Special Report

Compromising Bioethics

The demise of moral scruples always begins with a "debate," as the President’s Council on Bioethics is demonstrating.

By 12.6.04

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In philosophy courses, liberal intellectuals, oozing thoughtful apprehension, used to ask, "If we could guarantee the happiness of the world by torturing and killing just one child, would it be worth it?" They don't ask this question anymore now that the "happiness" of modern life depends upon killing unborn children and treating embryos as scientific fodder. To secure "choice," to cure disease, to satisfy a modern "right to a child" (which means creating thousands upon thousands of frozen embryos through hit-and-miss research during In Vitro fertilization trials), liberals decided that society's pursuit of happiness could begin on the unmarked graves of dead children and laboratory rejects.

"Scientific progress" at this point means the empowerment of the born over the unborn -- one group of humans mistreating the most vulnerable group of humans and congratulating themselves for it. Usually it follows a lot of "agonizing debate," which amounts to a conscience-consoling search for reasons to justify what's already been decided. The demise of moral scruples always begins with a "debate." Should we clone humans? Well, let's debate that for a second -- once you hear that, you know the moral scruple has already been lost. What's debatable is doable.

The President's Council on Bioethics is a creature of this culture of "debate." Consequently, even the "good news" that comes out of it is dubious if not depressing. Take its two new stem cell proposals. This last weekend the Washington Post reported the commission's chairman Leon Kass praising the proposals for providing "an opportunity to get through the political impasse," as if resolving the debate is a greater imperative for the council than defending moral truth and stopping an obviously impious and immoral scientific culture.

One proposal is to treat embryos like "brain-dead accident victims," with scientists harvesting still-usable cells the moment the embryo dies (death in this case is defined as the "irreversible arrest of cell division"); the other proposal is to try and develop pre-embryonic freaks that can somehow generate embryonic stem cells without actually becoming embryos. Both proposals, said chairman Leon Kass, mean that "the partisans of scientific progress and the defenders of the dignity of nascent human life can go forward in partnership without anyone having to violate things they hold dear." Diana Schaub, also on the council, said, "It seems to me almost too good to be true -- that scientific advance would solve a moral dilemma."

A dilemma is defined as a choice between alternatives that are equally undesirable. Adding more undesirable choices doesn't solve a dilemma; it deepens it. One gets the sense that the conservatives on this commission wouldn't be proposing these ideas if the "political impasse" hadn't stimulated such straining. Why, first of all, does the council treat a traditional scruple -- science should not treat embryos as material for manipulation -- as one horn of the dilemma? Once bioethicists treat adherence to traditional morality as just one more undesirable choice among many the debate is over. And why do they assume these novel proposals would arrest a scientific culture that regards human embryos as expendable? The first proposal would expand, not eliminate, the IVF limbo of hundreds of thousands of frozen embryos, since it completely depends on it.

Perhaps under the proposal scientists wouldn't be collecting embryos for destruction. But they would be collecting them to die. They would just wait until they are "organismically dead" to seize the cells. (Though it is hard to believe that scientists who have no moral problems with creating multiple embryos in IVF treatments would be so deferential in waiting for them to die.) Were we serious about treating embryos with respect, we would try to save the frozen embryos that do exist and stop scientists from creating new ones. Moving reproduction from marriage to science tore the door off the dignity of embryonic life. The first proposal would guarantee that it's never repaired.

What about the second proposal? The commission stressed that the second proposal -- forming freaks of nature through "altered nuclear transfer," what commission member James Q. Wilson calls a "weed," what Leon Kass calls a "reengineered entity," and what commission member Paul McHugh calls a "weird genetic hybrid" -- would not compromise the dignity of nascent human life. No embryo would exist, goes the reasoning, so no embryo would have any dignity to be violated.

But does that answer all moral questions? Forming reengineered entities is playing God without the wisdom of God, a certain way to lose a sense of one's own dignity. The commission seemed to say, no embryo, no indignity. The commission never considered the question of its own dignity. Science can not only degrade the dignity of its subjects. It can also degrade the dignity of scientists and the culture supporting them. If modern man must commit freakish acts to achieve a "normal" life, what dignity is left by the end of it?

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author of No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.