Tuesday, March 10, 2009


President Obama has ended many of the George W. Bush's restrictions on embyonic stem-cell research ... and Slate's William Saletan wants you to know that there's a right way to support the new policies and a wrong way.

The right way, says Saletan, is to flagellate oneself until one's back is bloody, all while chanting, "Bad! Bad! I'm going to do this research or support it, but that means I'm killing babies! Bad! Bad!"

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. How long can we grow this subject before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?

...At their best, proponents of stem-cell research have turned the question on its head. They have asked pro-lifers: How precious is that little embryo? Precious enough to forswear research that might save the life of a 50-year-old man? Precious enough to give up on a 6-year-old girl? How many people, in the name of life, are you willing to surrender to death?

To most of us, the dilemma is more compelling from this angle. It seems worse to let the girl die for the embryo's sake than to kill the embryo for the girl's sake, particularly since embryos left over from fertility treatments will be discarded or left to die, anyway. But it's still a dilemma.

The wrong way is, well, any way that doesn't conform to the moral code of William Saletan, even if it conforms to another moral code:

The danger of seeing the stem-cell war as a contest between science and ideology is that you bury these dilemmas. You forget the moral problem. You start lying to yourself and others about what you're doing.... Your ethical lines begin to slide. 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.

That's right: the rabbi -- following Jewish law as he understands it -- is "dead to ethics and drifting wherever science takes" him. It's simply not possible that the rabbi is very much alive to a different code of ethics that just so happens not to be that of William Saletan. And the rabbi isn't finding embryonic stem-cell research consistent with his long-established belief in when life truly begins -- he's "drifting"; his "ethical lines" have begun to "slide."

Because only one ethics code is fixed and morally firm -- William Saletan's.

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