You just won the stem-cell war. Don't lose your soul.

Science, technology, and life.
March 9 2009 4:42 PM

Winning Smugly

You just won the stem-cell war. Don't lose your soul.

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At their best, proponents of stem-cell research have turned the question on its head. They have asked pro-lifers: How precious is that little embryo? Precious enough to forswear research that might save the life of a 50-year-old man? Precious enough to give up on a 6-year-old girl? How many people, in the name of life, are you willing to surrender to death?

To most of us, the dilemma is more compelling from this angle. It seems worse to let the girl die for the embryo's sake than to kill the embryo for the girl's sake, particularly since embryos left over from fertility treatments will be discarded or left to die, anyway. But it's still a dilemma. And as technology advances, the dilemmas will become more difficult. Already, researchers are clamoring to extend Obama's policy so they can use federal money to create and destroy customized embryos, not just use the ones left over from fertility treatments.

The danger of seeing the stem-cell war as a contest between science and ideology is that you bury these dilemmas. You forget the moral problem. You start lying to yourself and others about what you're doing. You invent euphemisms like pre-embryo, pre-conception, and clonote. Your ethical lines begin to slide. A few years ago, I went to a forum sponsored by proponents of stem-cell research. One of the speakers, a rabbi, told the audience that under Jewish law, embryos were insignificant until 40 days. I pointed out that if we grew embryos to 40 days, we could get transplantable tissue from them. I asked the rabbi: Would that be OK? He answered: Yes.

If you don't want to end up this way—dead to ethics and drifting wherever science takes you—you have to keep the dilemmas alive. You have to remember that conflicting values are at stake. On this point, Obama has been wiser than his supporters. "Many thoughtful and decent people are conflicted about, or strongly oppose, this research," the president acknowledged  on Monday. "We will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted."

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Several months ago, opponents of embryo-destructive research gathered in Washington to celebrate Eric Cohen's book In the Shadow of Progress, which explores the moral costs of biotechnology. They asked me what I thought of the book. I told them that the book was beautiful and important because it represented the losing side of history. It spoke for values threatened with extinction by the coming triumph of utilitarianism.

They didn't like hearing that. Nobody wants to be a loser. Losing is hard.

But winning is hard, too. In politics, to be a good winner, you have to pick up the banner of your fallen enemy. You have to recognize what he stood for, absorb his truths, and carry them forward. Otherwise, those truths will be lost, and so will you. The stem-cell fight wasn't a fight between ideology and science. It was a fight between 5-day-olds and 50-year-olds. The 50-year-olds won. The question now is what to do with our 5-day-olds, our 5-week-olds, and our increasingly useful parts.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1. The political battlefield over IVF. 2. The myth of Obama's gray hair. 3) Economic stress, creativity, and selling body parts.)

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