The Earthling

Congressional Herrings 

This week, according to the New York Times, a House subcommittee will hear testimony from people who used to be frozen embryos—until some couple adopted them and ushered them through gestation. The idea is to stigmatize research on embryonic stem cells: If those frozen embryos had been sent to some sterile laboratory instead of a loving home, these people wouldn’t exist.

And of course this is true. It’s also true that if my parents had used a condom—or a little self-discipline, for crying out loud!—in the spring of 1956, I wouldn’t be here. So I’m waiting for my call to testify in support of legislation banning condoms and self-discipline.

Not that this line of thought is very relevant to the issue at hand anyway. No stem-cell researcher I know of aspires to use embryos that are slated for adoption. Rather, the idea—the idea that President Bush is now famously agonizing over—is to use frozen embryos that are slated for destruction. Now, I suppose it’s possible that one of these 140-celled frozen entities could somehow be plucked from the brink of destruction and placed inside a womb. (Maybe the couple that created it, and authorized its disposal, has a literally last-minute change of heart.) But this wouldn’t exactly be an everyday occurrence.

The stem-cell controversy marks a watershed for the “pro-life” forces whose heat Bush is now feeling. In the past, their preference for the label “pro-life” over “anti-abortion” was broadly defensible. They wanted embryos and fetuses that were headed for abortion to instead become full-grown people—and, in the absence of abortion, those embryos and fetuses would have become full-grown people. So the natural result of these “pro-life” policies would indeed be to increase the amount of human life in the world.

But now the “pro-life” position has the opposite drift. In the long run, embryonic stem-cell research would help keep people alive for longer, not to mention improve the quality of their lives. And this research—unlike abortion—can proceed without preventing births that would otherwise occur. So the research ban that “pro-life” activists favor is literally anti-life.

Could we really guarantee that this research wouldn’t bring the destruction of embryos that would otherwise have become full-grown people? Yes. Last week a Virginia fertility clinic announced that it had created embryos for stem-cell research by soliciting eggs and sperm for that purpose—eggs and sperm that, if not for this research mandate, would never have met. And a Massachusetts company said it was trying to create embryonic stem cells via cloning—cloning that, similarly, wouldn’t take place but for the demands of research.

When these techniques are used to make stem cells, the argument that “pro-life” forces are straining to make via this week’s hearings—that stem-cell research could prevent some off-the-shelf embryo from growing up to appear on C-SPAN—isn’t even a logical possibility, much less a plausibility. In this light, it’s odd that these techniques strike many people as creepier than using off-the-shelf embryos. But that’s just more testament to the high ratio of ineffable sentiment to articulable thought in this debate. (OK, I guess you can imagine well-articulated revulsion over these techniques, but I haven’t seen much of it.)

I admit that I’m being a utilitarian here. In calling the purportedly pro-life position anti-life, I’m defining pro-life as “that which on balance leads to a net increase in life.” And of course the “pro-life” forces aren’t making a utilitarian argument to begin with. They’re saying that an embryo is life, so killing it is murder, regardless of the benign effects of using its cells for research.

But even if you grant them their philosophical framework, their stem-cell argument is on shakier ground than their abortion argument. After all, an embryo—or a fetus—that resides in a womb will, if left to its own devices, become an adult human being, thus lending at least some credence to the claim that it was a person all along. An embryo in a petri dish, if left to its own devices, will never become anything other than an embryo in a petri dish. (In that sense, using a condom is closer to murder than embryonic stem-cell research is. A sperm and egg, if left to their own devices, and not separated by an artificial latex wall, would become a full-fledged person, whereas a frozen embryo would not.)

Sen. Orrin Hatch, of all people, has recognized this shakiness in the position of most pro-lifers on the stem-cell debate. He and a few other prominent pro-lifers have commendably and correctly insisted that they can retain their pro-life credentials while favoring embryonic stem-cell research. In essence, their argument is that you need three things to make a person—a sperm, an egg, and a womb—and until you have all three, you don’t have a person. (My friend and fellow Slate scribe William Saletan contends that Hatch is muddled, but. Hatch, by the way, has also recognized the utilitarian sense in which, as I note above, embryonic stem-cell research is pro-life, even if he doesn’t use the word utilitarian.)

So here is the philosophical scorecard: 1) If you grant the “pro-life” forces their nonutilitarian philosophical framework, then their opposition to embryonic stem-cell research is a non sequitur; it is not logically compelled by the premises that their previous policy positions entailed. In other words, one can believe that an embryo residing in a womb is a person without believing that an embryo residing in (and created in) a petri dish is a person. 2) If you instead adopt my philosophical framework and construe the term “pro-life” in utilitarian terms, then the opposition of “pro-lifers” to embryonic stem-cell research is downright self-contradictory—literally anti-life.

Regardless of which philosophical framework you choose, there is no valid cause for the avowedly pro-life Bush to agonize over this decision—unless the agony is political, and not philosophical.