Ask the average person, “What do you think of embryonic stem cell research?” He may answer with certainty and a profound conviction that what he is saying is most obvious: “Look, anything that can cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or diabetes is incredibly good. Yes, I know that there’s some controversy – you’re not going to try to tell me those embryonic cells are babies. I saw a picture of a three-day-old embryo on the tip of a pin, you know, magnified about 1,000 times. It was really just a small clump of cells. It’s almost ridiculous that people could say that it’s a baby. Besides, they’re going to be flushed down the drain, like they did at that fertility clinic in England. At least with embryonic stem cell research, they won’t be wasted and they’ll be put to good use.”
These statements, nowhere near as rhetorically sophisticated as those that have been flooding the media as of late, sum up much of what the public believes on ESCR.
As our ‘average person’ says: “Isn’t this just a simple case of doing that which is good? The end, curing, is good. Certainly, the ends justify the means in this case. I mean, really, isn’t this about saving millions of lives? This research must go ahead.” And so, our average man gets partially drunk on his own rhetoric and the issue takes on all sorts of emotional overtones.
Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is what much of the media is about these days. It would be somewhat naïve now, given the subjective turn the media took decades ago, to expect it to do anything else but to persuade us that ESCR is good or that it is not good.
Can it both be good and not good at the same time? That is akin to asking if two plus two can equal both three and four because different people have different views. Perhaps it now makes more sense to ask why objective truth does not seem to be the aim of much of the media.
Let us ponder and reflect on the word “research.” Think of all the positive connotations this word has. Connect the word to science and you have quasi-religious sentiments unconsciously pouring forth from the majority of readers. In an age of scientism or scientific determinism (science, not natural law or revelation, determines all truth), any kind of research must be good. Science is pure and has no agenda, some say. Right.
The verb ‘cure,’ used so passionately by the average person and advocates of ESCR, is so weighty in a society that is inundated with media stories about sickness and disease. In the 1970s, the cure-for-cancer frenzy made it to the covers of Time and Newsweek. It was no longer just a matter of time, it was perhaps next month, or at least early next year.
Then there was AIDS. By the mid-90s, the cure was also just around the corner. My own students assured me that there already was a cure. When they were told by a microbiologist specializing in infectious diseases that HIV was a virus like the common cold and that a cure was unlikely for either, they protested as if this objective information was subjective rhetoric.
There seems to be a mindset amongst several generations now that suggests there are no boundaries for science. This word ‘cure’ holds for those generations a god-like power that perhaps the majority of people have put their faith in. Those who would hold back scientific research are the enemy, akin to the heretic. Since society no longer burns them at the stake, we can do it in the media (see Newsweek’s July 9, 2001 cover story entitled “The stem cell wars,” subtitled “Embryo research vs. pro-life politics”).
As we hone in on the word ‘anything,’ our average person wants to back away just a little. “Well, anything that doesn’t harm humans¼okay, and animals and the environment.”
Our average person would protect a baby seal or whale. If it’s a mosquito, fruit fly or living bacteria he would kill it and use it in research. This ‘sizeism’ (discrimination by size) is a game often played by animal activists. Now we are seeing this same discrimination used by our average person who relies on his senses – if it doesn’t look human, it is not human. Some of our scientists are practising another form of discrimination (developmental discrimination, as if a toddler is more of a human being than a six-month-old fetus).
‘Anything’ is perhaps the key word here: “Anything that doesn’t harm humans …” This is precisely the point. The whole issue is not about stem cell research, as the misleading cover story of Newsweek would have us believe. It is about human beings.
Let us clarify the situation. Some scientists are claiming the pluripotency of embryonic stem cells is superior to other sources of stem cells (although such a claim is becoming more dubious as the weeks go by and new discoveries are made). Therefore, they want the scientific freedom to research all kinds of stem cells. The ‘use’ (ponder this word) of these embryos requires their destruction. The killing of human beings is not tolerated in our societies … unless, euphemistically, we can refer to them as ’embryonic stem cells’ or ‘blastocysts,’ or we can dehumanize them by setting up developmental milestones (often referred to as ageism) before they attain any rights as persons.
According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, there are approximately 30,000 human embryos, or about 65 embryonic stem cell lines, available. Before the focus on ESCR, some IVF clinics were dumping or allowing human embryos to thaw. Then in 1998, a market for this ‘material’ developed. Many scientists made, and still make, the claim that embryonic stem cells have the greatest potential for pluripotency, and so human embryos became a hot commodity (ponder that phrase).
Once the door is opened to allowing living human embryos to be used as a commodity, where and how will it be closed? Now there is a fervent desire among many scientists to clone these stem cell lines so that there will be an abundant and never-ending supply. Where and how can this utilitarian utilization of humans stop?