As you have probably noticed, I haven’t been blogging lately. This is largely because I have been working on some other writing projects, which involves many hours spent in frustrated contemplation of a blank computer screen, which leaves me decidedly unmotivated to then embark on lengthy blog entries. Having just read this insufferably pompous, not to mention poorly argued, essay from William Saletan at Slate, I suddenly feel moved to emerge from my blog sabbatical.
Saletan is in full lecture mode, informing those of us who are happy about Obama’s recent decision regarding stem-cell research that we are now in real danger of losing our souls. He thinks he’s come up with a real humdinger of an analogy to drive home his point:
The best way to understand this peril is to look at an issue that has become the mirror image of the stem-cell fight. That issue is torture. On Jan. 22, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting interrogation methods used by the Bush administration to extract information from accused terrorists. “We can abide by a rule that says we don’t torture, but that we can still effectively obtain the intelligence that we need,” the president declared. “We are willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it’s easy, but also when it’s hard.”
The next day, former Bush aide Karl Rove accused Obama of endangering the country by impeding interrogations of the enemy. “They don’t recognize we’re in a war,” said Rove. “In a war, you do not take tools that are working and stop using them and say we’ll get back to you in four months, six months, eight months, a year, and tell you what we’re going to do to replace this valuable tool which has helped keep America safe.”
To most of us, Rove’s attack is familiar and infuriating. We believe, as Obama does, that it’s possible to save lives without crossing a moral line that might corrupt us. We reject the Bush administration’s insistence on using all available methods rather than waiting for scrupulous alternatives. We see how Rove twists Obama’s position to hide the moral question and make Obama look obtuse and irresponsible.
The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they’re not coming from the right. They’re coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we’re in a life-and-death struggle–in this case, a scientific struggle–anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you’re with science, or you’re against it.
That is just about the dumbest thing I’ve ever read. We are not talking about “renouncing effective tools” in the abstract. We are talking about renouncing one specific tool: research on stem-cells taken from two-week old embryos. It is renouncing that specific tool that makes you irrational and irresponsible. The reason it makes you irrational and irresponsible is that the two-week old embryo is not a human being. It’s that simple. It is literally just a clump of cells. It is the height of moral confusion to think otherwise.
The embryo has no thoughts, no capacity for suffering, no consciousness. It has none of the attributes that distinguishes a human being from other sorts of life. Medical research on animals, which certainly have the capacity to suffer and arguably, at least in mammals, have limited consciousness, is far more morally problematic. Yet even here most people, myself included, are willing to swallow hard and tolerate it for the undeniable good such research does.
It is monstrous to elevate the early embryo to such a status that you are willing to ignore the real suffering of people afflicted with dread diseases. You can spare me the nonsense about adult stem cells, or how you are not ignoring suffering you are just maintaining high moral standards. Baloney. You are rejecting the most promising line of research anyone has come up with to date because you have preposterously convinced yourself that an embryo, once formed, must never be destroyed. You are personally telling sick people that it is better that they suffer, deteriorate and die than that an undifferentiated group of cells be prevented from reaching its full potential. How dare you then turn around and lecture other people about morality.
I’d say that’s a rather important place where Saletan’s analogy breaks down. Torturing an actual human being is not the same thing as destroying a two-week old embryo. It’s not even in the same ball park.
Of course, Saletan is not yet finished being ridiculous. He also serves up things like this:
Embryos are the beginnings of people. They’re not parts of people. They’re the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It’s the difference between using an object and using a subject.
In what conceivable sense is the embryo a subject? The usual distinction between subject and object is that objects are things perceived and acted upon by subjects. The embryo can not perceive or act upon anything. They are not the “whole thing.” They have the potentiality to become the whole thing given the right environment and plenty of time, but that is a very different thing. The seed is not the plant.
Saletan has one additional card to play: Ye olde slippery slope argument:
A few years ago, I went to a forum sponsored by proponents of stem-cell research. One of the speakers, a rabbi, told the audience that under Jewish law, embryos were insignificant until 40 days. I pointed out that if we grew embryos to 40 days, we could get transplantable tissue from them. I asked the rabbi: Would that be OK? He answered: Yes.
If you don’t want to end up this way–dead to ethics and drifting wherever science takes you–you have to keep the dilemmas alive. You have to remember that conflicting values are at stake.
The rabbi takes a stand that Saletan does not like, and therefore the rabbi is dead to ethics. It seems clear, even in Saletan’s telling, that the rabbi is not just drifting wherever science takes him. He laid out his ethical standards very clearly, in fact. More clearly than Saletan, who never actually gets around to telling us his own view on whether stem-cell research is acceptable. He seems more interested in burnishing his own self-righteousness than he is in taking a clear stand.
The fact is that the embryo goes through a continuum. At conception it is plainly not a human being in any reasonable sense. At birth it is a human being in every sense. In between you have a grey area, as it gradually becomes more and more human-like. Any sharp line you try to draw will inevitably be a bit arbitrary, and doubtless there are difficult moral questions to be answered as we approach plausible line-drawing points. The fact remains that the sort of stem-cell research that is being seriously proposed is unambiguously on the “morally acceptable” side of the line.
Offering his support for Saletan, Andrew Sullivan writes:
I don’t believe the Bush administration’s policy was “ideological” as opposed to “factual.” It was based on ethical concerns about people paying for what they believe is immoral. You may disagree with this position, but you should respect it.
No, you shouldn’t respect it. You should condemn it, angrily. You should not cede even one single solitary centimeter to people who dress up their insane religious delusions in the garb of morality and ethics. There is nothing moral or even thoughtful in the anti-stem cell position. Just confusion at best, and outright barbarism at worst.