The reaction to President George W. Bush’s announcement restricting US government funding of embryonic stem-cell research to 60 existing stem cell lines has been widely praised as a suitable compromise with representatives from both sides of the debate-for instance, the National Right to Life Committee and stem-cell research advocates Mary Tyler Moore and Michael J. Fox-congratulating the president on his decision. But is compromise ECSR possible?
Proponents of embryonic stem-cell research say that the embryo has no moral standing and thus has no rights. Opponents say the embryo does have moral standing and thus does have rights. There is no compromise between these two positions – the human embryo is morally significant or not; any position that attempts to compromise between these two polar opposites is guilty of making judgements about the relative value of some lives and accepts a utilitarian view of life that some lives have value only (or largely) to the degree that they help another.
That is the issue. No serious person can deny that what is at the centre of this debate is a human being. We are not, as the novelist and medical doctor Walker Percy once said, living in the Dark Ages anymore and it is not possible to remain agnostic about when life begins. Percy said the beginning of human life is not determined by religious dogma or political preferences, but scientific fact. As he explained in a 1981 essay in the New York Times, life, as “every high-school student” knows, “begins when the chromosomes of the sperm fuse with the chromosomes of the ovum to form a new DNA complex that thenceforth directs the ontogenesis of the organism.” Furthermore, there is a “clear continuum that exists in the life of every individual from the moment of fertilization of a single cell.”
We live in an age of microbiology, so arguments about when life begins are no longer legitimate. Neither wishful thinking nor ideological blinders change the fact that the embryo is a human being. It has been difficult enough to get non pro-lifers to admit that, but indeed many now do. In the context of abortion, for instance, some progress (so to speak) has been made: in the mid-1990s, feminist author Naomi Wolfe wrote a famous essay in the New Republic urging her fellow abortion proponents to admit that what they once referred to as a mere blob of tissue is in fact a human being, with the caveat that it is a person without any rights.
In both abortion and embryo-destructive research, the question is no longer is the embryo or fetus a human being, but does the human being at that stage of development have rights? Does everyone in the human family enjoy the same rights, beginning with the most important, the right to life?
This is not the kind of debate society will want to have. Pro-abortionists and those who support destroying embryos for research do not want their fellow citizens to think about the unborn child, the embryo in the first days of his life, because to all but those who are wilfully blind or woefully ignorant the embryo/fetus is a human being. Thus, to come to conclusions that would continue to allow abortion and such research, society would have to come to a rather callous conclusion: namely that some people (in this case, the unborn child) should not enjoy the same rights as others. This is the ground the U.S. Supreme Court brought our neighbours south of the border to in its 1972 decision Roe v. Wade, in which several justices determined that the unborn child was not “meaningful.”
So now we have a more daunting challenge in the political and moral climate of 2001: to convince the populace not just that the embryo (and, later, the fetus) is a human being, but that it has moral standing and that his right to life should not be violated.
What American pro-lifers never imagined is that they would have to convince an ostensibly pro-life Republican president that the embryo should be accorded legal protection to ensure destructive experiments are not performed upon him.
We join those pro-life leaders in condemning President Bush in his decision and urge him to not only reconsider taxpayer funding of embryonic stem-cell research, but also to prohibit all such research in the U.S.
We also call on the Canadian government to prohibit destructive embryonic stem-cell research, research that is not even necessary considering that adult (somatic) stem-cells seem a promising and ethical alternative.