COLLATERAL DAMAGE

I’ve been wrestling with the issue of stem cell research for the past week, trying to figure out how to write a column about it. The difficult question for me is the ethical issue of embryos which/who can be created for the defensible purpose of fertility but which/who are inevitably accompanied by other ‘unnecessary’ embryos as an ineluctable part of the process. It’s a kind of collateral damage argument. These extra embryos will die anyway: why not put them to good use? It makes me queasy, I have to say, but that’s not an argument. So it helped to read the story in today’s New York Times, in which scientists have actually created human embryos entirely for research purposes. Is that less defensible than the collateral damage approach? Most seem to think it is. I’m not so sure. It seems to me that if you believe that such embryos are not human in any meaningful sense, and that they can therefore be used for research purposes with no ethical conflict, does it really matter what the motives are in creating them? Moreover, if it’s true that designer embryos might be more suitable for research purposes, why should we prefer the inferior ones that are left over from fertility attempts? On the other hand, if these embryos actually are human life, then surely using them for research is unethical, whatever the reason for their existence, or the quality of research they offer. (And why, by the way, is making someone pregnant a better or more ethical goal than saving someone’s life through better research?) If anything, the purer approach of manufacturing micro-humans to experiment on them has at least the quality of honesty. As well as the ability to run a chill down your spine.

FAITH-BASED U-TURN: Thank Heaven the Bush administration has backed down from using government money to discriminate against gays. It still reflects badly on the Bushies, though. Either they were deliberately trying to do this behind Congress’s back; or they have been caught in another p.r. screw-up (like the leaked arsenic regulations) that casts a harsh light on their competence. We don’t need a spin room. But we sure could use someone who can head off policy leaks as obviously damaging as this one.