Reason, Faith, and Stem Cells 

Opponents of the new rules for government-funded stem-cell research are right that the rules are irrational. The rules forbid government-funded researchers to extract stem cells from human embryos, but they allow those researchers—on alternate Tuesdays when the wind is from the northeast and at least three members of five different review boards have dreamed of a fish—to use stem cells extracted by others.

Opponents of stem-cell research believe that “a microscopic clump of cells” (the New York Times’ description of an embryo at the stage when stem cells are removed) has the same moral claims as a fully formed human being. Proponents believe that a clump of cells has no serious moral claim compared with people who “feel want, taste grief, need friends” (Shakespeare’s description of a human being). No one believes that a clump of cells is just a clump of cells in private hands but becomes a full human being in the hands of a government grantee. You don’t absolve yourself of murder by hiring a hit man.

The answer to this objection (which the authors of the regulations cannot make) is: Of course it’s not rational. It’s a compromise between two logically irreconcilable positions. And it stretches democracy as far as it can be stretched in deference to the strongly held views of the losing side of an argument. It says: “You cannot have your way. You cannot impose the burden of your views on others. But at least you can know that your own tax dollars won’t be spent directly on something you find immoral.” This is quite a concession. It’s more than opponents of wars, for example, are allowed.

Even the burden of this compromise is heavy on those awaiting the tremendous promise of stem-cell research. That promise has already been delayed for years by the congressional ban these new rules are designed to accommodate. The breakthroughs will be slowed by more years because of all the elaborate safeguards built in to protect those clumps of cells. Imagine being paralyzed by a spinal cord injury in your teens, watching for decades as medical treatment progresses but not quite fast enough, and knowing that it could have been faster.

In the endless right-to-life debate, compromise is difficult for pro-lifers because the strength of their side of the argument comes from its absolutism. (Unless it comes from faith, about which there can be no argument.) Absolutism is their logical trump card. If you don’t protect every human being from the moment of conception, where do you draw the line? Anywhere you draw it is another irrational distinction, conferring humanity—and, possibly, life itself—on one organism and denying both to another that is nearly identical.

But absolutism is also a great weakness, because it puts you at the mercy of your own logic. Opposition to stem-cell research is the reductio ad absurdum of the right-to-life argument. A goldfish resembles a human being more than an embryo does. An embryo feels nothing, thinks nothing, cannot suffer, is not aware of its own existence. Embryos are destroyed routinely by the millions in the natural process of human reproduction. Yet opponents of stem-cell research would allow real people, who can suffer, to do so in service of the abstract principle that embryos are people too. If faith takes you there, fine. Reason can’t.

Ronald Reagan used to play the logical trump card this way: If we don’t know for sure when human life begins, we’re like rescue workers after a mine explosion who don’t know if anyone has survived. Shouldn’t we assume there is life to be saved, rather than assuming there isn’t?

The problem with this analogy is that the beginning of human life is not a factual question to which we “don’t know” the answer. Biology is not going to solve this puzzle for us someday. “Human life” is a label we confer, and the uncertainty is in how we choose to define it, not in some missing bit of information. Furthermore, the definition depends on why you’re asking. In the context of abortion, it doesn’t matter when a fetus develops hands or feet or a heartbeat. What matters is when it develops a sense of self, an ability to suffer, or—if you go that route—an immortal soul.

And the fact that these conditions (except for the soul) don’t arrive at any clear-cut moment is not the logical argument for absolutism that pro-lifers seem to think. We used to learn in high-school biology that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”: The development of each individual human being resembles the evolution of the species. Apparently, these days that is regarded as unhelpful, if not inaccurate. But even most right-to-lifers do believe in evolution and are comfortable with the idea that humanity is one end of a continuum, not a thing apart.

They are comfortable drawing a crisper line than nature does between humans and lesser beasts and denying human rights to animals that share many human attributes. Why is it so hard for them to accept something similar about the development of an individual human being? That we each start out as something less than human, that the transformation takes place gradually, but that it’s morally acceptable to draw a line somewhere other than at the very beginning. Not just acceptable, but necessary.

If faith tells you otherwise, listen. But don’t mistake it for the voice of reason.