Looking for intellectual consistency in the stem-cell debate

LOOKING FOR INTELLECTUAL CONSISTENCY IN THE STEM-CELL DEBATE…. A federal court order this week threw a massive curveball at stem-cell research, and it’s going to take some time and effort to sort things out. As you may have heard, the ruling will be appealed and Congress will likely hold some hearings, and Nina Mendelson, a professor of administrative law at the University of Michigan Law School, has some helpful insights into what, exactly, the judge did.

In the meantime, the underlying issue is back in the news, and Michael Kinsley notes some of the key inconsistencies in the position taken by those who insist that embryos are people in need of protection.

Half of all pregnancies end in miscarriages, usually in the first couple of weeks, before a woman even knows that she is pregnant. A miscarriage destroys an embryo. If you believe that every embryo is the moral equivalent of a fully-formed human being, miscarriages are like a perpetual natural disaster like a flood or an earthquake, and you should be urging a massive effort to reduce miscarriages as the best way to save millions of human lives a year. As far as I know, there is no such effort going on in the United States or elsewhere.

But perhaps your concern is not the number of slaughtered embryos, but rather the morality of intentionally killing them or — worse, in your view — intentionally creating and then killing them. In that case, your attention should be directed to fertility clinics, which routinely create multiple embryos for each human baby they wish to produce. They pick and choose among the embryos that seem healthiest, and typically implant several in the hope that one –and not more than one — will survive. Every year tens of thousands of human embryos are created and destroyed (or pointlessly frozen) in the everyday work of fertility clinics. There is no political effort to stop this work. President George W. Bush even praised the work of fertility clinics in his speech announcing the policy that virtually halted stem cell research for eight years. Advanced fertility techniques have brought happiness to thousands of couples who otherwise would probably be childless. They are a godsend that no politician would dare oppose.

Of the tens of thousands of embryos discarded by fertility clinics every year, a few are used for stem cell research. Extracting the stem cells involves destroying the embryos, which would be destroyed anyway.

I’ve long looked for consistency — intellectual, moral, ethical — among opponents of stem-cell research, and I’ve never found any. If someone believes a fertilized egg that has grown to a few dozen cells is a full-fledged human being, deserving of the full protection of the law, then IVF would constitute nightmarish science. Conservatives would be compelled to protest at fertility clinics, and condemn families that try to have babies through the procedure. After all, the IVF process is designed to include discarded embryos.

But no one is making that argument. There’s a high degree of comfort level with discarding embryos at fertility clinics, but intense conservative opposition to medical research involving embryos that offer the promise of life-saving science. I’ve never understood this.