TCS Daily

Competing Goods, Competing Evils

By Michael Rosen - August 16, 2005 12:00 AM

[Author's note: this is the first in a series of articles exploring and reflecting on several aspects of the Embryonic Stem-Cell Debate from a traditional Jewish perspective]

The debate over embryonic stem-cell research (ESCR) is at least as morally, politically, and scientifically significant for our society as it is controversial. It's a tragedy, then, that so much of the national discussion has become cluttered with name-calling, mischaracterization, and muddled thinking.

Herewith, some of the most egregious examples of people on both sides of the debate talking past each other and my feeble attempts to offer some clarity:

1) The "alternatives" to embryonic stem cells

Many opponents of ESCR rightly observe that other forms of stem-cell research that do not involve the destruction of embryos -- such as adult or umbilical cord blood stem cells -- receive far too little attention when in fact they offer a non-controversial option for combating vicious diseases. Currently, researchers are pursuing adult stem-cell treatments for arthritis and heart disease.

But some wrongly describe adult and other non-embryonic stem-cell research as an alternative to ESCR. Hence, legislation sponsored by Chris Smith (R-NJ) to fund adult and umbilical stem-cell research is the "non-divisive" alternative to the Castle-DeGette bill, currently wending its way through Congress, which promises additional federal funding for embryonic research. But this distinction is misconceived. Simply because embryonic and adult stem-cell research both involve stem-cells does not mean that scientists must, or even can, choose one over the other.

In reality, all forms of stem-cell research are complementary, as each "variety" of stem-cell research has its own strengths and weaknesses. For instance, clinicians have enjoyed decades-long success in treating diseases like leukemia with adult stem cells, while ESCR is still many years away from the treatment phase; on the other hand, it is widely recognized that embryonic stem cells can more easily proliferate and are more "plastic" than adult ones, and could therefore ultimately prove much more versatile in curing illnesses (although this remains a matter of no small controversy). The point is not to exalt or malign either form of research, but to ensure that both embryonic and non-embryonic studies get a fair hearing.

2) Conscientious objection

Second, many ESCR foes argue that, as federal taxpayers, they should not be required to fund research of which they vehemently disapprove. According to this reasoning, when the government uses their tax dollars to pay for the killing of embryos, they have become complicit in an immoral act; this is a form of conscientious objection to the funding of ESCR Some, such as National Review's Kathryn Lopez, have argued that state and private funding of the research obviates the need for federal funding; NR's Jonah Goldberg, in a generally balanced article, concludes with the thought that federal funding "force[s] people who think human life is precious to pay for its destruction."

The sincerity of this argument cannot be doubted, but its logic certainly can: by the same token, opponents of the Iraq war, who believed that their taxes were funding the deaths of innocent Iraqi civilians, could contend with equal justification that they are forced to collude in an immoral act (devout pacifists would have an even stronger claim). For that matter, animal rights activists could well assert that their taxpayer dollars unjustly finance the killing of animals for research purposes.

In all three cases, state action violates the core beliefs of some of the very people who underwrite that action with their own checkbooks. But those who are opposed to the government action have several means at their disposal of escaping this conundrum. They may band together at the ballot box and support politicians who share their views. They may lobby their representatives or loudly (but peacefully) protest their actions. Or they may refuse to pay taxes and bear the consequences.

But it's a bridge too far to say that the state should not be permitted to fund programs that stir opposition, even of the passionately-felt sort; that many people oppose a policy is not a substantive reason to shelve it. Otherwise, a state that permitted its citizens to opt out of funding any action they find objectionable would rapidly unravel. The nature of our representative democracy, happily, prevents such a disaster.

Now, a more sophisticated, if weaker, version of this argument was on display in an interesting post by Ramesh Ponnuru -- a thoughtful opponent of ESCR who, incidentally, eschews the adult-stem-cell-as-alternative trope described above. Citing a moderately pro-ESCR article by Charles Krauthammer -- columnist and member of the President's Council on Bioethics -- Ponnuru contends that conscientious objection might be justified if spending government money were not "necessary." Ponnuru essentially calls for a two-step process in approving government funding of a controversial purpose: first, we must determine if the purpose is legitimate; second, we must discern whether funding that purpose is necessary.

Perhaps this is merely a fallback position for ESCR foes: if we can't ban the research outright, we'll at least prevent the feds from funding it. But there's an underlying sincerity, too: for opponents, the legality of ESC research is morally agonizing enough; complicity in subsidizing it makes it that much more painful. Still, this modified argument reduces to the "necessity" of federal funding of ESCR, a technical and pragmatic debate for another time (or article).

3) "Anti-science zealots"

Third, many embryonic stem-cell enthusiasts wrongly depict conservatives opposed to ESCR, including President Bush, as "anti-science." In most cases, nothing could be further from the truth. It is all too easy to conflate opposition by some devout Christians to embryo destruction with the paranoid disdain for science and progress in general found on the fringes of the far-right (the allegedly religious motivations of the exponents of Intelligent Design theory find their way into the mix as well). "These people," the polemic goes, "care nothing about curing illness or advancing medicine."

But in fact, as even a cursory investigation of the anti-ESCR literature reveals, the vast majority of conservative foes vigorously support all kinds of medical research, including (as described above) adult and cord-blood stem-cell research, as well as embryonic stem-cell research when it can be performed without killing embryos. In fact, several scholars in this camp argue that they are more pro-science than ESCR advocates. In any event, it's at best a gross exaggeration and at worst a hurtful slander to tar opponents of "destructive" embryonic stem-cell research as anti-science zealots.

4) The Bush compromise

Finally, many ESCR proponents tar the President and others as inconsistent or hypocritical in their actions. Some have argued that Bush's August 9, 2001, compromise -- in which the president announced federal funding for all stem cell lines culled from embryos prior to that date, but banned federal money for research on any stem cell derived from embryos destroyed after August 9 -- was an exercise in unprincipled political opportunism.

Others have contended that if the president genuinely opposes ESCR, he should seek to ban it altogether in the United States rather than simply stopping Treasury dollars from flowing toward it. And still others accuse Bush of rank hypocrisy for undermining ESCR but not challenging in-vitro fertilization (IVF) techniques that create so many "spare" embryos in the first place. If conservatives truly believed that these practices were wrong, goes this argument, they would work to outlaw them; that they haven't done so proves that they don't really want to protect innocent life and are sacrificing their deeply-held values on the altar of politics.

But this self-serving line of criticism fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between politics, values, and compromise. To take an absurd but (hopefully) uncontroversial example, imagine Joe Leaf, a state legislator who believes that it's wrong to eat broccoli because the vegetable -- a living being -- is forcibly uprooted from the ground and eaten against its will. Joe also recognizes that the vast majority of the residents of his state enjoy eating broccoli, and that the lobbyists working for the Broccoli Munchers Association have sharp teeth.

If Joe tries to seek an outright ban on broccoli consumption in the legislature, his bill won't even escape the funny pages, let alone make it out of committee. But if Joe pursues a measure proscribing the use of certain fertilizers and growing methods that make life miserable for young broccoli, he might succeed in passing meaningful legislation. Surely, by passing such legislation, he has furthered his deeply-felt belief and it would be foolish and wrong to call him a hypocrite for failing to propose his more radical vision (which, admittedly, would bring him more satisfaction).

So too is it facile and unfair to criticize President Bush, Tom DeLay, and the like for their failure to end ESCR and contemporary IVF altogether. As the liberal-left critics who level these charges freely admit, given public opinion polls, trying to ban embryonic research or the creation of extra embryos for implantation is a fool's errand. If the president and his supporters attempt to shutter IVF clinics or private laboratories practicing ESCR, they will, in the eyes of the public, bring discredit upon their cause.

Instead, as Ponnuru has eloquently argued, Bush has sought to do the most he could with the hand he's been dealt. In Ponnuru's words, "The demand for perfect consistency should not, however, exclude the possibility of political prudence." That Bush has been unable to save the lives of tens of thousands of embryos in no way undermines his success in saving "merely" thousands.

And perhaps it is in recognizing that there are competing goods -- and competing evils -- that we can arrive at some kind of middle ground. This recognition is at the heart of the Jewish approach to the issue, which will be taken up in detail in the next installment.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego.



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