Do human embryos have a moral status that obliges us to treat them as something a bit more sacred than tinker toys?
My personal answer is yes. But after three decades of debate on life issues, I'm pessimistic that many Americans who disagree can be persuaded otherwise.
The moral status of embryos - like the status of fetuses or teenagers - is ultimately a matter of faith, of first principles. Those who make utilitarian arguments for euthanasia, abortion or, for that matter, genocide can be perfectly "rational" in the sense that they can employ logic with the best of them. They simply start from different moral assumptions. Nazis and Communists killed millions and they could be very logical in their justifications - but logical in that whole evil genius sense. On the other side of the spectrum, pro-life, Buddhist vegans - who literally wouldn't hurt a fly - can be very logical, too. They just follow a different set of assumptions. One could say it's a sign of moral progress that we've at least shunted our debates over who has a right to life to murderers, the unborn and the very, very ill.
Or maybe not. Regardless, the moral debate often overshadows more practical arguments.
During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry and his supporters complained that President Bush had "banned" embryonic stem cell research. John Kerry proclaimed, "Here in America we don't sacrifice science for ideology" - a deeply ideological point itself, when you think about it. Ronald Reagan Jr., a very liberal former dog show announcer and ballet dancer who happens to share the name of his late father, was proclaimed a walking profile in courage for exploiting his father's memory in order to support the Democrats on the issue of embryonic stem cell research. At the Democratic Convention, he suggested that if Democrats were in power, then perhaps in a decade or so you could have your very own "personal biological repair kit waiting for you at the hospital." People with Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, or various other calamitous and heartbreaking diseases could simply get an injection and be "cured." It's not "magic," Reagan promised, but simply the "medicine of the future."
Another popular line of argument was that America would fall behind the rest of world as a leader in science, ceding pole position to Europe, South Korea or China.
Much of the mainstream media was so convinced by this sort of thinking that for a while political analysts - and the Kerry campaign - were claiming that the stem cell issue would decide the election for the Democrats.
All of this was suffused with bad faith. Ron Reagan's pandering to the false hopes of desperate families was disgusting. Moreover, Bush didn't ban embryonic stem cell research - he regulated federal funding of it. Public funding of adult stem cell research and private embryonic stem cell research were left untouched.
Meanwhile, an article in the May/June issue of Foreign Policy by Robert L. Paarlberg, reports that America is still leading the world in embryonic stem cell research. Many European countries - which were supposed to have eaten our lunch in this area - actually have vastly more restrictive laws than our own. There's been virtually no brain drain of American scientists fleeing to more hospitable climes, while thousands of European scientists have fled their own bureaucratic and restrictive lands to work in America. Pharmaceutical and biotech R&D investment is flying into the United States. And many states, led by California, are spending billions to make up for the perceived shortfall from the feds.
This is the great irony of the whole debate. What offends some liberals is that the federal government isn't involved - and the federal government should do whatever they think is good. Leaving this to the states and the private sector is just too unsatisfying. Meanwhile, some pro-life conservatives who would like to see a far more comprehensive ban on the practice are largely powerless to affect the course of the research at all now that it's out of Washington's hands.
And that's as it should be. Federalism - sending tough issues to the lowest, most local levels possible - is the best compromise one can ask for when dealing with such issues. The alternative is to ask the federal government almost literally to split the baby. Sure, more federal funding might advance the science a bit faster. But the current system has one great advantage. It doesn't force people who think human life is precious to pay for its destruction.