I wish I were an embryo

Aug 282006
Authors: A.J. KORNBLITH Cavalier Daily University of Virginia

(U-WIRE) CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – Embryos have never had it so good. Much to the chagrin of the great majority of the American public, embryos can sleep soundly at night knowing that the Bush administration is vigorously defending them against the ethically challenged stem cell researchers. Those monsters would sacrifice these innocent balls of cells, many of whom have promising futures in the trash cans of fertility clinics, in order to seek treatments for those of us who have left the womb and suffer from debilitating diseases. Bush is committed to protecting potential human life, whatever the costs to actual human life.

This past week, however, the president’s ethical steadfastness took a bit of a credibility hit. Researchers in Massachusetts revealed they had developed a promising procedure for acquiring embryonic stem cells that doesn’t destroy the embryos by taking only one of the embryo’s eight cells during in vitro fertilization, seemingly satisfying the criteria that no injury be done to nascent human life. Instead, Bush promptly shifted his arguments, claiming through a White House spokesperson, “Any use of human embryos for research purposes raises serious ethical questions.” The President’s Council on Bioethics also deemed the new approach “ethically unacceptable.” This shift from “protect embryos from destruction” to “hands off the embryos” means that either the president hasn’t thought very hard about what it means to protect life, that this is a political ploy to dumb down debate on a contentious issue, or both.

He may not be the brightest man to grace the office, but President Bush can usually be relied on to hold a principled stance on an issue that is so important for his conservative base. As he said in July when vetoing a bipartisan bill that would have greatly expanded federal funding for stem cell research, he would never “support and encourage the destruction of human life for research” with federal taxpayer money since “many millions of Americans consider the practice immoral.” Note that he said many, not a majority, because most Americans do not, in fact, consider the embryonic stem cell research immoral. In July, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal Poll found that 68 percent of Americans approve the practice, while a USA Today/Gallup Poll reported that 58 percent disagreed with the president’s veto the bill.

To begin with, the President’s rationale that he was vetoing the bill because it used taxpayer money for a practice with which many taxpayers disagree could be considered amusing at best. An awful lot of Americans (61 percent according to the most recent USA Today/Gallop Poll) disagree with Bush’s Iraq policy, and he seems to have no qualms about spending hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars on that venture.

Furthermore, when you add this weak reasoning to Bush’s shifting stance on protecting life, it becomes clear that there really is no coherent rationale for banning research involving stem cells. Many social conservatives come to the separate conclusion that the destruction of embryos for research must be categorically avoided. Although this conclusion ignores the fact that most of the embryos used in such research would have been discarded anyway, it does represent a choice to value potential life so highly as to outweigh the enormous potential benefits of finding treatments for incapacitating diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Such a view ignores tangible human suffering in order to make a principled point about the intangible value of life. Proponents of this view either don’t care about the quality of life for the being that is produced or aren’t going for philosophical consistency. But beyond these shortcomings, Bush’s stance completely falls apart when he makes the further claim that even though the survival of the embryo is no longer at stake he will continue to oppose research. A ball of cells in a womb only has value because it has the potential to be born and grow into a fully developed human. To argue that no benefit can be derived from embryos even when their potential for full human life will be undisturbed is to make a horrible miscalculation of values.

At this point you begin to realize that all Bush has is a slogan, not a coherent policy. There is no defensible reason for protecting embryos for their own sake and in the process doing tangible harm to living, breathing human beings and their hopes for a cure. The purpose of science should be to improve our quality of life, not just to protect theoretical life. Bush’s obsession with protecting embryos flies in the face of his stated commitment to human life, and history will not judge the mistake lightly.

A.J. Kornblith’s column appears Mondays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at akornblith@cavalierdaily.com.

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