irresponsible for a society to do so. The fact that the e-mailer's family encountered tragic experiences with guns is unfortunate and sad, but it is certainly no basis upon which to make policy. Similarly, the fact that certain politicians and their families have been traumatized by debilitating and deadly illnesses is not sufficient reason to rationalize away the human status of an embryo. As tempting as it may be to support potentially life-saving embryonic stem-cell research, now is not the time for pro-lifers to go wobbly on life.