"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Excuses are running out: amniotic stem cells

It has been known for some time that adult stem cells have proven to be more successful therapeutically than embryonic stem cells. Far more, in fact. The excuse usually given for government funding of research into the latter is that, if only scientists could extract lots more stem cells from embryos, thus killing the embryos, the usefulness of ESC therapy could, and probably would, improve dramatically. Of course, only if you're a utilitarian at heart would you think that such a result would solve the moral problem; but then, most Americans are indeed utilitarians at heart, else we wouldn't have legal abortion. Yet now the usual excuse for embryonic stem-cell research is weakening.

It appears that stem cells gleaned from the amniotic fluid of the placenta have great potential. Since obtaining them involves no killing, the U.S. bishops' pro-life spokesman and the Vatican have acclaimed the new avenue of research. Of course the drumbeat for ESCR remains. Some scientists say that amniotic stem-cells aren't a "one-size-fits-all" shoe, so that there can and must remain a place for ESCR. That allows the political momentum for ESCR, renewed by Speaker of the House and "Catholic" grandmother Nancy Pelosi, to continue. To any objective observer, however, it seems that the excuses for forcing all of us to fund ESCR are starting run out. But the excuse that persists will remain powerful despite its objective weakness.

The momentum for ESCR funding is about the same thing as what motivates much other legislation: butt-covering. Most politicians, including nearly all Democratic ones, don't want to be blamed for the deaths of visible people that, it is thought, could be avoided if only the right laws, with the right funding level, were passed. The same goes for other issues, such as domestic violence. Congress recently renewed the Violence against Women Act, with its considerable price tag and outrageously sexist assumptions, so that it wouldn't have to deal with women who get angry whenever a woman is badly injured or killed by a male significant other. Men of course enjoy no similar protection even under state laws, which are mostly gender-neutral as written but far from gender-neutral as applied. There is no political cost to pretending that male victims of domestic violence don't matter, because the near-universal assumption is that men can "take it" on what is falsely imagined are the rare occasions when such violence occurs. Neither is there any political cost, in most jurisdictions, to pretending that embryos don't matter. With legal abortion, embryos are killed every day so that their mothers' lives won't become as difficult as they would be if they were allowed to develop to term and be born. That is now taken as a constitutional entitlement by the majority of women; one moral excuse given for that legal status quo is that unwanted pre-born children are better off dead. More important, however, is that if efforts to make most abortions illegal ever were to succeed temporarily, an army, mostly of women, would descend on state capitals and even Washington screaming bloody murder about deaths from back-alley abortions. All branches of government know that, which is why, despite considerable and growing pro-life sentiment, abortion will not be substantially limited by law anytime soon. And then there's in vitro fertilization and pre-natal genetic "testing." Because much-desired babies result from using those techniques, most politicians care no more than most parents do that their price includes the destruction of many embryos. And so nothing will be done about such practices, save to find ways of funding them at everybody's expense. Politically, there's far less of a downside to the killing of embryos for the benefit of others than there would be to forbidding it. That, after all, is why it isn't forbidden.

Long-term, the only solution to such problems is spiritual. Respect for the sanctity of life must grow to the point that there's a greater political cost to permitting, even funding, such things than to forbidding or discouraging them. That seems to be happening among young people regarding abortion, and may eventually happen regarding ESCR if present scientific trends continue. But the basic problem is the prevailing assumption that it's up to us to decide, for reasons that seem good to us, who among the most vulnerable should live and who should die. I'm not optimistic that such an assumption of godhood will be overturned. And if it is not, our society will eventually self-destruct from hubris.
blog comments powered by Disqus