*In Louisville, Kentucky, the diabetic with the battery-powered titanium-and-plastic heart was resting after they drained fluid from around the gizmo in his chest.
*In Melbourne, Australia, medical researchers have fertilized a female mouse's egg without benefit of male sperm; you can do this, it seems, by introducing the egg to genetic material from any cell in the body and giving it a jolt of electricity.
*In Norfolk, Virginia, experimenters have just created human embryos, from donated eggs and sperm, for the sole purpose of harvesting stem cells for medical research.
It's the stem cells that are getting most of the moral and ethical debate at the moment. President Bush is considering whether taxpayers' money should be used to fund stem cell research. He is under pressure from both sides. Normally, stem cells for this research come from unneeded frozen embryos at fertility clinics, material that would routinely be discarded. The news from Norfolk was bad timing, since it adds a sinister implication of human life brought into being entirely for the purpose of being cannibalized for parts. Some see only the good in these Faustian quests and manipulations the miracles of healing.
Some see only the evil monstrous possibilities, wicked abuse.
The two possibilities are, in fact, twins the dark and light sides of the Western intellectual quest. You see the twinning in the Faust legend. In the Medieval reading of it, Faust is damned to hell for his pact to obtain supernatural powers of knowledge from the devil an act of human encroachment upon divine prerogatives. But (as Roger Shattuck points out in his splendid book "Forbidden Knowledge"), the Enlightenment gave Faust an opposite reading. The German dramatist G.E. Lessing's Faust, in the mid-eighteenth century, was not damned for his pact with the devil, but, on the contrary, saved, because of his now admirable striving after knowledge.
So when we look at stem cell research and other Faustian intrusions into the divine workmanship, we see, alternately, damnation or salvation in the exercise.
I can see both, simultaneously. The jury is still out. And may always be out. This ambivalence is simply the dualism of the world, the secret of its magnetic fields, its gigantic plus and stupendous minus. We split the atom, and what was the moral meaning of Hiroshima? The lives saved? Or the lives incinerated?
On the evil side, I see Franz Stangl. Stangl was an ordinary Viennese policeman, a church-goer and family man, who, at the time of the Anschluss in 1938, was recruited by the Nazis to work as a "security" officer at a mental institution. He stepped onto the slippery slope when he began to organize humane little euthanasias for the very, very worst, most damaged, vegetable-like, no-quality-of-life-at-all mental cases (turnips, potatoes, a blessing, really, you understand, that they should be put out of their misery). What a slope was there. Stangl ended up as the kommandant of Treblinka, the Nazi death camp, presiding over the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Jews and others. Gitta Sereny wrote a book about Stangl called "Into that Darkness," one of the most important moral lessons of the twentieth century.
The hope of the stem cell manipulators is not destruction, but entirely the reverse saving lives, curing diseases. When they do so blessings, Nobels! My own heart ticks along because doctors at New York Hospital administered gene therapy two and a half years ago.
But we know that the brightest people may achieve wicked results even when they have the best intentions sometimes BECAUSE they have the best intentions. We live in a world where people sell their kidneys and other body parts for transplant. It is not difficult to imagine humans being cloned or otherwise conjured, sometime soon, for the sole purpose of repairing or perfecting the natural-born extended family of Dr. Faust.
We must be very, very careful when we are in the neighborhood of such miracles.