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It’s Too Late, Baby
How the stem-cell debate was lost.


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Jonah Goldberg

To be honest, I have no idea why I am writing about stem cells. Most of my NR and NRO colleagues are not only vastly better informed on the topic, but they have spent a great deal of time and energy in an effort to secure their positions in logic and fact as well as faith. NRO Deputy Managing Editor Kathryn Lopez — the woman who makes my professional life possible — couldn’t be more dedicated to this crusade if she were the Pope’s point-woman on the issue (which goes a long way toward explaining why the topic comes up so often on NRO).

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Meanwhile, Ramesh Ponnuru’s piece in the current issue of NR OnDeadTree is the best thing I’ve read explaining the hard-liner position on stem cells. (Note to readers: Unlike most of the media, we at National Review use the phrase “hard liner” with no pejorative connotations whatsoever.)

That said, I confess I cannot muster much passion on the stem-cell debate. Ramesh and others rightly criticize folks like me — and Robert Bartley — who proudly proclaim their footing in the “mushy middle” “as though it were good in itself not to draw principled distinctions.”

The point is well-taken; so I hereby disavow all pride in my mushiness. That said, the problem for many people in terra infirma (someone will tell me if that’s a word, I’m sure) on the stem-cell debate is how hard it is to locate these principled distinctions.

Ramesh points out that in the philosophical literature on abortion — a literature that I have managed not to accumulate — pro-choicers are the ones who spend a big chunk of their time trying to figure out exactly where and when ensoulment occurs. Ensoulment is exactly what it sounds like: the point when God loads the moral, transcendent software onto your hard drive. When I was a kid, my parents taught me ensoulment happened at the same time you got your belly button in Heaven. God has a huge conveyor belt and as the babies come off the assembly line on their way to the stork loading dock, God pokes each baby in the belly and says, “You’re done, next! You’re done, next! Let’s keep things moving people!” Later, I looked this up and found out my parents were off on a few key details.

Anyway, it makes sense that pro-choicers would need to hunt for a location on the developmental continuum where ensoulment takes place: It’s precisely because they don’t know. Pro-lifers simply say “life begins at conception” and move on to other arguments up and down the front lines of the abortion war; their principle is secure. Meanwhile, pro-abortion folks have to figure out when a bunch of cells becomes a human being — and if you don’t believe life begins at conception, then that’s a hard thing to do.

This is why I think (fear?) the stem-cell debate is lost — at least until the technological landscape changes dramatically. The logic that denies experimentation on embryonic stem cells forces the acceptance of these embryos as human lives. And I just don’t believe that the majority of the American people can be persuaded that embryos are human beings.

Again, I do not pretend to be an expert on such things. But the argument that life begins at conception has always seemed to me more valuable as a procedural standard. If we say life begins at conception, we have very bright lines demarcating the path away from various slippery slopes. But as a matter of pure logic and theology I have a harder time.

Imagine you have a giant pot of water and you dump it into another pot of water, and from there you the dump contents into a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and so on. At some point, no matter how careful you are you’re bound to run out of water at the end of the process. That’s how I feel about many of the Thomistic and Aristotelian pro-life arguments about embryos. I can follow the analysis and the analogies all the way through, but as some point I feel like something critical has sloshed over the sides and I just can’t see the water anymore.

I think a lot of Americans see this issue similarly — though they probably don’t use dumb metaphors like I do. Most Americans, I believe, employ acts of “dumb perception rather than of intellection” — to borrow a phrase of Ramesh’s — when it comes to looking at blastocysts versus fetuses. Partial-birth abortion is a moral horror because it is so obvious that we are destroying a human being. God created humans in His image, and we can see that image being mutilated. But we don’t see that image in a blastocyst. We know a baby is a baby, and we know five minutes before it’s born it’s still a baby. But just as with the water passed from pot to pot, at some point in this process — and I don’t know exactly where — too much water disappears.

Moreover, there’s too much riding on the need to see them as something else. In vitro fertilization creates many embryos of which very, very few ever become fully developed human babies. The remainder left intact are stored in freezers or destroyed.

Opponents of embryonic-stem-cell research have a very hard time answering the question, “Well, what are you going to do with all of the ‘extra’ embryos left over from in vitro fertilization efforts?” After all, if they are human lives, it’s murder to destroy them and something akin to imprisonment or maybe murder to keep them in a freezer.

Of course, there’s a familiar answer: adoption. As Kathryn Lopez writes (scroll down to last entry), “Embryos are human life, and if you believe that life begins at conception, there is really no way around that.” So, what people are being asked to adopt — to use the vernacular — is a clump of cells in a petri dish or test tube. But again, this solution requires average Americans to accept that an embryo is a human life. Catholic intellectuals and others who oppose embryonic-stem-cell research are comfortable asserting this as fact. But for the majority of Americans such a position is a hard pill to swallow. It requires, for example, that we ban in vitro fertilization — a medical procedure the American people support — because it necessitates the murder of many human lives for the creation of a few lives or even a single life.

So essentially, once the fight against IVF was lost, so too was this debate. Indeed, opponents of IVF predicted that this procedure would lead to all sorts of terrible things: cloning, for example. And from their perspective they were right; but as a political proposition, few Americans can see the horror. What they can see is the benefit of infertile couples having children. If it turns out that a single medical breakthrough from embryonic-stem-cell research results in a smiling poster child on The Today Show, the anti argument will, in all likelihood, end up being viewed by most Americans as analogous to the campaign against fluoridated water.

Indeed, it’s doubtful that the fight against whatever parade of horribles still awaiting us — and I do believe there are some terrible things coming — will be won with the argument that life begins at conception. I’m not saying it doesn’t begin at conception; I just have a hard time believing that whether it does or not, most Americans will care enough to put the genetic genie back in the bottle.



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