TCS Daily

Delusions of Moderation

By Ramesh Ponnuru - September 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Elizabeth Whelan and Henry Miller present themselves as the voice of sweet reason on embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) in a recent TCS piece. They reject the hyperbole of both sides of the contentious debate. Unlike some other proponents of expanded federal funding for the research, they concede that Bush has not banned it. They take a moderate view of the potential benefits of the research (and they may be right to say that its opponents are leaning too heavily on the claim that adult stem-cell research is more promising). These are real strengths to their essay, and even someone who disagrees with its conclusions can see it as a good-faith effort to think the matter through. But it is marred by the authors' reliance on misleading numbers, conclusory assertions, and sophistic arguments.

W&M wildly exaggerate the number of embryos that would be available for federal funding if Bush's restrictions were lifted. There are, they say, an "estimated half million unused embryos now relegated to the freezers of fertility clinics and slated for destruction." In the case of these embryos, "the life-and-death decision has been made."

Such assertions have appeared frequently in this debate. They are untrue. A recent study by Arthur Caplan, Andrea Gurmankin, and Dominic Sisti shows that it is rare for fertility clinics simply to discard human embryos. Most of the embryos' parents want them to be kept in storage -- and are often willing to pay high fees to keep them stored -- either because they want to retain the option to have them implanted down the road or because they can't bear to have them destroyed (or both). Although most clinics offer parents the option of donating the embryos for research, only 3 percent of embryos have been donated. Less than 5 percent of the embryos are unclaimed by their parents, and not even all of these are simply destroyed. It is not the case that half a million human embryos are available for research -- unless the government is prepared to override the parents' wishes.

W&M exaggerate public support for their position, too. They cite a poll of how many Catholics think that the president's policy is "questionable" or "wrong." But how many of them know what the president's policy is, and how many of them oppose its permissive rather than its restrictive features? They cite a poll showing that 72 percent of white Catholics "favor" stem-cell research. But that poll did not ask about taxpayer funding of the research, and did not mention that the research destroys human embryos.

The authors criticize Bush for his alleged "arbitrariness and inconsistency." If he were consistent, they say, he would ban ESCR, refuse to fund any of it, and ban fertility clinics from carrying through their imaginary plans to destroy those 500,000 embryos. Since he won't do these things, Bush may as well abandon his funding restrictions.

Supporters of expanded subsidies for ESCR are unduly impressed by this type of argument. From the fact that Bush cannot protect all human embryos it does not follow that he should not try to protect any of them. From the fact that he cannot ban scientists from killing human embryos it does not follow that he should make taxpayers complicit in this injustice. The existence of entrenched evils is not a reason to encourage new, related ones. President Bush is willing to fund research on stem-cell lines taken from embryos before he began subsidizing the research -- and not on lines taken from embryos after he began subsidizing the research -- because he does not want the subsidy to encourage the destruction of embryos. You can agree or disagree with the principle at stake here, but it should not be hard for intelligent people to see the reason for Bush's distinction.

Note also that this kind of argument could easily be flipped around. Whelan has written in support of research cloning, and with Miller she has just argued that research will not go anywhere unless the federal government gets behind it with taxpayer money. So it's reasonable to infer that she supports taxpayer funding for research cloning -- a position that no leading Democrats are willing to support because they know it would be extremely unpopular. It's reasonable for Whelan's opponents to score political points by noting that her principles lead in this direction -- as it is reasonable for W&M to try to score points by noting where ESCR opponents' principles lead them. But it would be absurd for me to suggest that since W&M don't call for immediate federal funding of cloning, they should just give up their whole effort. It is just as absurd for them to say that ESCR opponents should stop trying to do what they can to promote their principles.

W&M object to the "emotive" and "inflammatory" terminology of ESCR opponents. Strong rhetoric is of course to be found on both sides of the debate: When some of Whelan's fellow contributors to a pro-cloning symposium likened cloning opponents to Galileo's persecutors and the theocrats of Iran, they weren't coolly outlining a syllogism. But to say that ESCR "kills" human embryos is the plainest statement of fact. W&M may believe that human embryos do not count as persons, and that killing them is no more morally significant than killing ants. They may believe that it is nobler than killing ants when the killing is done for the purpose of potentially life-saving research. What they cannot deny is that the research they favor causes a living organism to cease to be one. To fail to use the word "kill" and its cognates would be to surrender to squeamishness and euphemism.

The authors' own terminology is frequently question-begging. W&M say we should be concerned about "actual -- not potential -- people." They say this as though it constituted an argument. But very few reflective people argue against killing human embryos because they are "potential" human beings, whatever that would even mean. The vast majority of opponents of ESCR and its funding argue that human embryos are actual human beings. They are human beings in the embryonic stage of development. W&M are assuming what is at issue.

W&M refer throughout to the "wastage" of human embryos and to their going "unused." People who take seriously the notion that human embryos are living human beings with a right not to be killed will see these words as garishly inappropriate. May we all go "unused" in this fashion.

The author is senior editor of National Review. He recently wrote for TCS about Patrick Buchanan.


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