Posted on July 20, 2001


Blinded Science

The un-ethics of "extra" embryos


Daniel Clark



"The president is trapped between religion and science over stem cells," says the lead to a July 9th Newsweek story by Evan Thomas and Eleanor Clift. This has been the angle of most reports on the subject: will President Bush have the wisdom and personal fortitude to heed the advice of the enlightened scientific community, or will he bow to the political pressure of the flat-earth religious conservatives of his party?

W: man of science?

The impression that the controversy over human embryonic stem cell research swirls around a disagreement over scientific fact is vital to the conclusion that those of us who oppose the research are in the wrong. As long as the issue is framed in that way, people are going to feel inclined to take the word of the scientists who want to participate in the research, and not that of C-student George W. Bush, the National Council of Catholic Bishops, and a handful of Republican congressmen from the sticks.

In truth, all parties involved already acknowledge the scientific facts of the issue. Everybody agrees that the potential exists for embryonic stem cells to be manipulated to grow into specific tissues, which might then be transplanted into patients suffering from degenerative diseases. Everyone also agrees that an embryo must be killed if it is to be used in stem cell research. The question is whether the possible benefit to the sick justifies killing the embryos. That's not a scientific question, but an ethical one, and one to which the scientists being consulted have a vested interest in answering yes. If there's anyone whose opinion should definitely not be given special priority, it's those who stand to gain government funding.

Not only are stem cell researchers granted the assumption that their views are ethically superior, but so are the politicians who support them. This is done by labeling only those politicians on one side of the issue as "political," while those on the other side are given honorary membership in the "scientific community." If Bush stands by his already stated position against embryonic stem cell research, in agreement with congressmen Dick Armey, Tom DeLay and J.C. Watts, then he will be accused of playing cynical politics. If he flip-flops, at the behest of HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, Sen. Orrin Hatch and former Sen. Connie Mack, then he will have somehow risen above politics, although the fact that so many Republicans have joined the Democrats in support of the research makes it seem like the politically expedient thing to do.

But just how scientific are the conclusions of those who are speaking to us in the name of science? Let's examine a few recent statements by these advocates and find out.

An article by Fred Barnes in the July 16th issue of The Weekly Standard quotes Sen. Hatch and former Sen. Mack from several televised interviews. Although their sentiments have been echoed by many on the "scientific" side of the debate, they are nonetheless illogical and bizarre. Hatch told CNBC's Chris Matthews that "life begins in a mother's womb, not in a refrigerator." This line has worked so well for him that he uses some variation of it almost every time he speaks on the subject. But what's his point -- that a frozen embryo is somehow not actually a human being, but that it becomes one upon implantation? What, other than its surroundings, has changed? In either place, it is still a living human individual.

By the time an embryo attaches itself to the uterine wall, it has already been alive for about a week. So life actually never begins in the womb ... if we want to be scientific about it, that is. But what if we were to take an embryo from the womb immediately after implantation, so that Sen. Hatch would agree that it's a newly created human life? What if we then froze that embryo, along with all the ones, also a week old, which had been created in a laboratory? Would Hatch be able to tell which one of all those embryos is a person? And how would he explain the difference?

treacherous medicine

Perhaps he would argue that the embryo in question is no longer a person, because it's no longer in the womb, and that it acquires and loses its humanity depending on which space it currently occupies. Of course, that wouldn't be science, then. It would be alchemy.

Connie Mack told Fox News Sunday host Tony Snow that research on frozen embryos is ethical because, "There is no way for the blastocyst to then grow into a human life." Anyone with any understanding of the definitions of "human" and "life" knows that a blastocyst (an embryo in its earliest stages of development) already is a human life. Even a knee-jerk pro-abortion activist, who wouldn't acknowledge life at any point before birth, would realize that a frozen, week-old embryo can "grow into" a human life. That's why it's frozen in the first place -- so that it can be implanted, and later born.

As if to display his credentials as an advocate of science, Sen. Hatch is careful to distinguish between a totipotent stem cell, which can itself become a new embryo through twinning, and a more differentiated pluripotent stem cell, which has the potential to develop into any sort of tissue, but not into an entire living being. He argues that it's okay to experiment with a pluripotent stem cell because it cannot grow into a new person. Never mind that this cell is procured by killing the human embryo from which it came.

An analogous argument would be if we decided to start executing prisoners for their organs like they do in Red China, and we justified it on the basis that we aren't really harming anyone, because a liver in a picnic cooler stands no chance of growing into a man. Hatch's point is no less absurd.

A dangerous balancing act for the GOP

Focusing on the stem cell itself, and not on the embryo, was the tactic behind the previous administration's policy. By having government-funded laboratories buy embryonic stem cells from private labs, the government denied culpability for destroying the embryos. The decision to do this was so devious, deceptive and utterly irresponsible that it took Bill Clinton to think of it. Yet many nominally pro-life Republicans are now willing to go along.

Anybody with any concept of accountability knows better. Paying someone else to kill embryos makes us just as responsible as if we'd killed them ourselves. To pretend otherwise would be like an animal-rights activist eating a steak with a clear conscience, just because he's not the butcher.

One of the most common rationalizations being offered on behalf of the scientific community is the "just cells" argument. It seems almost mandatory for news articles on stem cell research to refer to week-old human embryos as "clumps of cells." The dehumanizing connotation is clearly intentional. You can't get much more inanimate than a clump.

Scientists never refer to an amoeba as just a "cell"; it's generally recognized, more accurately, as a "single-celled organism." Pre-implanted embryos, however, are never called "multi-celled organisms." They're just cells. This is where these utilitarian arguments have led us -- to the point where some forms of human life have been demoted beneath the protozoans.

One variation of this "just cells" argument has been brought to us by Sen. Hatch, who said, "To me, a frozen embryo is more akin to a frozen unfertilized egg or a frozen sperm than to a fetus naturally developing in the body of a mother."

Eggs and sperm are just cells. An embryo is an organism. Genetically, it is distinct from each of the cells from which it was created, but it is the same as it will be for the rest of its life, however long that is allowed to be. That's high school biology ... but apparently it's no longer "science."

One might think that some reporters would feel compelled to point out that Hatch's statements on stem cell research are logically dubious and often provably false, but instead, they simply report that he said them. Of course, opposing viewpoints are often given, usually introduced with a caveat like this one from CNN's Jonathan Karl: "But politically powerful religious groups strongly disagree with Hatch's position." Another case of science vs. religion and politics.

Another effective rationalization has been the inevitability argument, which says that "extra" embryos from fertility clinics are going to be destroyed anyway. New York Daily News columnist Lenore Skenazy, who herself conceived children through in vitro fertilization, writes that, "The idea of not allowing unwanted, soon-to-be-destroyed embryos to help alleviate human suffering makes about as much sense as not allowing transplants from a cadaver."

Um ... not to get technical about this, but cadavers, unlike "soon-to-be-destroyed embryos," are already dead. If we had to kill cadavers in order to use their parts, that wouldn't quite be ethical. Moreover, the very fact that we intended to kill them would render them "soon-to-be-destroyed," but that would justify nothing.

The whole idea that these "extra" embryos in fertility clinics are all doomed to be destroyed is a fallacy anyway. These embryos are not about to expire of natural causes. Some of them are kept frozen until adoptive parents can be found. They don't die until they are actively killed. That can be prevented.

Even Bill O'Reilly of the Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor has bought into the "extra embryos" theory, although it reeks of the sort of inconsistencies he usually picks apart mercilessly. In his July 6th "Talking Points" memo, he concluded, "I believe the government would be wrong to use stem cells from aborted fetuses, but I would allow stem-cell research from embryos which would be discarded by fertility clinics anyway."

spare parts

This explanation fails to make a distinction. If an unwanted "spare" embryo is going to be "discarded anyway," then so is an unwanted fetus in the womb. What if a woman who had planned to have only one child discovers she has conceived twins, and opts to have one of them killed through an abortion procedure euphemistically known as "selective reduction"? Wouldn't the "reduced" fetus be considered a "spare" that is going to be destroyed anyway? Why let that spare fetus go to waste, instead of getting some use out of its stem cells? If O'Reilly is going to consistently apply this standard, then he should condone either both killings, or neither.

There are some who, rather than find a way to justify taking an embryo's life, simply deny that embryonic stem cell research even does that, by contending that the life does not belong to the embryo in the first place. In order to shift the focus of the debate to the potential beneficiaries of the research, advocates talk as if there are all these disembodied lives just floating around in the ether, and it is their responsibility to distribute those lives to the people who need and deserve them most.

Listen to the way Dr. Irving Weissman, a biologist at Stanford University, denies human embryos' ownership of their own lives: "Opponents [of embryonic stem cell research] are sacrificing these people [disease victims] to keep from destroying embryos in fertility clinic freezers." You'd think from this statement that the embryos are being kept alive through the transplantation of vital parts from other people, instead of the other way around. It's as if the embryo's stem cells rightfully belonged to somebody else, and were unjustly taken away. Weissman is taking the position here that a living human being does not necessarily have a preeminent claim to its own life.

That is also the position of those who argue that supporting embryonic stem cell research is actually a "pro-life" position. Pro-whose-life, they'll ask rhetorically. If you come down on the side of people stricken with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, isn't that every bit as legitimate a pro-life position as defending the embryos?

Well, ... no.

Those who take the position that we should destroy one human life in order to enhance another have concluded that only one of those lives has value. They have been moved to support that position by human suffering, but a week-old embryo doesn't have the capacity to suffer, so they don't care about it. They know people who have diseases which can potentially be treated through stem cell research, but they've never been friends with an embryo, so its interests don't matter. In the end, human life has no constant inherent value, but only has what value is subjectively assigned to it by others. A person you know and care about has value. A person you don't know and don't care about does not.

That is definitely not a pro-life position. Those who are describing it as such, like Sen. Hatch, would do a service both to the pro-life movement and to the English language if they would kindly stop.

Advocates who are speaking on behalf of science are promising a fair and impartial judgment, but they're really just engaging in jury nullification, complete with a rejection of all the DNA evidence. Forget the immutable facts of life -- they know the outcome they want, and they're determined to get it. Basing their opinions on demonstrably false statements and conclusions derived from faulty premises, they have shown themselves to be far more unscientific than those often sneered-at "politically powerful religious groups."



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