Cell Out

Cell Out

Cell Out

How you look at things.
July 12 2001 3:00 AM

Cell Out

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A new camp has emerged in the debate over abortion and fetal tissue. A group of Republicans led by Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, and former Sen. Connie Mack of Florida is lobbying President Bush to support federally funded research on human embryonic stem cells. Right-to-life groups oppose such research on the grounds that the harvesting of these cells kills the embryos, which are left over from in vitro fertilizations. The Hatch-Mack-Smith camp, however, says it's possible to be both "pro-life" and "pro-stem cells." The senators—let's call them pro-pros—are trying to give Bush a rationale for stem-cell research that doesn't entail acceptance of abortion. But if Bush embraces their principles, he'll be what they are: functionally pro-choice. Let's look at those principles.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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1. Personhood is situational. The pro-pros concede that if personhood begins at conception, it's immoral to destroy IVF embryos by taking cells from them. But personhood doesn't begin at conception, they say. It begins when the embryo is implanted in a womb. "To me, a frozen embryo is more akin to a frozen unfertilized egg or frozen sperm than to a fetus naturally developing in the body of a mother," Hatch wrote in a letter he forwarded to Bush last month. In an ABC interview, Hatch flatly declared, "Human life begins in the mother's womb, not in a petri dish or a refrigerator." At a recent hearing, Smith added, "If you have a stem cell in a petri dish and you keep it there for 50 years, you'll end up with a stem cell in a petri dish. And until you place that in a woman, you are not going to create a life."

On this theory, the value of human life, like the value of a house, is determined by location, location, location. Whether it's an egg or an embryo is less important than whether it's in a womb or a freezer. But location, unlike fertilization, is easily reversed. Take the embryo out of the woman, and it ceases to be a person. The pro-pro response to this objection is that you can't take the embryo out, since it's already a person. But if location, not fertilization, is what makes the embryo a person, then doesn't changing its location change its status? You don't have to kill it; you can just put it in a dish or a freezer. That's what happens to eggs in IVF, and the pro-pro senators have no problem with it. Is it OK to do this to an egg but not to an embryo? Why? The only difference is fertilization, which the pro-pros have dismissed as the standard of personhood. Having stipulated that a frozen embryo is more like a frozen egg than like an embryo in the womb, they have no grounds to complain. The adjective trumps the noun.

In his letter, Hatch noted that he "helped lead the effort to outlaw partial birth abortion." He concluded, "I simply cannot equate this offensive abortion practice with the act of disposing of a frozen embryo in the case where the embryo will never complete the journey toward birth." But wait a minute. The first step in partial-birth abortion is induced delivery. If the frozen embryo is a non-person because it "will never complete the journey toward birth," then why isn't the same true of a prematurely delivered five-month fetus? You can't shove the fetus back into the woman. Like the frozen egg or embryo, it's no longer "naturally developing in the body of a mother." In fact, by Hatch's standard, a five-month fetus has less claim to personhood than a frozen embryo does, because whereas the completion of the embryo's "journey toward birth" is unlikely (depending on whether some woman will consent to have it implanted), the completion of the fetus's journey, given current technology, is impossible.

Hatch says his position on stem cells should be accepted as pro-life because his position on partial-birth abortion is pro-life. But the two positions aren't just irreconcilable. They're exact opposites. On the one hand, Hatch proposes to ban the one abortion procedure in which the fetus is removed from the womb intact and then dismembered. Like other advocates of this selective ban, he justifies it precisely on the grounds that the abortion is performed in this sequence. On the other hand, Hatch tells Bush that it's OK to dismember an IVF embryo, since the egg from which that embryo was created has already been removed from and fertilized outside the womb. The criteria are exactly the same—location and sequence—but the position is reversed.

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2. It's OK to dismember an embryo if it's unwanted. According to Hatch, surplus IVF embryos "are going to be thrown away. They are going to be discarded. They're going to be killed, if you will. Why can't we take the pluripotent cells from them and utilize them for the best benefits of mankind?" One of the telling oddities of the stem-cell debate is this constant use of the passive voice. Somebody else will do the killing; all we can do is make the best of it. This is precisely the attitude of resigned relativism that pro-lifers despise in pro-choicers. When pro-choicers say it's acceptable to get an abortion if the baby is unwanted and would die or be abandoned, pro-lifers reply that the baby can and must be given a good home. The pro-life outlook is idealistic: Tragedy isn't inevitable, and instead of watching it, you can do something to avert it. From that point of view, the government should preserve IVF embryos and facilitate their implantation in women who want to adopt them, as 14 House members proposed in a June 28 letter to Bush.

3. Keep embryo dismemberment safe and legal. "Policymakers should also consider another advantage of public funding of stem cell research as opposed to leaving this work beyond the reach of important federal controls," Hatch wrote. "Federal funding will encourage adherence to all of the safeguards outlined above by entities conducting such research even when a particular research project is conducted solely with private dollars." Or, as pro-choicers would put it: If you try to stop abortions, you'll just drive them underground.

4. Embryo dismemberment is pro-life and pro-family because it prolongs lives and helps families. "The most pro-life position would be to help people who suffer from these maladies" that could be cured through stem-cell research, Hatch told the Washington Post. "This is about extending life, facilitating life," he told ABC. Smith took the point further: "Part of being pro-life is helping the living." In his letter to Bush, Hatch added, "It is also worth noting in the pro-family context that stem cell research is of particular interest to pediatricians. … [T]he knowledge gained through biomedical research can be harnessed for critical pro-life, pro-family purposes. When one of our loved ones is stricken by illness, the whole family shares in the suffering."

These flexible interpretations of "pro-life" and "pro-family" aren't original. Pro-choicers commonly argue that abortion is "pro-life" when it helps the living and "pro-family" when it helps a family. In the partial-birth debate, they reason that late-term abortions are pro-life and pro-family because such abortions ensure that women with abnormal pregnancies won't require hysterectomies, and therefore those women will be able to bring other lives into the world and raise families. The catch, of course, is that the "life" that's helped isn't the one that's taken. By this utilitarian logic, the Chinese government's policy of executing prisoners and harvesting their organs for transplant is pro-life. Such lethal utilitarianism is exactly what the right-to-life movement was founded to resist. It's easy to be "pro-life." What's hard is defending the right to life.

5. Embryo dismemberment is the parents' choice. In a Post op-ed two months ago, Mack pointed out that the stem cells sought for research had been "donated with the informed consent of couples." Quoting those words in his letter, Hatch advised Bush, "Senator Mack's views reflect those of many across our country and this perspective must be weighed before you decide." Hatch concluded: "It is significant to point out that no member of the United States Supreme Court has ever taken the position that fetuses, let alone embryos, are constitutionally protected persons. To do so would be to thrust the courts and other governmental institutions into the midst of some of the most private of personal decisions."

It's hard to imagine how anyone who wrote those words could truly believe in an unborn child's right to life. That doesn't mean the pro-pros are insincere about abortion or stem cells. It just means they haven't yet put two and two together. This is how morality changes. An issue troubles your conscience, and you look for ways to revise your thinking on that issue without upsetting your thinking on other issues. But gradually, you come to see that it's all connected. That's the nature of thinking. Eventually, you realize that you've lost faith in what you used to believe. The pro-pros set out to change the president's mind. They'll end up changing their own.