the absurd observers

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Andrew Sullivan Defends Bush's Stem Cell Policy


In my view, he's right to veto federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. There is a very clear principle here: do you take life to save lives? My conviction is that you don't, and that the human life in embryonic form is still human life. The idea of cloning embryos to experiment on them is morally repugnant; equally, using left-over, frozen embryos for the same purpose is using human beings as means, not ends. If that isn't a clear, moral line, then I don't know what is. My own religious faith in the dignity of human life is not necessary to support this argument, whatever the NYT says. We're all humans; whatever we believe about our origins or destiny, we can all agree that each of us deserves to be treated as ends in ourselves, not material for others' benefit. If we cede that principle, then we will slide (and have already slid) toward hideous forms of eugenics. Now I know many people disagree. But the pragmatic arguments they deploy - these embryos will be destroyed or kept in limbo anyway, they're teensy-weensy - don't circumvent the deeper moral issue. The only logical justification is an entirely utilitarian one, in which the use of "lesser" humans for the benefit of more developed ones is justified. But this begs an important question: in our society, there is no fundamental moral consensus any more, especially on contentious issues like these. Under those circumstances, it seems to me that the government should remain as neutral as possible between moral claims. The NYT interprets neutrality as funding embryonic stem cell research. That's a funny form of neutrality. In this case, the president has carved out a policy that is, indeed, about as neutral as it could be. If the private sector wants to pursue this course, it can; if individual states want to, ditto. But no American taxpayer should be required to fund from her own dollars what she regards as a moral outrage. Keep the feds out of it. Let the states and private sector do as they will.

While usually I respect Andrew Sullivan's intellectual honesty, in this instance he is disingenuous. He assumes that embryos are humans and therefore labels proponents of stem cell research as utilitarians. While any moral intervention that saves lives can theoretically be labeled utilitarian, this label falsely presumes a moral calculus that disregards individual rights in favor of the group good. Yet if one rejects Sullivan's assumption that embryos are humans, then there are no such rights that are being violated by stem cell research. The choice is between allowing real people to die and intervening to save their lives. It is perfectly proper for the government to intervene to save the lives of its citizens. In fact there is no more compelling role for government to play.

Rejecting that embryos are human is hardly a radical position. That they one day can become human is not the same thing as them being human. They do not yet have cognition and as such, they lack the capacity to have subjective experiences - an essential aspect of humanity.

That some might label embryos human beings does not mean that the government ought to remain neutral about the issue. It is simply impoossible to conduct public policy if the subjective beliefs of crazed religious zealots must be respected. Many of those who stand against funding stem cell research also protested government funding of AIDS research and prevention on the grounds that this too was immoral. Theoretically they did not have to be religious to hold this view. I wonder whether Sullivan would say goverment should remain neutral on that too.


  • Bravo Seth. I agree with every point you make 100%

    By Blogger CB, at 7:02 AM  

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