Human Exceptionalism

The Stem Cell Debate is Bigger Than the Sum of its Parts

Yuval Levin, the former White House policy guy for biotechnology, and now with the Ethics and Public Policy Center (which former Senator Rick Santorum just joined), has a fine piece in today’s NRO that bursts the bubble, in an entirely empirical manner, of many of the most prominent arguments advanced by those who are committed to overturning President Bush’s ESCR federal funding policy. He does such a splendid job, that it clearly illustrates a sad fact about this debate I have long lamented: In this policy debate, facts simply don’t matter.

Levin also argues in favor of a potential “third way” that could find a solution to our current bitter divide over biotechnology were it to be embraced by all sides. This is a bill that would fund “alternative sources” of research, intended to obtain pluripotent stem cells without embryo destruction. Last year, the plan enjoyed overwhelming support in both Houses of Congress, but failed at the last minute on a procedural vote in the House. Levin writes:“But advocates of looser funding rules will not take ‘yes’ for an answer. Rather than jump at the chance to promote a common-ground way forward on stem cells, they have chosen to ignore the emerging alternatives, and insist that embryo-destructive research must be funded…They would prefer a political rallying point over a scientific way forward.”

Levin is right, but there is a reason for this intransigence. The ESCR/cloning debate is about much more than the state of the science, the potential for cures, and indeed, the ethics of biotechnology. These are important matters, of course. But beneath the imbroglio is a more fundamental issue: Which value system will predominate in society? Will our policies and endeavors be founded in the intrinsic value of all human life? Or, will we pursue a “quality of life” ethic, that leads to the instrumentalization of the most vulnerable human lives?

I believe this is why an issue of proper funding levels and requirements is stoking up so much emotion. There is more money available for ESCR with federal, state, and private sources than can currently be spent! It is Bush’s assertion of a moral principle, expressed through his policy, that embryos have intrinsic moral worth and should not be treated as harvestable crops, which is the actual cause of all the fuss.