The Clinton administration recently issued a new set of rules permitting federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. A hurricane of illogic ensued from supporters of the decision.
The New York Times noted that pro-life people opposed the guidelines because they consider human embryos, which are destroyed in the course of the stem-cell research, "to be capable of life." Columnist Michael Kinsley opined in his syndicated column that "opposition to stem-cell research is the reductio ad absurdum of the right-to-life argument. A goldfish resembles a human being more than an embryo does. . . . The beginning of human life is not a factual question," Kinsley continued en route to the conclusion that "human life is a label we confer."
Let us begin, so to speak, at the beginning. Nothing that is human was ever anything other than human. Nothing that is not human will ever become human. Logic 101 gets us that far. But those logical truths are confirmed by biology and genetics, which make it pluperfectly clear that from the moment of conception, a distinctive, human identity is formed. Absent natural catastrophe or lethal intervention, the distinctive creature formed at the moment of conception will be, indisputably, a human being. It will not be a goldfish or a golden retriever. A human embryo is not merely "capable of life." It is human life. That tiny organism is not, as the New York Times article had it, "a microscopic clump of cells." It is precisely what a human being looks like at that point in its life. It's precisely what Kinsley looked like at that point in his life. To refuse to acknowledge this is to declare oneself logically impaired, grossly ignorant of genetics and embryology, or both.
Now for the claim that human life is a status that "we confer." That personhood is a status "we confer" was the argument made in the 1920s by German legal scholar Karl Binding and eminent German psychiatrist Alfred Hoche to promote the notion that the state had an obligation to rid itself of those whose lives were "unworthy of life"--the radically handicapped, for instance. That notion of "life unworthy of life" helped set the cultural ground for the Holocaust.
Thomas Jefferson and the founders staked the American claim to independence on the "self-evident" moral truth that the right to life was "inalienable," meaning that it was inherent in the human beings and not a bequest of the state. The logic of the argument that "human life is a label we confer" leads in another direction. It leads down the path of Binding and Hoche.
It is an old, sad reality of the human condition that human beings often have trouble recognizing the humanity of those who look different. The arguments against the humanity of the embryo are particularly odd, however, in that they frequently come from liberals, who once prided themselves on being better at recognizing the humanity of "the other" and broadening the boundaries of the community of common concern and legal protection. No longer, it seems.
The Clinton administration's guidelines are--surprise!--a legal dodge, and a rather clumsy one at that. For the past four years, the annual appropriation for the Department of Health and Human Services has banned the use of federal funds for "research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death." The new guidelines allow federally funded research on embryonic stem cells as long as federally supported researchers did not harvest the stem cells from living embryos themselves but, for example, purchased them from private fertility clinics. It is a legal "solution" that would have commended itself to Pontius Pilate.
The most recent science indicates that effective research, with enormous treatment benefits like those promised from stem-cell research, can be done on adult bone marrow cells or on stem cells obtained from umbilical cords or placentas. Thus the new guidelines are arguably unnecessary.
But they are certainly immoral. And the confusions attendant on the new stem-cell debate are a bleak indicator of the intellectual and moral health of our public life as the biotechnology revolution gets going in earnest.