The Conservative / Liberal Case for Embryonic Stem Cell Research

I Think I Get It Now,” by John Podhoretz, The Corner, 6 August 2005,

I support stem cell research using embryos left over from fertilization…,” by Sophia, Clean Cut Kid, 8 August 2005,

Liberal CCK commentator Sophia abrasively defends embryonic stem cell research from an overbearing “culture of life”

Those embryos and blastocysts are just little gobs of cells for Pete’s sake! They don’t think, talk, plan, experience. They are just little blobs of cells, and those little blobs of cells could make dramatic changes for millions and billions of suffering people.

We don’t have proof that those stem cells will vastly improve quality of life – because we haven’t had the opportunity to do the research. We don’t have proof that they won’t make those wonderful changes either.

Yup, they could be misused. As George Will said in today’s column, we live our lives on a slippery slope of one kind or another.

This “sanctity of life” thing has gone way overboard. When there is a death, even of a real, living, breathing, existing child, there is something to mourn. At a funeral for a five month old, the pastor related the family’s story of how this little boy liked to ride in his stroller, how his hair was growing, etc. What is there to say about an embryo, a blastocyst?

But, but, but it might become. . . Yeah, it might become anything. Or nothing.

Conservative NRO commentator John says almost the exact same thing, echoing the ancient Talmud

But as I’ve been trying to argue, the morality here isn’t as clear-cut as you would like it to be. Perhaps it is for a practicing Catholic, for example, because the doctrine of the church is that all embryo creation outside the womb is a sinful act to begin with. But for a practicing Jew like me, for instance, the moral framework has a different baseline.

The Talmud says any embryo-fetus under the age of 40 days is to be deemed “like water.” That sounds harsh, though I believe its initial intention was to limit the emotional involvement of parents in the very early stages of pregnancy, when something like 25 percent of all fetuses naturally abort.

In any case, the code of ethics outlined in the Old Testament and the Talmud is based in the admonition in Leviticus to “choose life.” In the case of embryonic stem-cell research, an argument can be made that such research does just that.

John concludes his thoughts by criticizing the increasingly empty arguments of the anti-researchers, and sees himself drifting to support federal funding of such research. Increasingly, I agree with John

Now here’s the thing. I am not even ARGUING in favor of embryonic stem-cell research. I find myself in some sympathy with the argument that any such research represents a journey down a potentially treacherous and immoral road. But I have to tell you, if brilliant polemicists like you can’t make better arguments than the ones you’ve been making, you’re helping to lead me toward that slippery slope….And here endeth my disquisitions on this subject. (For now.)


2 thoughts on “The Conservative / Liberal Case for Embryonic Stem Cell Research”

  1. There is a great symmetry in life and no moral status accretes to scale. How many cells are in the clump of meat matter not. I have held in my hands a great big piece of meat with no more ability to do anything than the little clump of cells. I could have let it go and held a funeral but I shouted my wife out of her shock, we got the ambulance there as soon as we could, and I got my mother-in-law back who has returned to work as a CPA and enjoys playing with her grandchildren.

    We took action and the potential to get her back was realized. In that moment when I held her, though, the only thing that was there, in that moment, was potential. She was a piece of meat with a rapidly approaching expiration date, 5 minutes and counting down to terminal brain damage. There was no talking, thinking, acting, planning on her part. I know because I was there.

    So what was “her” moral status at that moment? Was it only sentiment that justified our actions? And if it were as convenient for us as most abortions are, would we have been justified in just letting her die when we could have saved her?

    Drawing a border condition between constitutionally protected human life and non-constitutionally protected human life has all sorts of consequences. It should be done with great care because when you draw lines at the beginning, you draw lines at both the end and with regard to injured individuals throughout life. A line that can be crossed in one direction can be crossed in the other and both crossing conditions need to be moral or the line is drawn in the wrong place.

    So shall we off the senile? Shall we kill the comatose? Shall we kill the embryo? And if you only want to save some and not the other, how do you craft a single rule that serves you in all seasons?

  2. TM,

    The last word from your first sentence, “scale,” jumped out at me. The picture of the embryo I captioned “life?” was not the first image of an embryo I found. This was:

    Eyes, Legs, Head Nose, Fingers, Chin, can all be seen.

    This creature, if scaled to our size, is instantly recognizable as a human being. Perhaps a malformed and sickly human, in need of heroic care, but a human being.

    And if you would know that such a patient, within just a few months would be as beautiful and healthy and fun to be around as:

    what monster would refuse it care? Or hack it to death and suck its remains with a vaccum?


    no matter how many times magnified, does not look like a human being. No arms, no legs, no toes, no fingers, no chin. No heart, no brain, no skin, no eyes.

    No humanity.

    The most effective anti-abortion poem ever written is “Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell

    “From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
    And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
    Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
    I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
    When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”


    The Allied gunner killed by the Germans, the fetus murdered by an abortionist, has humanity. They can fall because they can sense movement, they can hunch because they have body parts, they can be frightened. They can wake if given the right stimuli.

    Even poor women in persistant vegitative states can be frightened, if in an unconscious and unthinking way. In her terrible condition, Terri Schiavo was able to follow light and automatically respond to stimuli. Sometimes, if given the right treatment, these humans can even be healthy again.

    Certainly, fetuses must be terrified as the blade cuts skin. Or if not “terrified,” at least pained and stresed.

    Gunners, fetuses, injured women, have more than potential. They have humanity.

    But a pre-embryo has only potential. No treatment can awaken it, because it cannot possibly be awoken. No stimuli can agitate or terrify it, because there is nothing to sense agitation. It is a collection of self-organizing cells that have potential.

    Only potential.

  3. You should get out more. Peter Singer has a named chair in bioethics at Princeton, in part, because he believes and teaches his students that infanticide is justified to the 6th month post partum. When you say “what monster would refuse it care? Or hack it to death and suck its remains with a vaccum?”, I imagine that you supposed that I would have difficulty in finding such monsters. They attend cocktail parties at bioethicist conventions all over the world.

    Your appeal to care for the child seems, to my eyes, to be one of sentiment. Sentiment is not reliable and, when convenient, most people suppress sentiment for more important goals. The right to life should never, ever, ever depend on sentiment.

    You say that no medical treatment can awaken a pre-embryo. I would say you are wrong. To wake a pre-embryo, one only has to treat it as you would a broken bone. For both conditions, the cure is to wait and this has been the only treatment available as long as humanity has been on the planet.

  4. TM,

    There is no limit to human monsters. We are miniature cosmic Saddam Husseins, filled with desire, reason, and free will, but starved for wisdom or knowledge.

    Apparently, the number of non-monstrous humans can literally be counted on one hand: Enoch, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Mary.

    So of course monsters attend cocktail parties. They also drink, blog, and sleep. We are all monsters.

    That's why limited government — limiting the concentration of domestic force — is so important. We are all dead with the Law, both spiritually and physically. We are not fit to be Lawful rulers and we are not fit to be Lawful subjects.

    We should create laws that we wish would work — we should create laws that do work.

    When you say that my “appeal to care for the child seems … to be one of sentiment,” I think you are criticizing my tactile definition of humanity (ability to sense movement, ability to wake, ability to be terrified, etc). But no other definition is durable. Do you think that a definition of humanity that extends to genetically related colonies of self-organizing self-reproducing cells with “potential” will do anything other than make those who belive it feel good? And delay the enemy a few months? And create a society even further divorced from compassion?

    We can look back on all history and see cultural managing of infanticide — of pentalities that increase with the age of the infant, beginning around the quickening and ending at a year two after birth. Lasting until the 20th century in the United States, that's a durable system.

    Or we can look at the present liberal regime, recognizes all pre-birth infanticides as lawful and some post-birth ones (partial birth abortions).

    Or we can look at the luck of Francoist Spain and Ayatollahan Iran, which saw catastrophic declines in faith after in-Humanly completely criminalizing nearly all infanticides.

    Absolutists stands don't work. They don't recognize human nature. They try to paint a picture of heaven on hearth and merely increase pain.

    A human approach — embracing rule-sets which embrace man's fallen state — can work for very long periods of time. Horrifying crimes are horrifying because the citizen can tactilely imagine himself in the place of the victim. The more the definitions of a crime are extended to include tactilely umempathetic situations, the less horrifying those crimes become.

    As for saying the cure for am embryo is being carried to term — that's like saying the cure for a sperm is to be implanted in an egg. It ignores the absolute metamorphosis needed to achieve the “cure.”

    But both do have potential.

    Thank you for your comment.

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