A new modest proposal

National | Harvesting embryonic children for their stem cells is evil, even if it would cure Parkinson's disease

Issue: "Interview with Larry King," July 28, 2001

In 1729, when the Irish were crushed by poverty, thanks to the brutal economic policies of their English overlords, Jonathan Swift-the conservative Irish clergyman who became the world's greatest satirist-wrote up A Modest Proposal. In deadpan prose and in a kindly, benevolent style, he suggested that Irish babies be sold for food. That way, he argued, there would be both more food to go around and fewer mouths to feed. Besides, baby skin would make a really soft leather, making possible a new industry that would create jobs and boost the Irish economy.

Swift, the Christian pastor, was lampooning the moral utilitarianism of the Enlightenment, which taught that anything could be morally justified if it were "useful," giving the greatest tangible benefit to the greatest number. Swift showed where this kind of thinking, if pursued logically, would lead. Indeed, his A Modest Proposal did wake up the conscience of a good number of his readers, who realized that no noble social end could possibly justify the consumption of babies, and no moral philosophy that could justify such a thing could possibly be valid.

Today, when English professors teach A Modest Proposal, they often find it hard to make students realize Swift is joking. (Actual response: "Well, I don't completely agree with him, but he does make some really good points.") Thinking about moral issues in utilitarian terms has become so culturally ingrained that many Americans are unable to think in any other terms. If something--no matter how reprehensible--has a positive outcome, it must be OK.

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Now we are facing a similar modest proposal, but it is dead serious. Since the original cells of a fetus can develop into all the organs of a human body, why not use these so-called "stem cells" to regenerate damaged tissue in adults? Doctors could grind up all of that fetal tissue from abortions and unwanted test-tube embryos at the fertility clinics into a really good medicine.

Harvesting embryonic children for their stem cells is little different from Swift's proposal to harvest just-born children for food. But whereas Swift's audience pulled back in revulsion, much of the American public thinks this is a swell idea.

Even many pro-lifers have been taken in by this spurious reasoning: Those extra fertility clinic embryos, conceived in test tubes, the argument goes, are going to be tossed anyway. Why not use them for a good cause? At least this way, they won't have died in vain. To be implanted in the brain of a Parkinson's disease victim would at least turn something bad into something good.

One of the most fundamental moral principles is that the ends do not justify the means. Concentration camps cannot be justified in the name of national unity. Slavery does not become good, even if it helps the local economy. Murder is wrong, even if there is a good reason, such as increasing the murderer's happiness.

Pro-lifers need to realize that legalizing the use of fetuses for stem cells will, in many ways, go far beyond Roe vs. Wade in setting a precedent for the culture of death. Abortion is legal and broadly accepted, but usually with a guilty conscience. Now, the destruction of unborn life is seen as a necessary evil. Stem-cell research turns the destruction of unborn human life into a positive good: Killing these unborn children, the logic goes, can cure Parkinson's disease, generate new organs, and increase the quality of life for untold numbers of the sick and suffering! The abortion proponents--including the formerly ambivalent public--can feel positively righteous about all of the good they are doing.

Another fundamental moral principle in any civilized society is that adults sacrifice themselves for their children--not the other way around. Adults are supposed to provide for, protect, and, if necessary, give their lives to defend their children. They are not supposed to sacrifice children for their own well-being, much less use a baby's tissue to cure the diseases of old age.

In the unscrambling of means and ends, it is evident that pro-abortionists are not advocating stem-cell research because they want to help people with Parkinson's disease. They want to use the issue to legitimize the taking of unborn life. The fact is, embryos and fetuses are not the only source of stem cells. They can be found in an adult patient's own cells. They are present in human fat, of which we have an abundant supply. Research that.

As I was writing this column, the final warning was to be that if we allow stem-cell research from human embryos, and if it turns out to have all of the medical benefits that are touted, the supply from fertility clinics could scarcely meet the demand. The next step would be to mass-produce stem cells, by joining eggs and sperm in thousands, millions of conceptions. Factories could then process them into tons and tons of disease-fighting tissue.


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