In the run-up to Obama’s announcement overturning Bush’s restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, the media’s chosen narrative is hardly surprising: It’s the triumph of science over politics. Bush’s decision to ban federal funding of embryonic stem cells was based solely on his religious beliefs and pandered to religious conservatives. Now, finally, enthusiastic scientists are allowed to pursue their life’s work. And the sick and the suffering are given the hope they have been waiting for for so long.
All of these assertions are flawed, of course, but it does make for one heck of a good story. One opinion piece that I found especially true to form was by Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. “Finally,” its title exclaims, “a coherent stem-cell policy”:
This reversal of [Bush's] ban on such funding is good news for the science needed to find treatments for currently incurable conditions and for the ethics at stake in the issue.
So is Obama’s decision good not only for science. It’s also good for ethics. Why? Because this country produces and destroys countless human embryos every day in the name of fertility medicine. It’s only fair that we do the same in the name of scientific research:
Studies I conducted and that others have done show that human embryos are routinely destroyed at many IVF clinics for a variety of reasons as an unavoidable part of the effort to help the infertile to have children.
Not only do some clinics destroy embryos, others accumulate them—in huge numbers. . . . Over the past thirty years since Louise Brown—the first “test-tube” baby created through IVF—was born in England, more than 500,000 embryos have been frozen in American infertility clinics. There are hundreds of thousands more worldwide.
Of course, Dr. Caplan isn’t calling for a coherent ethical approach to science—for how can a denial of the intrinsic value of human embryos be coherent?—he’s calling for consistency. Unfortunately, he’s right. Denouncing the production of human embryos for science while silently looking over the problems of the fertility industry creates a hypocritical double standard.
If opponents of embryonic stem-cell research are going to find success in the public debate, we need to be willing to consistently defend life wherever it is found. We will have to defend life with sensitivity and tact, but defend it we must.