Why Pro-Lifers Are Missing the Point

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The abortion wars are on again. No, abortion is not about to be outlawed. There will be no overturning of Roe v. Wade. In America, this battle is fought, peculiarly, not at the center but at the periphery. The new President repeals the former President's directive allowing funding for abortion counseling overseas. He orders a safety review of RU 486, the so-called abortion pill. He then expresses himself on perhaps the most peripheral issue of all: research that relies on fetal tissue. Bush opposes such research, and has asked the Department of Health and Human Services to study whether federal funding for it should be banned. Now, there may be good reason to pause before opening wide the doors to this kind of research--but not for the reasons being advanced by opponents of abortion. The real problem is not where the cells come from, but where they are going.

At immediate issue are "stem cells," cells often taken from the very earliest embryo. Because they are potentially capable of developing into any kind of cell, they may help cure an array of intractable diseases. Pro-life forces find the procedure ethically impermissible, because removing the cells kills the embryo. Moreover, they argue, harvesting this biological treasure will encourage the manufacture of human embryos for precisely this utilitarian purpose.

But their arguments fail. First, stem cells are usually taken from embryos produced for in-vitro fertilization or from aborted fetuses. Both procedures are legal. They produce cells of incalculable value that would otherwise be discarded. Why not derive human benefit from them? Second, the National Institutes of Health guidelines issued last August take away any incentive to abort or otherwise produce embryos just for their useful parts: no payment for embryos and no dedication of embryonic cells for specific recipients (say, for injection into a sick family member). Finally, there is the potential benefit. Because embryonic stem cells can theoretically develop into any cell type in the body, they could cure all kinds of diseases, such as Parkinson's, diabetes and Alzheimer's. Will it work? We can't know without the research.

One can admire pro-lifers for trying to prevent science from turning human embryos into tissue factories. But theirs is a rearguard action. The benefits of such research will soon become apparent. Stem cells are now being injected into monkeys with a Lou Gehrig's-like disease. Human trials will undoubtedly follow. Those resisting this research will find themselves outflanked politically, as the stampede of the incurably sick and their loved ones rolls through Congress demanding research and treatment. The resisters will also find themselves outflanked morally when the amount of human suffering that stem cells might alleviate is weighed against the small risk of increasing the number of embryos that do not see life.

In their desire to keep the embryo inviolable, opponents are missing the main moral issue. The real problem with research that manipulates early embryonic cells--whether derived from fetal tissue or from adult cells rejuvenated through cloning--is not the cells' origin but their destiny. What really ought to give us pause about research that harnesses the fantastic powers of primitive cells to develop into entire organs and even organisms is what monsters we will soon be capable of creating.

In 1998, Massachusetts scientists injected a human nucleus into a cow egg. The resulting embryo, destroyed early, appeared to be producing human protein, but we have no idea what kind of grotesque hybrid entity would come out of such a marriage. Last October, the first primate containing genes from another species--a monkey with a jellyfish gene--was born. Monkeys today. Tomorrow humans.

Just last month Britain legalized embryonic stem-cell research. But it did not stop there. Parliament also permitted "therapeutic" human cloning. That means that you cannot grow your clone in a uterus to produce a copy of yourself, but you can grow it in a test tube to produce organs as spare parts. Anyone who believes that such lines will not be crossed is living on the moon.

The heart of problem is this: It took Nature 3 billion years of evolution to produce cells that have the awesome power to develop autonomously, through staggeringly complex chemical reactions, into anything from a kidney cell to a full thinking human being. We are about to harness that power for crude human purposes.

What will our purposes be? Of course there will be great medical benefits. They will seduce us into forging bravely, recklessly ahead. But just around the corner lies the logical by-product of such research: the hybrid human-animal species, the partly developed human bodies for use as parts, and other grotesqueries as yet unimagined. That is what ought to be giving us pause: not where we took these magnificent cells from but where they are taking us.