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Defending a Movie I Haven’t Seen


My colleague Kevin Williamson recently scrutinized the film Lines That Divide, which he described as “propaganda” for a cause that he supports. Williamson’s desire to hold his own side to a high standard of truthfulness is laudable. Some of his specific criticisms ring true. If the film really does claim that embryo-destructive research has no scientific potential–something too many other pro-lifers have said–then it is making a mistake. But some of Williamson’s other criticisms are more dubious.

[T]he film, which is earnestly well intended and clearly created by intelligent people, engages in a great deal of intellectual dishonesty of types familiar to students of rhetoric: the straw man, the false choice, the placing of an invisible authorial thumb on the evidentiary scale, &c.

The film repeatedly asks: Are there to be “no moral restraints” on scientific research? Are we willing to seek medical progress “at any price”? But the question is not one of conducting research with “no moral constraints,” nor is it of progress “at any price.” We have been asked to evaluate particular sets of moral constraints, and asked whether we are willing to pay a specific price, in particular the destruction of unwanted embryos created for in vitro fertilization procedures— which are very likely to be destroyed in any case — and of the clones created from them.

This is unfair. Throughout this debate proponents of embryo-destructive research have insisted that it is wrong to “politicize science,” to clamp down on scientific inquiry, etc. Now I assume that nobody who indulges in this rhetoric can seriously mean it: Nobody wants to abolish all restrictions on human experimentation in the name of possible scientific progress. But the argument is out there and it inhibits clear thinking. Pro-lifers therefore often have to make the case that restraints are permissible before they can make the case for a specific restraint.

Later Williamson writes:

With all apologies to various pontiffs and pontificators, it is not clear that “the instrumentalization of human life” amounts to anything more than an item of rhetoric. When pressed about what will happen to the enormous number of frozen human embryos left over from artificial fertilization treatments — they will be destroyed — one of the advocates interviewed in Lines That Divide simply insists: This is a question of the instrumentalization of human life! As though the mere invocation of that phrase somehow illuminates the moral difference between destroying embryos for no reason, and destroying embryos for potentially life-saving research.

Leaving aside the factual question of whether all of those unimplanted embryos “will be destroyed” (on which Williamson is incorrect), it is certainly true that the advocate’s answer is unresponsive to the question. It does not follow that “the instrumentalization of human life” is always merely rhetoric. To treat another human being as solely and in principle a means to one’s own ends, and not an end in himself (or herself!), is wrong. It is part of what is wrong with research that destroys human embryos. And it is reasonable to describe that wrong as “the instrumentalization of human life.”


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