Columnists > Judgment Calls

The camel's nose

Today's stem-cell problem originated years ago

Issue: "Trial and terror," Sept. 1, 2001

Imagine snake oil salesmen holding crowds enthralled with loud proclamations and demonstrations-while assiduous associates surreptitiously relieve the rapt observers of the contents of their pockets.

Artful deflection indeed-and the analogy that comes to mind in the wake of President Bush's Aug. 9 stem-cell funding decision, as media and medics alike dissect a pronouncement in a petri dish while a story the size of a pachyderm slips under our noses.

That story would begin with the 1978 production of the first "test tube" baby by British doctors, and the rapid spawning of "in vitro fertilization" thereafter, a procedure that now accounts for 45,000 births in the United States alone.

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So far so good. Scripture does not condemn the fertilizing of a human egg outside the womb for later implantation. The ethical glitch has something to do with the use of freezers to store leftover embryos for ... um ... future use.

Now I know a little something about refrigerator mentality. I have hustled many a leftover bit of meatloaf (which I had no intention of revisiting) into the Frigidaire as an expedient to dodge the unconscionable spectacle of throwing it directly from the dish to the trash can. Two weeks later I discover it marooned on a back shelf where, to my great (and innocent) surprise, it has spoiled, whereupon I may dispose of it in good conscience.

The shelf life of blastocytes in cryostorage is longer, of course-five years to my hamburger's two weeks. But the fate is often the same: a way station to disposal, as the surfeit of embryos which had ensured, in good Darwinian fashion, the survival of the one, are now rendered "redundant." Have we not as a nation perpetrated on ourselves massive ethical self-deception, in which about 100,000 embryos now languish in icy limbo in clinics as their parents conceive, divorce, change their minds, or otherwise allow the five-year window of viability to fritter away? Not murder, we tell ourselves, just a big passive "oops."

To desire a baby is to desire a good thing. So is to desire a husband, or sighted eyes, or a body free of multiple sclerosis, or a Mercedes, for that matter. But in America, where desire tends to mutate into entitlement, and where possibility is destiny, few will countenance nettlesome realities that impinge on their yearnings. Long gone is the notion that the Almighty may withhold (as He pleases, and for the sanctification of men) such endowments as health or wealth or marriage or parenthood. What God, in perverse stinginess, has denied in nature, man himself will supply in the laboratory, whatever the cost or risk or human waste.

In a nation where "presumption of innocence" is the guide in forensic matters, there is evidently no transference to "presumption of human life" in genetic matters. Instead, what we find is that public histrionics over the complexity of genetic or biblical data related to the nature and inception of human life usually dissolves into agnosticism that is taken as permission for autonomous action. Table, for the moment, the applicability of Exodus 21:22-25; Psalm 51:5; 139:13-16; and Jeremiah 1:5. Even if these are not conclusive, the greatest commandment, which needs no fine-toothed exegetical comb to find, is the law of love (Matthew 22:36-40; John 13:34-35; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), which addresses not mere technicalities but motives of the heart: Love is careful. Love always protects. Love gives the benefit of the doubt. Love aims higher than personal desire or legal correctness.

If wise men stumble over the present stem-cell quagmire, is it not because the camel's nose was already under the tent? We look to Mr. Bush to be Solomonic when the baby is already sawn asunder, as it were. For the Rubicon was crossed decades ago, in the quiet and creeping collective assent to the stowing away of superfluous microscopic human beings, while we all looked elsewhere down the river.

The president, apparently a man of conscience, has tried his best with a bad situation, one set in motion years before his watch. Maybe other presidents will arise who are not so scrupulous, who will see no distinction between using destroyed embryos and destroying embryos to use. Where a utilitarian ethic is already in the wind, it will not take much to nudge the policy over the line, and this is the potential flaw in the Aug. 9 decision.

For it may be true enough that the funding of research on wrongly destroyed embryos is not in itself wrong. But where their death is so convenient to our desires in the first place, is it not a bit disingenuous and distasteful to lament them as we exploit them?

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again.


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