Kinsley and Stem Cells, Revisited

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Michael Kinsley was kind enough to respond to this post, in which I objected to his suggestion that pro-lifers who oppose embryo-destructive research don't mean what they say, because if they did they'd want to forbid embryo destruction in fertility clinics as well. He writes:


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.

Well, sure. But policy choices aren't always a zero-sum game. In the case of the Iraq War, if the government didn't organize an invasion (using the anti-war minority's money to pay for it), it wasn't going to happen: Halliburton and the Blackwater Group weren't about to step up the plate with a private-sector alternative. But research on embryonic stem cell research could happen in the absence of government involvement, and indeed it has - thanks to my own alma mater, among other institutions.

This doesn't make a half-a-loaf compromise, in which the research is allowed but left unfunded, something that Michael Kinsley has to accept. He has every right to seek the coercion of his pro-life antagonists and the use of their tax dollars for the research that he favors; such coercion, as he says, is a normal feature of democratic life. But the fact that he prefers to seek the full loaf doesn't mean that a compromise isn't possible, or that pro-lifers, conscious of the unfavorable landscape in which they're operating, shouldn't be agitating in its favor. After all, some of the pro-life movement's bigger successes, post-Roe, have involved eliminating or reducing public funding for abortion, even as the procedure itself has remained legal and widely practiced. Fighting against government funding for stem-cell research is the equivalent of the Hyde Amendment approach to government funding for abortion: It may not work, but that doesn't mean it doesn't make political sense.

Kinsley goes on:

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.

Actually, as Larison notes, Bush's speech came in for quite a bit of criticism from pro-lifers, many of whom eventually came around to defending it because it was clear from the political landscape that this was the best they could hope for. And is it really the case that with every new controversy and debate (and the stem-cell debate was very much a new one for pro-lifers in 2001), the thing to do is "play up your maximalist position as much as possible" before proposing compromises?

I think not. The maximalist pro-life stance - a Human Life Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would constrain fertility clinics and abortion doctors alike - is already embedded in the GOP platform, and I can introduce Kinsley to plenty of pro-life groups that spend a lot of energy on whole-loaf campaigns, from the sponsors of Colorado's "personhood" amendment to the "Pill Kills" folks at the American Life League. But most pro-life successes, as I've noted before, involve incrementalism and compromise. If you're a pro-life group working on a partial-birth abortion ban, does it really make sense to kick off your campaign with an extended restatement of their opposition to abortion at every stage of pregnancy? If you're trying to pass a parental-consent law, do you really want to start out by proposing that abortion be banned outright for teenagers, and only work your way around gradually to the provision you actually hope might pass? Most Americans already know that the pro-life movement has a maximalist view of what abortion law should be, I think, which means that restating your maximalism at every opportunity isn't a savvy approach to negotiation - it's a good way to get people to tune you out.

What's more, politics is all about doing your best with the opportunities that present themselves. Kinsley's right that once you get beyond the funding question, there's no necessary reason for pro-lifers to focus more energy on embryo-destroying research than on the general embryo destruction that goes on in fertility clinics. (Though research on embryos created expressly for that purpose is another matter.) But the debate centered around research, rather than fertility clinics, during the Bush years in large part because the government's policy toward funding such research was on the table for review in 2001, creating an opportunity to nudge policy in a slightly more pro-life direction. No such opportunity, so far as I can tell, presented itself where fertility clinics were concerned - or at least, it hadn't until the public outrage surrounding the "Octomom" prompted some pro-lifers to see an opportunity to enact restriction on fertility clinics.

Which was, of course, the point of mentioning "some law in Italy" (as Kinsley puts it). The law in question, passed a while back amid Octomom-style outrage over Italy's freewheeling fertility clinics, is exactly the sort of restriction that Kinsley claims American pro-lifers don't really support, fearful hypocrites that they are. Maybe he's right: Maybe Italian pro-lifers are just more serious and consistent than their American counterparts. (Catholics do tend to be more rigorous in their opposition to killing embryos than, say, Mormons - hence Orrin Hatch's support for stem-cell research, for instance.) But it seems more likely that the Italian pro-lifers are just making the most of a more favorable political environment for clinic regulation than exists in the United States - and that if the American pro-life movement were suddenly transplanted to the Italian environment, its leaders wouldn't be shy about taking up the fertility-clinic issue.

Kinsley concludes by suggesting that he's harping on fertility clinics for essentially tactical reasons: He thinks that the "fertility-anomaly hasn't even occurred to most pro-lifers," and "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." Speaking for all the "unreasonable" pro-lifers out there, I don't think this is a crazy view of the overall political dynamic. Just as lots of people who call themselves pro-choice blanch, for intuitive reasons, at abortions that take place after the first trimester, some Americans who oppose abortion don't really mind the destruction of embryos, and would look askance at a pro-life movement that sought to regulate fertility clinics. But there's a difference between this claim and Kinsley's initial one, which is that the people who are deeply involved in these debates don't understand their premises, and don't really mean what they say. I can assure him that we do. The attempt to apply one's principles pragmatically, and with an eye toward the art of the politically possible, isn't evidence that those principles don't exist.

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Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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