Sunday, June 24, 2007

Is Respect for Life “Ideology?”

From Jeff Jacoby, discussing President Bush’s veto of a bill that would fund embryonic stem cell research, using cells derived from killing embryos.

Jacoby, he makes clear, differs from Bush on this issue. But he respects the president’s logic.
A human embryo is not just another lab supply or raw material, to be manipulated or destroyed at will. Even in nascent form, human life must be treated with dignity and care. How and under what circumstances embryos can be harvested for their stem cells are not just scientific questions. First they are questions of ethics and morality, and of the values we wish to live by.

Or are they? To judge from the criticism of Bush’s stem cell veto last week, nothing outranks the claims of science, and only a zealot could think otherwise.

“With one pen stroke,” charged Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, “President Bush has ignored hard science, embraced misplaced ideology, and turned his back on the millions who stand to benefit from . . . stem cell research.”

Similarly, Senate majority leader Harry Reid blasted Bush for “putting the politics of his narrow ideology ahead of saving lives.”

So did Senator Hillary Clinton: “This is just one example of how the president puts ideology before science.”

And Senator Barack Obama: “The promise that stem cells hold does not come from any particular ideology; it is the judgment of science, and we deserve a president who will put that judgment first.”

What these statements have in common is their use of “ideology” as a pejorative for the principles and ethical values that have guided Bush’s thinking on the stem cell issue. They treat “science” as an unqualified good, and reproach the White House for letting ethical qualms impede scientific progress. Yet not all science is progress, and not all ethical qualms are impediments.

It is for man to master science, not the other way around. Unfettered scientific investigation isn’t always morally neutral, nor a sufficient end in and of itself. We all want diseases to be cured and lives to be prolonged, but there are ethical limits to how far we can go in acquiring knowledge that may one day save human life. Embryonic stem cell research, as Bush notes, is at the leading edge of a series of moral hazards. It is not blind “ideology” to say so.

“You don’t need religion to tremble at the thought of unrestricted embryo research,” wrote Charles Krauthammer, a physician and former member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, last January. “You simply have to have a healthy respect for the human capacity for doing evil in pursuit of the good. Once we have taken the position of many stem cell research advocates that embryos are discardable tissue with no more intrinsic value than a hangnail or an appendix, then all barriers are down. . . . The slope is very slippery.”

I wouldn’t have vetoed the bill Bush rejected. Nevertheless, I appreciate his effort to block that slippery slope. As science tugs us toward a brave new world of manufactured human life, it is more urgent than ever that moral boundaries not be ignored when biomedical public policy is made.
It’s a bit ironic that proponents of embryonic stem cell research call opposition to their agenda “ideology.” In reality, science has it’s own ideology. That ideology says “if we can do it, we should do it, and moral scruples be damned.”

Science also has its own set of vested interests. There is potentially vast wealth to be made from stem cells, and it’s ironic that the sort of liberals who are happy to bash pharmaceutical companies for their “excess profits” and who want to regulate all kinds of other economic activity are laissez-faire people on this.

But actually, they aren’t laissez-faire people. Nothing in the Bush policy prevents private individuals or corporations from funding stem cell research. These folks want a taxpayer subsidy.

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