Wednesday, October 27, 2004


Comment: This piece helps me understand what I think I've often found lacking in Kinsley. Will explain when I have time

Life Altering
by Michael Kinsley

Post date: 10.26.04
Issue date: 11.01.04
he one unavoidably admirable thing about the Right to Life movement is the selflessness of its cause. For all the damage it has done to American politics (as the seed of what used to be called the New Right and is now better known as the government of the United States), for all the misery it would create if it got its way, for all the thuggishness of its rhetoric and sometimes its actions, for all the essential wrongness of what it believes and wants to impose on nonbelievers, the organized movement against abortion rights must be given this tip of the hat: Almost uniquely among powerful interest groups, it is dedicated to the interests of someone else. Or, rather, something it believes to be someone else.

Although I have not checked, I suspect there are no fetuses on the board of the National Right-to-Life Committee. Right-to-lifers are the anti-aarp: looking out for innocents at the beginning of life, rather than politicizing geriatric self-obsession near life's end.

The right-to-life cause demands selflessness from others as well. It calls upon fully formed humans, who hold all the controls, to defer to a group that is utterly powerless: fetuses. But, once you decide that humanity--and full human rights--begin at the moment of conception, there isn't much choice, is there?

So the task of the right-to-life movement has been to persuade people that human life begins at conception. And it's not a tough case to make. There is a comforting intuitive logic to it. Any other line you might draw--birth? second trimester? age 18?--raises the question of how you can confer humanity on a being just this side of the line and deny it to a virtually identical one just the other side.

What makes the sale easier, though, is that abortion doesn't fully test the premise that human life and moral equality with every other human life begin at conception. On one side, you have a fetus, several weeks or months along from conception, with perhaps the beginnings of real human characteristics: tiny arms and legs, rudimentary brains. Abortion kills that, whatever it is. On the other side, you have something serious at stake for an indisputable human being, but it is usually something less than life. A woman's right to choose is important, but, if the fetus is a human being, its life is at stake. Obviously, if you accept that, the fetus wins.

he stem-cell controversy is different. On one side is not a fetus some distance along the way to birth, but an embryo just days after conception. You need a microscope to see it. And what you see is a few dozen cells. There is nothing physically human about it--nothing that even resembles the most primitive animal or plant. Any humanity you confer on it must derive from faith, not observation or logic.

This time, human life is at stake on the other side. And not just a single human life, but potentially many if stem-cell research realizes its potential. That is a big if, of course. But it is an if that can be assessed with facts, not one that depends completely on faith. And the facts look good. Especially when you include the fact that stem-cell research uses embryos that are produced but not used in the booming business of in vitro fertilization. Thousands are destroyed or, at best, frozen indefinitely every year. A small fraction of these might be used for medical research. The odds that this research will ultimately save more than one human life for each embryo used are more than favorable.

None of this matters if a microscopic embryo is a human being. We don't grab innocent people off the streets and take their body parts--even if one man's parts could save half a dozen lives. But stem cells frame the issue more starkly than abortion. And more personally. How many people on either side of the abortion debate face the possibility of being in a situation where they might consider an abortion? Some, but not nearly as many as those who face the possibility of getting a disease that stem-cell research might cure.

In short, stem cells make the essential premise of the right-to-life movement a much harder sell. It's a real person like you, or it's many people like you, or it's actually you--versus that microscopic dot. The selflessness required to say, "OK, I'll suffer and die prematurely so that this dot can stay frozen for the next thousand years," is much more dramatic than the mostly theoretical selflessness involved in opposing abortion.

Recognizing this unfortunate constraint, the opponents of stem-cell research have nearly abandoned their principled argument--the one thing that made their cause sympathetic. In California, where the November ballot includes a proposal for the state to spend $3 billion over ten years on stem-cell research, the organized opposition barely mentions the word embryo. The pitch is mostly about side issues, such as whether the referendum language could be interpreted as lowering the standards of informed consent for people who sign up for research experiments.

And, in the national debate about the federal near-ban on embryonic stem-cell research, supporters of the ban harp on the allegedly great promise of stem cells taken from the bone marrow of adults, which are blessedly uncontroversial. As someone who stands to benefit most from early breakthroughs if they happen (I have Parkinson's), I have nothing against spending lots of money on research with adult stem cells. Bring it on. Please. But whatever promise there is in adult stem cells doesn't negate the promise of embryonic ones.

Scientists overwhelmingly believe that embryonic stem cells are more promising, and they rail against Bush's restrictions on research. Opponents of this research ludicrously insist that scientists are ignoring the promise of adult stem cells for political reasons--a hatred of embryos so fanatical that these scientists apparently prefer the pleasure of slaughtering them to the glory of curing terrible diseases. Obviously, it is the research opponents who have let politics cloud their judgment, or simply make them liars, about a question of science. This way, they don't have to ask people point-blank to give up their lives or their hopes of good health for a microscopic dot.

The stem-cell debate inevitably affects the older argument about abortion. Once you decide that a five-day-old embryo maybe isn't as human as you or me, the tempting logical clarity of the absolutist right-to-life position disappears. The slippery slope suddenly slopes the other way. The possibility that human life emerges gradually, like so much in nature, and doesn't turn on instantly like an electric light, doesn't seem so implausible. Does this mean that people are hypocrites? No, it means that people are human.

Michael Kinsley is a contributing editor at TNR.

Click Here For FOUR FREE WEEKS of The New Republic.


True Value
Derrida, Heisenberg, and the 2004 election.
Expert Tease
Stephen Hawking's not the only scientist shooting from the hip.

Closing of the Presidential Mind
Conservatives have long distrusted experts. But, inside the Bush administration, that distrust has grown into a war against scientists, economists, intelligence analysts--and the very idea of objective truth. The case against George W. Bush, the first in an occasional series.
Stem Sell
The stem cell issue is back. And that's bad news for Bush.

Home Politics Books & the Arts
Privacy Policy Contact TNR Subscriber Services
Copyright 2004, The New Republic

No comments: