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Those are not the words of the usual religious conservative suspects. They belong to William Saletan , writing in Slate on Obama’s federal funding of embryo-destructive stem cell research. Saletan stands in the middle on embryos, seeing them as early-stage human beings who are not owed the rights and protections of fully developed humans. For the benefit of liberals who might not understand the trouble with embryo-destructive research, Saletan offers a comparison with torture and rigorous measures of interrogation. These liberals reject “the Bush administration’s insistence on using all available methods rather than waiting for scrupulous alternatives” in the interrogation of prisoners. Saletan sees a similar dilemma in the stem cell debate, only the political tables are turned:

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 . . . .

Think about what’s being dismissed here as “politics” and “ideology.” 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.

Saletan also echoes what Ryan T. Anderson and Joseph Bottum found in their essay ” Stem Cells: A Political History “: The facts of embryo destruction get obscured in Orwellian language and sliding conventions of acceptability that take the place of moral principles. He writes:

The danger of seeing the stem-cell war as a contest between science and ideology is that you bury these dilemmas. You forget the moral problem. You start lying to yourself and others about what you’re doing. You invent euphemisms like pre-embryo, pre-conception, and clonote. Your ethical lines begin to slide. A few years ago, I went to a forum sponsored by proponents of stem-cell research. One of the speakers, a rabbi, told the audience that under Jewish law, embryos were insignificant until 40 days. I pointed out that if we grew embryos to 40 days, we could get transplantable tissue from them. I asked the rabbi: Would that be OK? He answered: Yes.

Of course Anderson and Bottum also said that the conservatives had won the stem cell wars because the scrupulous alternatives they advocated turned out to be more effective and less expensive than embryo-destructive research. Oddly Saletan omits these scientific advances from his exhortation of caution to the liberals, who, he says, have won the stem cell wars.

That omission may explain why Saletan thinks that stem can keep their victory ethical by keeping the ethical dilemmas alive instead of, say, focusing on non-destructive research before resorting to destructive ones. As an example of keeping the dilemmas alive, he quotes President Obama’s acknowledgement that there is much disagreement over stem cells. But Saletan doesn’t see that Obama’s acknowledgment of the dilemma did absolutely nothing to change his decision. Weighing the arguments of the other side often succumbs to acting on a pre-determined principle.

And the self-proclaimed liberal principles have carried the day. At one time, liberal principles claimed to defend the weaker party against the interests of the strong. Not so today. As Saletan concludes,

The stem-cell fight wasn’t a fight between ideology and science. It was a fight between 5-day-olds and 50-year-olds. The 50-year-olds won. The question now is what to do with our 5-day-olds, our 5-week-olds, and our increasingly useful parts.



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