News from the death sciences PDF Print E-mail

By Paul Greenberg
(Printed here with permission from the Los Angeles Times)

There may not be a science of politics, but there certainly is a politics of science. And it may say most about where we are and whether we are tending. Note the debate over the use of living human embryos for experimental purposes. The issues may be complex, but this much is clear: The ethical slope we're on is getting slipperier. And there may be no bottom. The debate arises because the Clinton administration has found away around the congressional ban on using human embryos for research. If the prospect of such research bothers you, then don't think of the subject as a human being in embryo. Or that each of us started out as an embryo - a yet unformed consciousness with all the potential of the species. Lest some dimly remembered reverence for life get in the way of scientific progress. Instead, think of how stem cells could play a role in curing Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, heart disease, diabetes, spinal cord injuries, burns . . . and who knows what else.

If you're squeamish about destroying human life, think of the embryo as only potential life - or not even that, but just a blob. The way we have already accustomed ourselves to thinking of the human fetus since Roe vs. Wade. Note how our national paper of record and moral anesthesia, the New York Times, described what is involved:

"Embryonic stem cells are taken from the embryo at a stage when it is a hollow sphere consisting of a thousand or so cells. Inside the sphere is a blob known as the inner cell mass which contains the stem cells. The cells can form any tissue of the human body except the placenta. . . ."

Yes, just a blob. Nothing may say more about the change in a society's sensibilities than popular journalism. Compare the New York Times's aweless description of the human embryo to how a Reader's Digest condensed book, "Biography of the Unborn," described it half a century ago:

"Life begins for each of us at an unfelt, unknown and unhonored instant when a minute, wriggling sperm plunges headlong into a mature ovum or egg. So extremely small is the single sperm that all the sperm required to produce the next generation in North America could be contained in a pinhead. Yet this quiet ovum, electrified by the entrance of this strange creature, reacts with violent agitation, releasing the man-forming potencies that are inherent in the human egg cell. It is at this moment of fusion of the sperm and ovum (a process called fertilization) that there arises a new individual who contains the potentialities for unnumbered generations of men."

Some blob. But in the span of a single lifetime, we have discovered better uses for the human embryo than inspiring wonder. The piece of work called Man has gone from wondrous to expendable. A profitable trade already has developed in fetal tissue, why not in embryonic stem cells?

The possibilities looming before us are as unlimited as death. Get ready for the initial public offering. It sounds like a money-maker. But wasn't there a federal law in some earlier, archaic time -namely, last week - against the government's using human embryos for experiments in which they are "destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death"? Yes, but what law can't this administration get around? The federal laboratories that will be using the stem cells won't be doing the actual destroying, see? They'll obtain the stem cells from private laboratories. That makes it legal, according to the government's lawyers, who have a talent for making anything legal. The public won't be responsible for these little deaths; we'll only be placing orders for them.

Besides, these embryos are just discards from fertilization clinics. Nobody wants them. They'd be destroyed anyway. Why not put them to use? The legal and ethical possibilities are endless. Think of the uses for condemned convicts, or the old and comatose that nobody wants. They're going to die anyway, aren't they? Why not experiment on them till they do?

The biggest difference between Jonathan Swift's modest proposal for using babies to stem famines and our own era's continuing discovery of uses for the unborn is that the Reverend Mr. Swift was writing satire. Our scientists are eager to get going on this latest possibility in the death sciences. One of them, interviewed at the National Institutes of Health, could hardly contain his enthusiasm. As he told a reporter from the Wall Street Journal: "I very much want to do the experiments. So this afternoon I suppose I'll get on the phone and call people trying to get the cells."

And where there's demand, there will soon be supply. The one set of laws no government can get around are the laws of economics. What we are seeing is the formation of a new national enterprise that could rival the abortion industry. We're assured by the scientists no embryos would ever be deliberately produced for experimental purposes. Right. It would just work out that way. The scientists are doubtless sincere, but their knowledge of economic man may not be on a par with their proficiency at genetics. Legalized abortion was going to be a rare procedure, too, rather than the popular form of birth control it has become - at the rate of a million and more aborted fetuses a year.

Stem cells could also be taken from consenting, mature adults rather than embryos, and no ethical questions would arise. Indeed, such cells have shown greater promise in the lab. The one sophisticated instrument our modern thinkers won't use is Occam's Razor, the philosophic preference for avoiding unnecessary complications. It's so . . . medieval.

Not since the exploits of German science in the earlier part of this century have so many rationalizations been produced for experimenting on human tissue. (Don't think of it as a human being in embryo.) By now the Best People have been recruited in the cause: the president of the United States, the directors of scientific laboratories and all the vice presidents for ethics of our Brave New World Inc. To quote the chairman of the Patients' Coalition for Urgent Research: "It would be very tough for the public to take argument with this rule-making process, which has reached out to ethicists, religious leaders, scientists, patient groups, physicians." Translation: It gets easier and easier to countenance experiments on the unborn now that ethics has been replaced by ethicists.

And if all these sophisticated rationalizations still don't quite convince, then remember that they probably sounded a lot better in the original German. And ignore that still small voice in the back of your mind that keeps whispering: This Is Wrong. Only a few eccentrics may object to this latest Scientific Advance for the Greater Good - like the few of us who still read Walker Percy's essays and letters, including a prophetic letter to the editor he wrote about abortion and where it would one day lead us. Even 30 years ago, the New York Times wouldn't publish that letter. And we've slipped so much farther down the slope since. Now we're about to sanction scientific experiments on the living human embryo. Excuse me, on the blob.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.



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