Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Strip-mining humanity

William Saletan—who supports embryonic stem-cell research—has noticed a paradox:
.... Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle—in this case, a scientific struggle—anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it. ....

You don't have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings—I don't—to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?

If you have trouble taking this question seriously—if you think it's just the hypersensitivity of fetus-lovers—try shifting the context from stem cells to torture. There, the question is: How much ruthless violence should we use to defeat ruthless violence? The paradox and the dilemma are easy to recognize. Creating and destroying embryos to save lives presents a similar, though not equal, dilemma. ....
Of course it is now increasingly evident that embryo destruction isn't required for anything at all. It is pointless and no "lesser evil" justification works. This kind of "ruthless violence" cannot be justified. It is just simply evil. Ryan T. Anderson, in "Perpetuating a Needless Stem-Cell War":
.... In 2007, when the great breakthrough of induced pluripotent stem cell technology was announced, both of the scientists behind the new technique explained the moral concerns that drove their research. Dr. Shinya Yamanaka told the New York Times: "When I saw the embryo, I suddenly realized there was such a small difference between it and my daughters. I thought, we can't keep destroying embryos for our research. There must be another way." At the same time, Dr. James Thomson, the original discoverer of embryonic stem cells, told the Times: "If human embryonic stem cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough. I thought long and hard about whether I would do it." He went on to add that because of this latest technique, "a decade from now, this will be just a funny historical footnote."

Yet this footnote becomes less funny as life-and-death decisions are made for political purposes despite the existence of sound scientific alternatives to human embryo-destructive research. After seven years and two campaigns of the Democrats attacking the Republicans over President Bush's stem-cell policy, Obama evidently thought he had to make good on his promise to promote and fund embryo-destructive research, even if it is now scientifically superfluous. And superfluous is exactly what the past year and a half of stem-cell breakthroughs have made it. ....

Of course, the stem-cell debates have never been about science. As Joseph Bottum and I argued in the November issue of First Things, the furor over stem cells was fueled by numerous factors: patients' desperation in the face of illness and their hope for cures; the belief that biology can now do anything; the reluctance of scientists to accept any limits (particularly moral limits) on their research; the impact of big money from biotech stocks, patents, and federal funding; the willingness of America's elite class to use every means possible to discredit religion in general; and the need to protect the unlimited abortion license by accepting no protections of unborn human life. The most recent technological breakthroughs, sadly, change none of these facts. But they should.
Thanks to Nathaniel Peters for the reference [and the title].

You just won the stem-cell war. Don't lose your soul. - By William Saletan - Slate Magazine, Perpetuating a Needless Stem-Cell War

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