Last Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled that there was nothing in federal law that prevents the government from funding embryonic stem cell research. This reversed an earlier ruling that had, for a time, challenged the new Obama administration policy on stem cell research, embodied most fully in a March 2009 executive order and resulting National Institute of Health (NIH) guidelines. This policy reflects a dangerous new understanding of human power and liberty.
According to the new NIH guidelines, the key step to securing federal approval for research on a new stem cell line (derived from "unneeded" embryos produced by in vitro fertilization-would-be "test tube babies") is the "informed consent" of the donors. About one-third of the document is devoted to making informed consent a practical reality. Donors are protected from any influence judged to be improper-there can be no promise of payment or benefits for donating and no special appeals by would-be researchers. All relevant information about the research process and its consequences must be disclosed to the potential donors, and they must be given the opportunity to rescind their consent until the research is actually performed. Nothing, in other words, can be permitted to get in the way of their perfectly free choice.
This new set of guidelines is eminently reasonable, even responsible, from one standpoint: Certainly, the idea of a couple creating human embryos to sell to the highest-bidding scientist is chillingly repulsive, as are high-pressure, utopian presentations by researchers to couples attempting to decide what to do with "their" embryos. But these restrictions do nothing about the real problem: Once the perfect conditions for "informed consent" are achieved, any couple, now regarded by law as the sovereign "creators" of these human beings in the earliest stages of development, is free to turn its progeny into the involuntary subject of a fatal experiment. There is no consent, informed or otherwise, given by the microscopic party in this case-and no limit to the power imposed upon him or her. The real problem, then, is not in the procedure by which parents may dispose of their offspring, but in the fact that parents may dispose of their offspring-and ultimately in the fact that any human being has the arbitrary power of life and death over another.
As a result of this new policy and Friday's court ruling, the federal government stands firmly on one side of an ethical question that is at the heart of republican politics: Are human beings-whether one, a few, or many-able to do as they please with those who depend on them, or are they bound by moral norms that exist beyond anyone's "consent"? Our republic was built upon the latter premise-and its survival depends upon our return to it.
Unfortunately, this will require more than a change of administrations. Since 1992, the Supreme Court's standing definition of liberty affirms the complete autonomy of human beings: "At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State" (quoted from Casey v. Planned Parenthood). Limitations on stem cell research and abortion presuppose the fact that defining the scope of humanity is not one of the legitimate prerogatives of free people. So do stop signs. To whom does the law speak, after all, once the definition of a human being has become infinitely malleable?
The principle that lies beneath the Obama administration's policy set loose by Friday's ruling is simply the right of the stronger to impose its will upon the weaker. Instead of God-established rights for God-created men, we have a self-asserted right for self-created men-which is to say: no real rights at all and no protection against those who would define us out of the human race.
Portions of this column are adapted from Parks and Corbin's Keeping Our Republic: Principles for a Political Reformation.