Bench Memos

Science Dubious, Politics Devious, Ethics Diabolical

It’s a trifecta in today’s Washington Post by Ronald M. Green, who proposes a “Stem Cell Solution” for president-elect Obama.  Green wants the incoming administration to change federal policy on funding for embryonic stem cell research (ESCR)–but he’d like to cloak the first step of a radical change in moderate clothing.  I know this isn’t ordinary Bench Memos fare, but bear with me.  (And the connection to the abortion license created in Roe v. Wade should be apparent if you think about it.)

Maybe you thought the stem cell issue had largely subsided, thanks to the discovery of ways to “revert” cells in the human body into pluripotent ones with all the properties of embryonic stem cells–thus providing the research materials many scientists desire without having to destroy any embryos, which are after all tiny human beings.  (A great treatment of the issues appears in Joseph Bottum and Ryan Anderson’s “Stem Cells: A Political History,” in the November First Things–not, alas, online.)  Well, Green would have us believe that the “gene insertion technology” used to bring about this cellular reversion results in cells “too dangerous for transplant purposes” because of a cancer risk.  I have it on good authority, however, that the pioneering scientist Shinya Yamanaka has published findings that show the new technique produces cells no more dangerous than does ESCR.  Or doesn’t Ronald Green keep up with the science?

The political deception Green recommends, as a kind of cautious step that will not “energize conservative opponents” of embryo-destructive research, is to pretend that embryo destruction is not really embryo destruction–or that we can paper over what we’re doing with a form of words.  Here’s the rhetorical gambit, about as hamhanded as anything I’ve ever seen:

What should the new president do? Obama should minimize opposition by following the lead President Bush established in 2001. In justifying his policy of funding research on a limited number of human embryonic stem cell lines, Bush stated that “the life and death decision” had already been made on the embryos used to create those lines.

This is true of thousands of frozen embryos stored in fertility clinics around the country. More than 500,000 embryos created by in vitro fertilization to help couples have children are being stored. A large percentage of those embryos will never be used, because the couples have succeeded in having children, have given up or have grown too old to try. There is very little market for embryo adoption, so most of these embryos are destined to be destroyed. Circumstances have rendered the “life and death” decision on them almost as certain as it was on the embryos used before 2001 to make the stem cell lines that were approved to receive federal research funding.

Green does not want us to remember what President Bush really said and did in 2001.  The embryos from which stem cell lines had been drawn, research on which Bush agreed to fund in 2001, were already destroyed.  The “life and death decision” had indeed already been made.  They were dead.  People then and now disagreed about the ethics of using the stem cells in question.  But no decision remained to be made about preserving or destroying life in the case of these embryos.  That choice had been made.

By contrast, the many embryos Green now wants to exploit, with federal funding authorized by President Obama, are still alive.  When he says that it “is true” of these embryos as well that “the life and death decision” has already been made in their cases, he is stating the exact opposite of the truth.  A decision has not been made, but must be made, and Green knows how he wants it made.  He wants them destroyed, if we can only talk people into the decision.  They are only “destined to be destroyed” if people decide they will be.  Green knows the difference between Bush’s policy and the one he proposes: he calls the decision on the destruction of these embryos “almost as certain” as the actually accomplished destruction of the embryos to which President Bush referred in 2001.  There’s a yawning moral gulf in that “almost.” 

And it’s clear that destruction is what Green wants.  He goes on to write:

By executive order, Obama could authorize the NIH to invite couples who planned to discard their frozen embryos to donate them for research. The couples would have to affirm that they no longer intended to use the embryos and had already decided to destroy them.

The fate of “leftover” IVF embryos is an acute ethical dilemma, especially given their great numbers.  In their book Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen propose that steps be taken to have these tiny human beings adopted.  President Bush has applauded such a practice.  But Ronald Green blithely proposes that parents “donate” them for research.  And he has the gall to claim that if Obama adopted it, “this policy [would represent] only an extension of the one established by his predecessor.”  Watch carefully, ladies and gentlemen, while my magic wand converts a repudiation into an “extension”!

Green is bylined as the pro bono chair of the “Ethics Advisory Board of Advanced Cell Technology, a company involved in stem cell research.”  Here’s a question for our ethics advisor: Can he name another moment in American history in which the government proposed that parents offer their children to be killed for the pursuit of federally funded scientific research?

Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey.

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