A 'Breakthrough' in the Stem Cell Debate

Just because two sides disagree over the issue of stem-cell research doesn’t mean both arguments should be given equal weight.

You call this a quandary?

“Potentially closing the book on this decade’s definitive medical ethical quandary,” the Daily Beast’s Cheat Sheet reports (crediting the Guardian), “British and Canadian scientists have discovered a way to produce stem cells without destroying an embryo.”

This is good news, to be sure. But let’s be clear: There is NO “medical ethical quandary” involved in the decade-long dispute over stem cells. There is only the appearance of an ethical quandary, created by people who either don’t understand or willfully misrepresent the facts. “Quandary” is a particularly insidious word. Compare it to “controversy.” There is undeniably a controversy about stem cells: two sides, disagreeing strongly. But “quandary” suggests that the controversy is legitimate—that a fair-minded person would have to recognize some degree of merit in both sides of the argument, wherever he or she might ultimately come down. In a “quandary,” there actually are (dread phrase) “no easy answers.”

The anti-abortion forces who have delayed stem-cell research by a decade are not morally serious. If they were, they would be trying to get laws making the work of fertility clinics illegal.

The stem-cell controversy is really about abortion, of course. And abortion is both a controversy and, for most people, a genuine quandary. That quandary usually is defined as, “When does human life begin?” I think a better way to put it is, “When do human rights begin?” That avoids the whole hopeless search for agreement about some mystical moment when humanity is conferred, all of which (conception, birth, “quickening,” sundry trimesters) are equally illogical, and concentrates on a question that can be debated or negotiated with some hope of progress. But many will disagree even with that preliminary assertion, claiming that it’s a setup for the pro-choice answer I prefer. It’s a quandary.

The debate over stem-cell research is different. There is a controversy, but no real quandary. Here is why. Virtually all stem cells used (or that will be used) in medical research come from fertility clinics. Standard operating procedure in fertility clinics is to fertilize and implant multiple eggs in the hope that at least one will survive. For that matter, Mother Nature’s method of producing a human being is not very different in this regard, and also involves fertilizing far more eggs than ever grow into babies.

If you wish to believe that every fertilized egg is a human being with full human rights, that is your privilege. I disagree, which makes it a controversy. If I felt you were serious, we would have a quandary as well. But there’s no quandary because you’re not serious. Your actions are too different from your words. You are doing absolutely nothing about the millions of fertilized eggs that are destroyed naturally every year (in miscarriages so early that the potential mother is not even aware of them), or the thousands that are produced and unused by fertility clinics going about their normal work (which are either discarded or pointlessly frozen in the hope of some miraculous ethical breakthrough).

The anti-abortion forces who have delayed stem-cell research by a decade are not morally serious. If they were, they would be trying to get laws making the work of fertility clinics illegal, not concentrating on the tiny fraction of surplus embryos from those clinics that are going to a worthwhile purpose. They would still be severely mistaken, in my view, but at least that could legitimately be described as an “ethical quandary.” But there is no political pressure against fertility clinics. While abortion clinics are routinely terrorized, fertility clinics advertise on the radio. If you really think that a microscopic embryo is a human being, which kind of clinic kills more human beings every year? It isn’t even close.

What difference does this all make, now that George W. Bush is gone and his ban on federally funded stem-cell research has been eliminated? It makes a big difference. When something is stamped as an “ethical quandary,” people and organizations that wish to avoid controversy stay away. Or they appoint well-meaning but slow-moving commissions to study the issue. Or they split the difference in some silly and irritating way. Whatever, the result is that the promise of stem-cell research is delayed or unrealized.

The essence of today’s report is that scientists have found some incredibly complicated way to create—someday, maybe even soon—a valuable research tool that already exists by the thousands and has for years. Some people think we should have been using it for years, while others say they think using it would be immoral, but can’t give a coherent reason. What a quandary.

Michael Kinsley’s column appears Fridays in the Washington Post. He has Parkinson’s disease, the condition for which stem cells are believed to hold the greatest promise.