Embryos Made Easy

When the man from the Washington Post called the Assistant Secretary to ask whether the Bush administration believes that embryos—microscopic clumps of cells—are human beings, the Assistant Secretary told him not to worry about it. The Post man had discovered an unpublicized change a month ago in the charter of the government’s Human Research Protections Advisory Committee. The charter used to call on the committee to advise health officials “on a broad range of issues” about using people in medical research. As reported in the Post this week, it now calls for a “particular emphasis on … pregnant women, embryos and fetuses.”

The Assistant Secretary said, in essence, it’s only words. The committee can ignore them, and government officials can ignore the committee. The Assistant Secretary said the change was motivated by a special concern for women, and that the word “embryos” was used only because some people use the terms “embryo” and “fetus” interchangeably.

This last bit makes no sense whatsoever and must be a lie. There is no need to say “embryos and fetuses” for the benefit of people who think that the two words mean the same thing. The only reason to say “embryos and fetuses” is to address people who do not think they are the same thing, and to let them know that whatever you are saying applies to both.

It probably is true that this small puddle of verbiage will have no practical effect on government policy. It is just another Bush administration attempt—possibly even reflexive rather than calculated—to have it both ways on a controversial moral issue: Throw a bit of language to a powerful interest within the Republican Party (the religious right) while reassuring everybody else that nothing will come of it.

Pardon me for not being reassured. An assurance that someone can be counted on to violate his own alleged principles seems inherently unreliable. If politicians are going to claim to have principles, citizens are entitled to assume they mean what they say, however unlikely this may be. Does George W. Bush believe that embryos are human beings with full human rights, or does he not? As someone with a direct personal interest in the promise of stem-cell research, which uses discarded embryos from fertilization clinics, I would like a straight answer. So, I imagine, would those who truly believe that every discarded embryo is like a slaughtered infant.

If embryos are to be regarded as human beings, the Advisory Committee’s job is easy: use of embryos violates almost any random paragraph in the government’s human-research guidelines (the stuff about informed consent, for example, or discrimination against vulnerable groups). In fact if embryos are people, such research is morally impossible, along with all in vitro fertilization and many other familiar human activities. If an embryo is a human being, it is protected not just by the civil rights laws but by ordinary criminal laws as well. Should married couples be allowed to engage in a popular practice that routinely leads to the production and destruction of untold numbers of embryos? Well, there goes sex.

President Bush no doubt would find such logic-chopping tedious. A lack of intellectual vanity is one of his more appealing characteristics, though it sometimes smacks of aristocratic complacence. (Thinking is for losers!) He is not disconcerted, or probably even amused, at the thought of his administration defending an impossibly stupid policy premise on the basis of its own stupid impossibility.

But medical research involving embryos is one issue where Bush has posed as a one-man Aspen Institute, bragging Clinton-style about all the books he has read, experts he has consulted, thinking he has done. And he has attempted to portray his incoherent policy as the result of subtle reasoning and moral anguish, rather than confusion and calculation.

In Washington, confusion and calculation are often mistaken for thoughtfulness. The press respects a politician who can’t make up his mind. Huge reputations have been built around the comic premise that if you’re of two minds about everything, you must be pretty brainy. President Bush, it’s true, cannot easily exploit this convention. Widely regarded as having at most one mind, he may find two a hard sell. But on this one he’s been trying: On the one hand, embryos are human beings. On the other hand, I’m only acting on that belief in random symbolic thrusts. Solomonic, eh? Now let’s drop it.

Abortion is a tough question for most people, but the related issue of embryos and medical ethics can be a lot easier. It can be solved without a lot of stagy agonizing, and without trivializing other people’s moral concerns, even ones you may not share. An embryo has no feelings, no self-awareness, nothing that would give anyone a concern about its welfare except for its potential to develop into something we recognize as human. Religion can give you that concern as a matter of faith, but government policy should not be based on this belief any more than on the religious belief of some people that plants have souls.

What bothers people is that there is no clear moment in human development when an embryo becomes a fetus or a fetus becomes a person. The gradual way fetuses take on aspects of real personhood is what makes the second line so controversial. The first line is not nearly so fraught with implications. There is a whole range of reasonable answers that threaten no one’s personhood. Law and morality draw so-called “bright lines” all the time when reality is fuzzier. This one’s easy, if a solution is what you want.

But if you actually solve the problem, you can’t have it both ways. Better to keep agonizing.