Politics & Policy

Sliding Down the Slope

Where Kinsley's stem-cell illogic will take us.

Michael Kinsley recently published and editorial in the Washington Post (“False Dilemma on Stem Cells ,” July 7, 2006) in which he asserts that “The vast majority of people who oppose stem cell research either haven’t thought it through, or have thought it through and don’t care.” Kinsley bases this conclusion on the following argument: Since fertility clinics routinely produce multiple embryos, select only a few for implantation and freeze the rest, those who maintain “embryos are human beings with full human rights” are forced to conclude that “fertility clinics are death camps — with a side order of cold-blooded eugenics.” Since no one is up in arms about the practice of fertility treatment, therefore no one “truly believes in the humanity of embryos” and pro-life advocates are merely exhibiting “willful ignorance and indifference to logic”.

Having thus dismissed opposition to embryonic-stem-cell research as intrinsically irrational, Kinsley asserts that in his view, embryonic-stem-cell research is morally justified because of the potential medical benefit this research may yield and because “I cannot share, or even fathom, [the pro-life] conviction that a microscopic dot — as oblivious as a rock, more primitive than a worm — has the same human rights as anyone reading this article.”

Leaving aside the numerous factual and scientific inaccuracies in Kinsley’s statements, allow me to offer the following fictional adaptation of his argument.

The year is 2036, and Mr. Smith, a spokesman for the patient-advocacy group “Citizens for Life-Saving Organs” is testifying before Congress in support of a proposed “Harvesting of useful organs act” (H.R. 8100). The legislation would allow removal of transplantable organs from patients with untreatable neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, since such conditions have few systemic effects that would reduce the therapeutic utility of transplantable vital organs.

Mr. Smith’s beloved daughter Suzie is afflicted with a congenital heart malformation that will prove fatal if she does not receive a heart transplant. Mr. Smith testifies that “The U.S. government’s continuing near ban on organ harvesting is costing our society and the world too much.” Killing terminally ill patients in order to extract their organs is morally permissible, Smith argues, since such patients are “doomed anyway.” Smith thinks it is absurd for society to worry whether terminally ill patients are human beings, noting that “nothing prevents us from claiming humanity for ourselves and denying it to the human-like entities we evolve into as our physical and mental functions are degraded by terminal disease.”

While Smith acknowledges that some Americans question the morality of harvesting organs from living patients, he dismisses such concerns, saying “some people, including me, find it hard to make the necessary leap of faith to believe that a drooling, shaking, former human being in the last stages of Parkinson’s disease and, say, Nelson Mandela are equal in the eyes of God”.

Smith shows little patience for those who oppose what he believes to be the best hope for curing Suzie’s condition, stating “ No other potential therapy — including conventional organ transplant — is nearly as promising for my daughter’s ailment.” Smith indignantly accuses any so-called “pro-life” supporters who oppose H.R. 8100 of hypocrisy, because, he claims they have not objected to the use of human-like entities for fertility treatments and for human embryonic-stem-cell research, two practices that are well established in America.

Smith concludes his testimony by confidently asserting that just as society’s “alarms” against the use of human embryos for fertility treatments and embryonic-stem-cell research “have been crushed by…grateful, happy parents,” so too will fall the current objections against using former humans with terminal diseases as a source of life-saving organ transplants.

What Kinsley apparently doesn’t understand is that this is what the slippery slope of his reasoning looks like from the other side. For his benefit and for the benefit of others who would become the likely focus of future efforts to harvest “the incredible life saving power” of one class of human beings in service of another class, I sincerely hope his flawed reasoning does not prevail.

— Dr. M. L. Condic is an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine.

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