A lot has been written and said during this campaign season about whether, and under what circumstances, “pro-life” people may vote for Barack Obama. Almost all of what has been said concerns Obama’s extreme views about abortion. These views include his audacious promise to sign the Freedom of Choice Act as soon as he enters the Oval Office, and his startling opposition in the Illinois state senate to an anti-infanticide law. But abortion is not the only species of killing which to be considered when deciding whether to vote for Senator Obama. Abortion may not even be the most important life issue; embryo-destructive research — EDR — probably is. Though it has received far less attention than has abortion, EDR is not just the other life issue. In fact, Obama’s ghastly position on EDR — entirely aside from his extremism about abortion — makes it morally impossible for any one who is pro-life to vote for him.
When we turn to EDR and take a serious look at what Obama is determined to do, we are looking into the abyss. The express and unequivocal aspiration of embryonic-stem-cell researchers is to create a bank of cell lines that are both diverse genetically (for purposes of avoiding immune-rejection issues) and disease-specific (for purposes of studying all avenues of regenerative therapies). Realizing these aspirations will require the use and destruction of millions — and perhaps tens of millions — of human embryos. All of these tiny people will be created in a laboratory, experimented upon, and killed.
The vast scale of this proposed destructions means that we are not talking about the fate of so-called “spare” embryos. “Spare,” or leftover, embryos are those created for couples through IVF, but which were never implanted in any woman’s uterus for gestation and eventual birth. These tiny forsaken human beings are frozen in storage labs across the country. There may be as many as 400,000 of them. They remain largely under the legal control of the couple whose embryos they are. In no plausible scenario would more than a fraction of them ever be donated for research. According to the most authoritative analysis, only 2.8 percent of embryos in cryo-preservation (about 11,000) have been designated for use in research. Collectively they would constitute a tiny fraction of the proposed program’s human victims. These tiny human beings deserve the law’s protection, and all public officials should pledge to do just that.
Neither presidential candidate has made that pledge. Senator McCain has, in the past, supported research upon “spare” embryos, saying that it is the only way for some good to come from the bad situations of these forsaken ones. There is some intuitive appeal to McCain’s position. After all, if these embryos are really doomed (as they appear to be), how could it be wrong to gain some benefit before their inevitable destruction? This manner of thinking is, however, mistaken. No other doomed human being — on death row, for example, or in extremis at a nursing home — is subject to deadly human experimentation. At least, none should be. “Spare” embryos deserve the same respect.
Fortunately, Sen. McCain has opposed all other EDR, just as one would expect from someone who obviously believes that people begin at conception or, as the case may be, at fertilization. That McCain believes people begin at fertilization is the reason why he has always and at every juncture opposed abortion permissive laws. And he supports research upon recently developed alternatives to EDR, stem-cell techniques which are morally unproblematic.
Barack Obama’s is a very different story. He certainly doe not believe that people begin at conception or, as the case may be, fertilization or — in the case of cloning — when the egg cell is “fertilized” by introduction of a nucleus. And he acts like it. His boundless enthusiasm for EDR would, if he becomes president, lead us straight into a brave new world.
For example: Obama was an original sponsor of the bill to overturn President Bush’s policy of funding a very limited amount of EDR, that related to stem-cell lines then already in existence. Obama also cosponsored the misleadingly titled “Human Cloning Ban Act of 2005″ which, if passed, would have protected cloning for bio-medical research, and would have required the destruction of all human embryos created by cloning, subject to federal criminal sanction for failing to do so. (As a member of the Illinois state senate Obama voted against a ban on all human cloning.) Most shocking, Obama voted against a bill in the United States Senate that would have increased funding for the new forms of stem-cell research that do not require the use and destruction of human embryos, despite the extraordinary promise of that research to do what proponents of EDR have said EDR will do. It should be emphasized that Obama opposed funding this humane alternative to EDR even though the bill did not decrease or any way preclude funding for EDR.
The embryo research project on offer will undoubtedly require the intentional creation of human beings on an unimaginably vast scale, solely for their use and destruction in scientific research. The next president will be in a position to give this program either a green light or a red light. There can be objection, then, in the case of EDR as there is about abortion, that the differences between McCain and Obama will not make much practical difference (because of Roe v. Wade, federalism, and the stubbornness of abortion rates). On EDR the next president will, personally and for sure, make life or death decisions.
There are several reasons, beyond the president’s obvious role in appointing judges and in proposing legislation to Congress, why he will have such “stop” and “go” authority. First, the executive branch (most obviously through the work of the National Institutes of Health) is charged with allocating the federal dollars appropriated by Congress for the support of scientific research. It is the president’s decision to allocate funding in a way that creates incentives for research that requires the killing of human beings at the embryonic stage of development, or not. The president can, moreover, establish by executive order conditions for the receipt of federal funds applicable to virtually all research institutions in the country. Second, the president’s veto pen serves as a counterweight to the current enthusiasm for embryo destructive research in Congress. Third, the president sets the policies for government delegations in international fora. President Bush has placed the prestige and influence of the United States in opposition to embryo destructive research at the United Nations and UNESCO, in the face of organized support for such practices. The next president will have to decide whether to continue these policies, or change them.
Finally, the president occupies a unique “bully pulpit.” Except perhaps for the pope, the next American president will have unequaled opportunities to teach the world about the inherent value and dignity of everyone, including those we are sorely tempted to depersonalize in our anxiety to find cures for diabetes, Parkinson’s, and other diseases.
Now, no one who is genuinely “pro-life” — that is, one who believes people begin at conception or, as the case may be, “fertilization” by IVF or cloning — would vote or otherwise support Obama because of his candidate’s position on EDR. To do so would be to formally cooperate in an evil of epic proportions. But anyone who votes for or otherwise supports Obama for non-EDR reasons nonetheless materially cooperates in the horror. For the simple fact is that if one votes for Obama one is voting for to put into office someone who has promised to embark upon an embryo holocaust. The question then is whether that vote (and that support) fair to those who will suffer from EDR? Given the almost unimaginably vast — and potentially unlimited — scope of the proposed destruction, I am confident that anyone who is genuinely “pro-life” would not hesitate to say, “no.” Would anyone at all hesitate to say “no” if the proposal instead were to strap a million, or 400,000, or ten children — or, even, one child of his or her own — to a lab table, there to be dismembered for “science”?
No one would hesitate. Our society would not hesitate for a second, but for its blindness to the humanity of the embryo.
— Gerard V. Bradley is a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame.