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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Missing the point on stem cells

I don't have a lot of time for this this morning, but I wanted to write briefly about Shark and Shepherd blogger Rick Esenberg's op-ed on stem cells. He promised me that I would hate it, and, while I think "hate" is too strong a word for my reaction, I think he misses a major point when he writes about "embro-destructive research" in this morning's paper:
While the battle over terminology is part of the political give-and-take, it threatens to obscure what is at stake. The debate is not about whether science or research is good. It isn't even entirely about whether it is good to cure diseases.

Rather, the issue is what ethical limits we ought to place on curing diseases. For some, this is a religious question. Proponents of embryo-destructive research and cloning argue that this ought to take it out of the realm of public debate. One can imagine the bumper stickers. "If you're against killing embryos, don't clone one." "Keep your laws off my lab." [. . .]

And human life is what this debate is about. In countenancing embryo-destructive research and cloning, we would be (and, to some extent, have been) crossing a line that has not yet been crossed--at least outside of Nazi Germany and a few other totalitarian states. We would, for the first time, be permitting the creation and destruction of distinct human entities for research. [. . .]

There are "scholars"--some holding prestigious chairs at Ivy League universities--who argue that infanticide can be justified because a newborn is no more self-conscious than a fetus. She has no more ability to reason and has not yet come to be aware of and to value her own life. If science comes to tell us that the creation of infants (perhaps genetically altered to prevent higher thought) are just the thing for the treatment of a disease, do we permit it?
Aside from the slippery-slope argument with no basis in fact--and, for that matter, the oblique Dr. Mengele reference--Rick is trying to make the point that scientists (and possibly US Senators) who are calling for more stem cell lines to research than those in play back in 2001 are using language to mask what they're really up to. Rick, a lawyer, uses some misdirection of his own: "Keep your laws off my lab" distracts us while he frames the debate for himself with that whole "embryo-destructive research and cloning" thing.

But even while doing so, Rick misses a serious point about the current state of embryonic stem cell research--and embryos in general--in this country. There are, by most news accounts I've seen, about 400,000 embryos cryogenically frozen right now, whose parents, having no further need of them for fertility treatments, are just leaving them sit. Many of those parents want to allow scientists to use those embryos to start new stem cell lines of research, replacing the sometimes-unusable lines scientists were restricted to back in 2001.

And the 400,000 embryos, if they don't get used for science, will be destroyed.

So there's the real frame: I don't care if you call it "embryo-destructive" or not, Rick, as long as you acknowledge that, in the end, those embryos will be destroyed anyway. You have to answer for why destruction with the benefit of bolstering scientific research is worse somehow than destruction out of wastefulness.

To me, there's no language that can mask that hole in your argument.

Update: Go read Mixter. Her post is excellent.

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