Tuesday, July 25, 2006
The Slippery Slope of Embryonic Stem Cell Research
Most of us are familiar with the slippery slope metaphor. The image of a person deciding it’s safe to take only one small step down a slippery slope and then finding there is inadequate traction to travel back up the slope is used by parents and teachers alike to make the point that a short-sighted decision taken today could lead to a series of undesirable choices and consequences in the future.
Unfortunately for the pro-life movement, sixteen pro-life senators were apparently absent from class when this lesson was taught. By voting in favor of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research these sixteen senators took a step off a very steep and slippery slope that could be next to impossible to retake.
How does a pro-life senator conclude that no human embryo should be destroyed while in a mother’s womb, but it’s perfectly OK to destroy human embryos created in a test tube? The rationale was best summarized by Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah who strongly supports the legislation:
"I do not question that an embryo is a living cell. But I do not believe that a frozen embryo in a fertility clinic freezer constitutes human life."
To say that an embryo in a woman’s womb is human life and a human embryo in a freezer is not might seem like a rationale to Sen. Hatch and his colleagues, but it sounds more like a rationalization to me. Either way, it’s a very risky step on the wrong side of the pro-life slope.
First, it undermines the black and white clarity that is the great strength of the anti-abortion argument: Abortion is wrong because it destroys an embryo that is human life. Sen. Hatch and his colleagues have now reversed field and are in agreement with the pro-abortion argument that embryos are not initially human life. The only difference between the Hatch camp and the pro-abortion camp is the point in time when a human embryo should be considered “life enough” to be protected. If an embryo in a test tube is not protected, why then is a one week old embryo in the womb protected? What’s the difference? Not much. Don’t underestimate the significance of this shift in the debate. It substantially weakens the anti-abortion argument.
Second, the Hatch legislation limits testing to only those embryos that were prepared for in vitro fertilization and are now scheduled for disposal. But consider what is sure to happen if embryonic stem cell research leads to effective cures for otherwise incurable diseases. Surely, that is the goal. But our sixteen pro-life senators should be careful of what they wish for. Their wish might come true. And then they have a real problem.
Because it’s certain that the throw-away embryos from in vitro fertilization will not be sufficient in number to cure everyone who needs curing. What then? It should be obvious that the same sixteen senators will not be able to resist legislation that will allow the test tube creation of human embryos for the sole purpose of harvesting stem cells to treat patients. It’s silly to think they are committing to only research today without the surety that if cures are found they will be provided to everyone in need.
I truly sympathize with those who hope that embryonic stem cells will provide a cure for a crippling or life-shortening disease. And I understand how sixteen compassionate pro-life senators decided to support this legislation. But in my opinion compassion blinds both groups to the long term consequences of this decision.
I’m grateful that President Bush vetoed the legislation. It was both a courageous example of standing up for principle and yet another reminder that Mr. Bush’s intellectual capabilities are greatly underrated. Thanks Mr. President for having the wisdom to look beyond the first step of a journey down the wrong side of the slope and the courage to say no.