Posted: Jul 27, 2001 12:00 AM
Not too long ago, Michael Fox, not the actor but a self-described bioethicist, recently vented his outrage: "We are very clever little simians, aren't we? Manipulating the bases of life and thinking we're little gods." He told the Raleigh News and Observer that genetic research violates "the sanctity of life and may be regarded as an act of violence." You might think he was talking about embryonic stem cell research. After all, this research requires the killing of a human embryo in the hopes of one day being able to grow new hearts and lungs and maybe even humans in a lab. If anything fits the definition of "playing God" surely this is it. But it turns out that Fox, a veterinarian by training, cares little about the genetic manipulation of human beings. In fact, he's got a pretty big chip on his shoulder when it comes to people. "The only acceptable application of genetic engineering is to develop a genetically engineered form of birth control for our own species," he said. More to the point, Fox's silence on the issue of embryonic stem cell research is a perfect example of how the politics of abortion are discussed and reported in the United States. The media likes to say that the Republican Party cannot tolerate dissent when it comes to abortion. But as the current debate over stem cells proves, there's actually a lot of debate among conservatives on the politics and morality of abortion. Noted pro-life GOP warriors Senators Orrin Hatch and Bill Frist both support embryonic stem cell research, even though it involves the destruction of human embryos. Former Senator Connie Mack, a leading Catholic pro-lifer, is also a leading supporter of stem cell research (and I'm generally on their side, FYI). But while there's ample dissent and debate on the pro-life right, the pro-choice left is operating in lockstep. No dissent is allowed. Which brings us back to fanatics like Fox. Opponents of so-called genetically altered "Frankenfoods" form the core of the international coalition of people who have enough time on their hands to travel halfway around the world to complain about stuff they don't understand, but don't have enough time to bathe regularly. These people shut down businesses. They oppose genetically modified rice and corn, which could help save millions of lives and, by the way, millions of forests (faster-growing, more productive crops mean fewer trees need to be clear cut for farmland). For example, when a cyclone devastated the Indian state of Orissa, the Catholic Relief Society and CARE sent emergency food that contained some genetically modified corn. Activists here and in India demanded that the food be recalled because Indians shouldn't be used as "guinea pigs" for our Frankenfoods. Better they starve, "reasoned" the zealots. Here in America, groups with names like Seeds of Resistance and the Bolt Weevils chop down cornfields and set fire to research labs. They don't care that the benefits of biotech food are proven - and completely safe - while the benefits of stem cell research are entirely theoretical. After one of its daring assaults on a cornfield, Seeds of Resistance announced it had sent "a message to those who seek to benefit from the risky endeavor of genetically engineering the food supply." The Bolt Weevils declare, "Crops, research facilities and corporate offices are all sources of this technological threat and should be targeted." That's their reaction if you are attempting to make a super-carrot. But crack open a human embryo like a piggy bank and you get nothing but silence from these quarters and from the more reasonable politicians who denounce "Frankenfood" but don't worry about actual Frankensteins. (The monster in Shelley's epic novel, you will recall, was a man and not a horrific, terrorizing turnip). There are at least two explanations for this odd double standard where protecting baby fruits is holy work but protecting baby humans is fruitless. The first is that these people don't care much about human beings. Let humans die of starvation and muck about with their genes, goes this school of thought, people are bad for the environment anyway. The second explanation is that the left generally considers abortion to be a holy rite and therefore anything that's good for pro-choice politics must be supported, no matter what. I don't know which explanation is more correct. But I do know that conservatives would never get away with such hypocrisy.