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.

On Monday, President Obama lifted the ban  on federal funding of stem-cell research using destroyed human embryos. If you support this research, congratulations: You won. Now for your next challenge: Don't lose your soul.

Obama announces the end of the ban on stem-cell research

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The best way to understand this peril is to look at an issue that has become the mirror image of the stem-cell fight. That issue is torture. On Jan. 22, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting interrogation methods used by the Bush administration to extract information from accused terrorists. "We can abide by a rule that says we don't torture, but that we can still effectively obtain the intelligence that we need," the president declared. "We are willing to observe core standards of conduct not just when it's easy, but also when it's hard."

The next day, former Bush aide Karl Rove accused Obama of endangering the country by impeding interrogations of the enemy. "They don't recognize we're in a war," said Rove. "In a war, you do not take tools that are working and stop using them and say we'll get back to you in four months, six months, eight months, a year, and tell you what we're going to do to replace this valuable tool which has helped keep America safe."'

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To most of us, Rove's attack is familiar and infuriating. We believe, as Obama does, that it's possible to save lives without crossing a moral line that might corrupt us. We reject the Bush administration's insistence on using all available methods rather than waiting for scrupulous alternatives. We see how Rove twists Obama's position to hide the moral question and make Obama look obtuse and irresponsible.

The same Bush-Rove tactics are being used today in the stem-cell fight. But they're not coming from the right. They're coming from the left. Proponents of embryo research are insisting that because we're in a life-and-death struggle—in this case, a scientific struggle—anyone who impedes that struggle by renouncing effective tools is irrational and irresponsible. The war on disease is like the war on terror: Either you're with science, or you're against it.

Obama announced his executive order on stem cells in tandem  with a memo authorizing the removal of  "politics" and "ideology" from science. The ban on funding of embryo-destructive research "has no basis in science," according to a White House fact sheet, and the president was lifting it "to remove these limitations on scientific inquiry." Harold Varmus, the co-chairman of Obama's scientific advisory council, told reporters:

We view what happened with stem cell research in the last administration as one manifestation of failure to think carefully about how federal support of science and the use of scientific advice occurs. This is consistent with the president's determination to use sound scientific practice, responsible practice of science and evidence, instead of dogma in developing federal policy.

Research proponents everywhere are parroting this spin. Obama's stem-cell order shows "his commitment to evidence and biomedical hope over his predecessor's ideological distortion of science," says the Center for American Progress. The order will "remove politics from science," says the president of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. It will "keep politics out of science," says the vice president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. It signals that policy will no longer be "driven more by ideology than by facts," says the director of the University of Michigan Center for Stem Cell Biology.

Think about what's being dismissed here as "politics" and "ideology." You don't have to equate embryos with full-grown human beings—I don't—to appreciate the danger of exploiting them. Embryos are the beginnings of people. They're not parts of people. They're the whole thing, in very early form. Harvesting them, whether for research or medicine, is different from harvesting other kinds of cells. It's the difference between using an object and using a subject. How long can we grow this subject  before dismembering it to get useful cells? How far should we strip-mine humanity in order to save it?

If you have trouble taking this question seriously—if you think it's just the hypersensitivity of fetus-lovers—try shifting the context from stem cells to torture. There, the question is: How much ruthless violence should we use to defeat ruthless violence? The paradox and the dilemma are easy to recognize. Creating and destroying embryos to save lives presents a similar, though not equal, dilemma.

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."

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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