Human Nature

Technical Knockout

The overconfidence of stem-cell liberals.

Last week, I went to a lunch and forum with two prominent thinkers on stem-cell research. It didn’t break any news, but the debate got pretty hot, and it illuminated a lot of what’s going on with this issue, morally and politically. I thought I’d tell you about it.

The lunch and the forum were hosted by the Genetics and Public Policy Center. I’ve heard people on both sides criticize GPPC as too moderate, but I’ve always regarded that criticism as a compliment. The chief combatants were Bill Hurlbut, a conservative member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University. I’ve talked to Hurlbut a lot. I’d never met Zoloth, but I’d been told to look her up, as a representative of Jewish thought, by a priest at a Catholic-sponsored stem-cell forum in Rome.

I’ve always liked Jews and liberals because they tend to prefer questions to answers. But maybe this is why I sometimes find myself leaning the other way on stem cells. On this issue, it’s the liberals who act as though they have the answers, possibly because they have the upper hand. To begin with, they have business on their side, and they swing that ax with all the shame of a clear-cutter. “Oh, my goodness! We can’t have some pharmaceutical company making money. Alas!” the fast-talking Zoloth moaned over lunch in mockery of lefty biotech critics. Zoloth has the polls on her side, too. Her hostess, GPPC director Kathy Hudson, noted that the public not only supports destructive stem-cell research using leftover IVF embryos by a 2-to-1 margin but also is evenly divided on creating embryos for such research.

Hurlbut, quiet and somber, warned the lunch group that research wouldn’t go forward politically until people agreed on a way to get stem cells without destroying embryos, such as his altered nuclear transfer (ANT) proposal. Zoloth immediately shot him down. A lot is going forward, she said: California, Massachusetts, Illinois, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and others are shelling out. She called this an “extraordinary consensus” manifested by a “new federalism” of states funding the research. That’s not consensus, Hurlbut protested. It’s consensus enough for me, said Zoloth. Then we’re going to have to get consensus about what kind of consensus we need, Hurlbut demanded.

I spent a lot of time covering politics before I got into science, and one thing I learned is that anybody who starts pleading for consensus is losing. Also, anybody who invokes the United Nations is losing at the level of real state power. So, when Hurlbut cited a U.N. resolution against cloning, I knew he was in trouble. Zoloth shrugged, in the manner of President Bush blowing off the Security Council, that the U.N. vote wouldn’t mean much in terms of stopping research. I asked Hurlbut what bad things would happen if California and other states plowed ahead before getting consensus instead of after getting it. He spoke of bitterness. He cited a “scathing e-mail” he’d received. But bitterness and scathing e-mails are the weapons of minorities.

Feeling besieged, Hurlbut unraveled. When Zoloth described ANT as a plan to create a “disabled embryo,” he called her language “rude.” Now, I agree that the phrase “disabled embryo” is an inaccurate and politically shrewd way of sabotaging ANT. But a basic rule of politics, not to mention etiquette, is that the first person who calls the other “rude” is the one who looks—and is—rude. Like a TV pro, Zoloth let the insult bounce off her. She explained that in making her argument, she was being historical. “Historical? You’re being hysterical,” Hurlbut snapped. He seemed unconcerned that six of the nine people in the room were women, and that he wasn’t one of them.

Before anyone could fire back, Zoloth, in a gesture of sublime non-hysteria, stepped in to soothe and vouch for him. “I like Bill,” she told them. “I don’t care if you like me or not,” he scoffed. By this point, Matt Lauer would have pulled the plug. But in this room, there was no plug to pull, nothing to hold Hurlbut back, least of all himself. “You’re misrepresenting Judaism,” he told Zoloth, Christian to Jew, when she quoted Jewish theologians. I winced, but Zoloth turned the other cheek. “We’re Jews,” she quipped. “There’s always going to be disagreement.”

After lunch, we walked across the street to the public forum, where the unraveling continued. Hurlbut pleaded for consensus, accused Zoloth of not listening to him, and complained that she wasn’t letting him finish his answers. She smiled back with the serenity of the saved. In TV terms, she was killing him, or at least he was killing himself. I’ve seen Hurlbut do this before, at meetings of the bioethics council and at a congressional hearing. And yet there’s something about him that makes me want to step in on his side. Part of it is that in all the wrong ways, he raises all the right questions. And part of it is that Zoloth and other liberal evangelists for stem-cell research mirror the certainty of the Christian right just a little too well.

There’s something a bit too polished about the way Zoloth deflects unwelcome queries. There are only three interesting moral questions, she announced at the forum, and the moral status of the embryo isn’t one of them. Again, I’ve spent a lot of time covering politics, and this is what political consultants tell candidates to do: If your opponent raises something you don’t want to talk about, brush it off. But it isn’t the way you talk in a humble search for wisdom. Dismissing ANT and other non-destructive ideas for getting stem cells, Zoloth joked that they had the Harriet Miers problem: They were good, but not good enough. The audience laughed. It was a great line. But that’s all it was.

I watched Zoloth, the putative anti-authoritarian, slam door after door with authority. Nobody intends to transfer leftover IVF embryos to a womb; therefore, moral concepts from the abortion debate don’t apply. Science can’t answer religious questions; therefore, science can’t help us solve moral problems. We don’t agree with you that the embryo is inviolable; therefore, you have to agree with us that you won’t impose your values. Many people who object to embryo-destructive research are religious; therefore, objections to such research shouldn’t influence public policy. Embryo-destructive research should be funded; alternative schemes for getting stem cells shouldn’t. Be pluralistic. Do it my way.

Between the lunch and the forum, Zoloth engaged me in a lovely chat. She explained the moral issues she wants to put on table, which are very different from the ones Bush and Hurlbut want to discuss. She’s an egalitarian. Two of the diseases targeted by embryonic stem-cell research—diabetes and spinal cord injuries—are particularly hard on poor people because insulin, wheelchairs, and ventilators are expensive. That’s one reason why she and other liberals have counterattacked critics of the research so fiercely. The other reason, she said, is that freedom of thought means freedom to research.

I’d like to believe that. I’d like to trust Zoloth’s air of authority, just as I’d like to trust the Bible’s or the pope’s. We all want answers. But then you ask a question, and the authority fails you. At lunch, Zoloth said the idea behind ANT—knocking out a gene called Cdx2 to prevent development of an implantable embryo—wouldn’t reliably succeed because gene knockouts produce a range of outcomes. I asked for her evidence that a range of implantation outcomes would occur with Cdx2 deletion. That’s how it works, she assured me. But as I write this, I’m looking at the published report on the ANT experiment. It says “none of the Cdx2[-deleted] nuclear transfer blastocysts formed visible implantation sites (0 out of 40).” There goes my faith.

It’s not that Zoloth deceived me; I’m sure she didn’t. She just thought she knew more than she did. We all do that sometimes. It’s part of being human. That’s why I like to put my faith in questions rather than authority, even when my liberal friends don’t.