Toward that brave new world

Toward that brave new world

Greenberg, Paul

Most Americans could sympathize with their president last week as he tussled with the weighty question of whether the federal government should support research on stem cells taken from human embryos.

His decision: Yes, to a certain extent.

Measuring his words carefully, George W. Bush might have been outlining the pros and cons of the issue on a yellow legal pad, each balancing the other under the general heading: Science vs. Ethics.

At the end, he had come out at a point just a little closer to Science than where national policy had stood before he made his decision.

The president had come up with a compromise that will doubtless strike many of his countrymen as fair, even cautious: Research will go forward on cell lines already derived from human embryos discarded by fertility clinics, but he would not approve the destruction of more embryos for experimental purposes.

The decision makes sense as a balancing act between Science and Ethics in a world in which we have come to divide the two. Just as we have learned to separate what is practical from idealistic, and Revolutionary Breakthroughs from the unsatisfying wisdom of the past, with all its cautionary tales and Thou Shalt Nots.

Once again we have set out to have, if not the best of both those worlds, then some combination of the two that will not leave us too uneasy. If that was the object, the president’s decision makes perfect sense.

But what if science and ethics, the practical and idealistic, are only different facets of a single, universal moral order that was once well-understood?

Then the president’s well-organized points and counterpoints come across as contrived and artificial, a way of avoiding the basic moral questions involved. And maybe only for a little while. For we all know that, having crossed this line, it will be that much easier to cross the next. Already there is a clamor in the U. S. Senate to finance experiments not just with existing stem cell lines but using embryos still living.

Why did the president choose to back away from his stance during the campaign, which now seems so long ago in terms of this fast-evolving issue? The answer may lie in one rhetorical question he asked about the embryos used in this kind of research: “If they’re going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn’t they be used for the greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?” A very practical question. It’s also a question that transfers the moral onus for destroying human life to others; the rest of us will only benefit by the result. If we the people are to be the beneficiary and accomplice, it will only be after the fact. It is only when we think more deeply than rhetoric, and in a single, life-respecting framework, that the president’s carefully worded arguments turn out to be not so soothing after all.

Once, it seems, we understood such things. Consider the case of the Japanese medical experiments on prisoners of war during the 1940s. No one approved of the inhumanity that was then obvious in such research, but, after all, its subjects were no longer living. And here were the results all neatly filed in the Japanese Army’s archives. Why not take a look? What harm would it do? Great advances might await in those neat, carefully kept records. Why keep Science waiting?

And yet something held us back, some inner revulsion all still shared, some respect for life even when it is past. Those records were set aside unread, unopened, untouched, unused. What a waste. And yet no one at the time thought so. No scientist or priest, politician or ethicist. Because all shared a single value system, deeply rooted from time immemorial, that told them: This work is contaminated. Not in any scientific sense but in a much older, almost instinctive way. It was contaminated by evil, another concept that has grown hazier since that time.

All those ghastly records, even the blank pages, had been rendered unfit for use because they had been produced by a deep disrespect for human life, by an arrogance disguised as Science.

No one, yet, is proposing that we destroy fully developed human life for experimental purposes-condemned prisoners, for example. Even though, “If they’re going to be destroyed anyway, shouldn’t they be used for the greater good, for research that has the potential to save and improve other lives?”

Most of us can still recognize the humanity in our fellow creatures. But we have become so present-bound, so unimaginative, so unscientific, really, that we no longer see the first stage of human development, the stage we and all our ancestors have passed through, as fully human. That some of these same “spare” embryos have been adopted, allowed to develop, and now are healthy children, does not faze us.

Nature herself does not draw artificial boundaries between blastocyst and embryo. There are no clear lines on her map, but we keep inventing unnatural categories like pre-embryo in order to justify our rush to do research on others of our kind. All we need do is persuade ourselves that they are not of our kind.

The president’s presentation last Thursday was clear and precise, the boundaries he established exact and thought-out, but only on paper, not in nature and not within any larger, historically informed ethical order.

Whatever his decision says about research on human embryos, it says something troubling about this president’s leadership. He may turn out to be an adequate president-but a drifting one. Despite his moralistic tone, George W. Bush may prove only another triangulator, always looking for a midpoint on which to balance public policy with public opinion, not unlike his predecessor.

A great president, a Franklin Roosevelt or a Ronald Reagan, does not merely reflect public opinion but shapes it. He does not assess all the political, scientific and ethical pros and cons, weigh them in the balance and make their sum total his policy. Instead he shares an inner, coherent vision with the nation. It may not be a vision people grasp at first, but, listening to him, they come to see it, to share it, be moved and strengthened by it.

This most important of issues was an opportunity for George W. Bush to share such a vision, to be a great leader of a great nation unafraid to act on certain moral principles. Instead he gave us a list of pros and cons, and then split the difference.

But there were reasons for hope in the president’s presentation, too, twinkling like stars in the enveloping murk. One was his emphasis on stem cell research using mature cells that need not be taken from living embryos. This approach has already demonstrated results, and it does not present the same ethical problems.

But the brightest ray of light in this mix was the president’s appointment of Leon Kass, an ethicist actually worthy of the name, to head, yes, still another commission to study the implications of the brave new world now fast upon us.

Professor Kass caught on some time ago to our at first gradual and now rapid slide down this slippery slope, and how it happens. It happens, to quote one of his many observations, this one made years ago, because “the piecemeal formation of public policy tends to grind down large questions of morals into small questions of procedure.” Which is just what is happening again.

Copyright Human Life Foundation, Incorporated Summer 2001

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