03.16.09

New York Times' New Columnist Is Full of It

Ross Douthat, the conservative pundit, was just named a columnist at the New York Times op-ed page. Now, if only he'd listen to the point about stem cells and IVF.

Congratulations to Ross Douthat for inheriting the Bill Kristol Chair in token conservatism at the New York Times. Kristol’s problem was that, despite his sterling intellectual heritage, he turned out to be more of an apparatchik (or, to be generous, a political strategist) than a thinker. That will not be a problem with Douthat, who is the first blogger to break into the upper reaches of the traditional commentariat.

The day before his appointment was announced, Douthat took an extended and somewhat sneery poke at me for a piece in the Beast about the stem-cells controversy. Since he’s going to be so important, and because the subject is close to my heart (I have Parkinson’s), I want to reply.

My argument was that opponents of stem-cell research, who set back that research by eight years under the second President Bush (and even now have research funders cowed and cautious) aren’t morally serious. Why? Because they obsess about embryos used in stem-cell research while ignoring the vastly greater number of embryos created and destroyed in the everyday operation of fertility clinics.

My own suspicion is that this fertility clinic anomaly hasn’t even occurred to most pro-lifers.

Douthat’s reply was that (a) opponents of stem-cell research do indeed oppose the creation and destruction of all embryos in fertility clinics, and not just the ones that are used for scientific research; but (b) accepting fertility clinics as a given is a compromise with reality, and stem-cell opponents deserve congratulations for playing democracy according to the rules; and (c) in particular, they were, and are, simply asking not to be coerced through the tax system into having their dollars spent in a way they find morally repugnant.

Let’s start with (c). Although it’s rarely put this way, coercion—especially financial coercion—is at the heart of any political system, including democracy. Almost the whole point of politics is to decide what money is spent communally, and how. Obviously the system can’t work if everyone gets to withhold tax dollars from projects they disapprove of. I and many others, for example, would have preferred to not to have our tax dollars go to finance the Iraq war. I’m sure Ross Douthat would have had no problem seeing why that wouldn’t work.

Furthermore, President W. Bush’s research ban didn’t simply prevent the dollars of those with moral objections from going to stem-cell research. It prevented everybody’s tax dollars from being spent that way, including those of the majority who favored federal funding of this research. And Bush’s restrictions were as full of complex furbelows as the kosher dietary laws—requiring separate laboratories for this and that—all consciously intended to make all stem-cell research, not just federally funded research, as difficult as possible.

If it was a tactical compromise to make an issue of stem-cell research while ignoring the vast majority of surplus embryos produced in fertility clinics that are simply destroyed, this compromise was a mighty strange one. Ordinarily, if you intend to compromise, you start by playing up your maximalist position as much as possible, emphasizing how strongly you feel and how difficult it will be to accept half a loaf. Then you compromise. In this case, though, Douthat can only point to a couple of columns by Will Saletan in Slate—one about the octuplets controversy and the other about some law in Italy—to support his contention that pro-lifers “would like to heavily regulate fertility clinics.” Maybe they would, but this has played absolutely no part in the stem-cell debate. In Bush’s original speech announcing his stem-cell research restrictions eight years ago (now praised by conservatives as a masterpiece of moral reasoning the way liberals praise President Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia) Bush actually praised the work of fertility clinics, claiming—correctly—that in-vitro fertilization has brought happiness to many.

Furthermore, if you’re going to draw a line to facilitate compromise, the line between embryos used for research and embryos simply destroyed is an odd one to draw—at least if your intention is to ban the research but allow the pointless destruction to continue. Why not the other way around? Also, while stem-cell research involves the destruction of embryos, IVF involves the purposeful creation of embryos with the certain knowledge that many or most of them will be destroyed. Once again, it’s an odd compromise that saves the former by preventing scientific research while allowing the latter much larger and pointless slaughter to continue unmolested.

My own suspicion is that this fertility-clinic anomaly hasn’t even occurred to most pro-lifers. And I think, or hope, that when they realize that their logic in opposing stem-cell research would condemn all IVF as well, it will give many reasonable pro-lifers pause—maybe even about their pro-life position in general, certainly about their opposition to stem-cell research. That’s why I keep harping on this analogy. And that is why the leaders of the pro-life movement keep avoiding it.

Michael Kinsley is a columnist for the Washington Post.