Stem cell reasoning

Posted: May 27, 2005 12:00 AM

The Kansas City Star, editorializing about the president's threat to veto the stem cell bill passed by the House, described human embryos as the "excess products of fertility procedures." The Los Angeles Times, contemptuous of the president's ethical misgivings, declared: "It's not a choice between a human life and an embryo's life. It's a choice between real human lives and a symbolic statement about the value of an embryo."

 The New York Times and others object that majorities in public opinion polls support this research. Is that how we should evaluate moral claims? Majorities also support the judges Bush has nominated, and yet the Times has gone gooey for the "rights" of minority senators and the sanctity of the filibuster.

 Critics of the president's position frequently charge that Bush is influenced by religious belief and that, therefore, his objections to stem cell research are illegitimate. The New York Times is the master of this argument. In an editorial titled "The President's Stem Cell Theology," the paper asserts that "his actions are based on strong religious beliefs on the part of some conservative Christians, and presumably the president himself. Such convictions deserve respect, but it is wrong to impose them on this pluralistic nation."

 Let's have a show of hands: Who thinks the New York Times would object to a president who, say, endorsed unrestricted immigration on moral grounds? Would the Times chide such a president for imposing his private religious sentiments on "this pluralistic nation"? Hardly.

 It isn't moral reasoning the Times and other liberal organs dislike, it is moral reasoning that threatens to pinch. Advocates of unlimited stem cell research believe or hope that this science will bring early cures to diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's. Everyone hopes for such breakthroughs -- though level-headed scientists caution against overly optimistic expectations from this line of inquiry. Yet morally serious people cannot focus only on the imagined cures and ignore the hard facts about destroying or cloning human embryos.

 The suggestion, repeated so often in the press, that only conservative Christians oppose stem cell research, is simply false. One influential voice against the practice belongs to William Kristol. As editor of The Weekly Standard, he has offered moral objections to stem cell research, euthanasia, abortion and other assaults on the sanctity of life. Kristol is Jewish, but his arguments are couched in non-sectarian -- indeed, in non-religious -- terms.

 Steve Chapman, columnist for the Chicago Tribune, dispensed with the sectarian argument in his title: "You don't have to be a believer to think there is something wrong with destroying human life, however immature."

 By pigeonholing the president's position as that of a "conservative Christian," cheerleaders for stem cell research hope to avoid grappling with the moral question altogether. The New York Times objects, "The president's policy is based on the belief that all embryos, even the days-old, microscopic form used to derive stem cells in a laboratory dish, should be treated as emerging human life and protected from harm. This seems an extreme way to view tiny laboratory entities that are no larger than the period at the end of this sentence ..."

 Yes, it's difficult to think of human embryos ("entities") as members of the human family. But those tiny dots, no larger than the period at the end of this sentence, if implanted in a woman's womb, will not grow up to be paragraphs or essays, but full-term infant boys and girls.

 An embryo does not look like a baby, but that is part of the miracle of creation (or reproduction, if you're looking at it clinically). Surely the stem cell enthusiasts can recognize, if they reflect on it, that denying the humanity of others is at the root of countless atrocities in human history.

 And yes, many of these potential human beings are being destroyed at fertility clinics around the nation. That is wrong. But using them for medical research does not mitigate that wrong, it compounds it. Even if destroying embryos were certain to bring a cure for grave diseases (and it is far from certain), it is never justified to use one human being -- or even potential human being -- as a source of spare parts for another.