May 27, 2005

Where the stem cell debate is leading

The LA Times has a good if unnecessarily opaque editorial about Bush's "snowflake baby" photo op. In hauling babies who had been born through embryo adoption into the spotlight and declaring that "there is no such thing as a spare embryo," Bush hoped to change the focus of the stem-cell debate from curing diseases to "look at the cute little babies."

As the father of two much-adored test tubers, I know the smell of a full diaper when I encounter it, and Bush's claim reeks. The Times hit most of the points that immediately occurred to me. First let me say that to the extent that there are people who want to be impregnated with someone else's embryos and other people who want to donate their embryos, that's great. I fully support connecting those people through adoption agencies, Christian or otherwise.

But to say this can become a large scale phenomenon is preposterous. There are some 300,000-500,000 frozen embryos right now. To date, fewer than 150 couples have attempted to adopt any. There's no way there will ever be enough demand to make a serious dent in the storeroom, as there are too many options people are likely to try first.

On the flip side, I bet a lot of people with frozen embryos would be much more comfortable flushing them than giving them up for adoption. Here's how I think of the three we have in cold storage: right now they're potential life in the exact same way that a separate sperm and egg are potential life. Without a pretty serious nudge, they are not and can never become children. Which means that I'd feel no worse about defrosting them (or, better yet, donating them for research) than I would about using birth control. Either way prevents a pregnancy, which right now, I am all about. But implant those embryos in someone else's womb, and all of a sudden my real genetic offspring is in the world, being raised by someone else (probably some fundamentialist Christian) in a life that I can be no part of. That's unacceptable to me, for the same reason I would never give up a child for adoption.

Besides, the three embryos that weren't implanted when we did IVF are the ones that were not as likely to take, which is pretty common. So the embryos that Bush insists are not spares may well be duds when it comes down to it.

Which gets to a really interesting picture that the LAT only sees part of: If you honestly believe that embryos in a petri dish are full human beings -- which Bush certainly implies and many of his backers say explicitly -- putting them up for adoption means moving them from a freezer where they are 100% assured of living forever unless the power goes out to an environment in which they are 80% likely to die. How can that be morally justified?

Answer: it can't. Which is why the logical end of Bush's reasoning is opposition to in vitro fertilization -- just as the Catholic Church has been pushing consistently for 30 years. My first reaction therefore was that Bush made a political miscalculation. After all, there is a small but vocal minority of people who are made queasy by stem-cell research on the ground that it amounts to experimenting with embryos, which even if they may not really be human, still, in this thinking, deserve some level of dignity. But virtually no one in America (Catholics included) opposes IVF even though it means the destruction of many many embryos (as does, I should mention, natural human reproductive cycles). People see that helping infertile couples have kids is an overwhelming good. So Bush is placing himself on the wrong side, right?

My second reaction, though, was that the way this country is backsliding, it's woefully naive to think that even something as seemingly settled as the rightness of IVF is a permanent part of our culture. If the religious right latched on to this, it would be nothing to drive us back to where we were 30 years ago, when the morality of IVF was a subject of intense debate. Bush has set us up to go there, and if we do, it might not be just stem-cell research that comes to an end.

Posted by Daniel Radosh


You'd think that with that many frozen embryos, George might be a little more concerned about global warming.

I agree, a donation program much like organ donation would settle the issue once and for all. If you use the President's philosophy, it seems like donating blood would also be unethical, since blood is some life sustaining force. As long as we aren't creating embryos for this type purpose like the Mass. legislation, I don't have a problem with it. I do find it unethical to create life to destroy life, but that's not what's happening here.

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