Stem Cells and Moral Preening

Posted: Jun 08, 2007 12:01 AM
Stem Cells and Moral Preening

Usually when I learn that someone is the parent of a child with diabetes, I feel an instant rapport. Even if the person is a stranger, I know so much about what his or her daily life is like: the constant monitoring, the shots, the worry. But one cannot respond with such natural fellow feeling when that person has chosen to treat everyone on the other side of the stem cell debate with contempt.

In a short profile that ran in The Washington Post, Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., shares her personal struggle with the disease. Her daughter was diagnosed with Type I diabetes in 1999 at the age of 4. This "jolt" propelled Rep. DeGette to become an activist on diabetes research. She co-chairs the Congressional Diabetes Caucus. Fine, as far as it goes. But like so many activist types, she seems to confuse conviction with revelation. Her daughter lives with a serious condition, and therefore, anyone who does not assent to using embryonic stem cells for research is, what? Well, here are Rep. DeGette's words:

"If a candidate says 'I support stem cells and my opponent does not,' it immediately classifies your opponent as an extremist." Moreover, she continues, "We think people who vote on the wrong side of this are voting against science and health."

It does not seem to cross her mind, as it so rarely seems to occur to any of the activists on this issue, that other people suffer, too, and that indifference may not be the reason they take another view of embryonic stem cell research. They are extremists. They are opposed to science -- even to good health.

What a nice fairy tale to tell yourself. How comforting it must be to avoid confronting the tough questions. How grossly unfair that people of conscience, who feel the pain of illness and death no less than anyone else, are dismissed as thoughtless when it is actually they who have done the hard thinking. I have met many people -- particularly when I speak to pro-life audiences, who are raising children with severe disabilities; children who would have been aborted by other less morally sensitive couples. Their lives look so painful and difficult (though they often insist that their children are a great blessing) whether they are pushing a physically handicapped child in a wheelchair or caring for a mentally handicapped adult child. These parents chose not to abort their handicapped children not because they were "extremists" but because they could not have lived with themselves if they had done anything else. They believe that life is a gift, that each human being, no matter how disabled, has worth because he or she is made in the image of God. Such "extremists" staff our charities, care for the sick and dying, find homes for abandoned babies, and fill the ranks of special education teachers, nurses, doctors and therapists.

People who oppose embryonic stem cell research are loath to cross the moral line of sacrificing one human being's life to help another. Yes, an embryo is just a small cluster of cells. It takes imagination to view it as human. But each of us began life that way. As former Rep. Henry Hyde used to say, a human embryo is not going to grow up to be a giraffe.

It's actually ironic that the Post chose to puff Rep. DeGette in today's paper, since the front page brings news of a medical breakthrough. It seems that three teams of scientists have been able to coax ordinary mice skin cells into becoming stem cells that may have all of the pluripotent potential so prized in embryonic stem cells. It may be that science will leapfrog the moral difficulties of the stem cell debate by developing techniques like this that do not require living embryos to be destroyed. It would be nice if Rep. DeGette and I could celebrate this news together in the proper spirit. But she has made it clear that she thinks people who are opposed to embryonic stem cell research are extremists.

When the day comes, as it probably will, when I am old and decrepit and disabled and in need of compassion and assistance from someone, I only hope I will be lucky enough to come under the care of some extremist, who believes that I have value just because I am human and for no other reason.