Stem Cells and Moral Seriousness

Michael Kinsley, writing in praise of the Obama Administration's inevitable decision to get the government into the business of embryo-killing:

... 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."

.... 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.

Kinsley has made this argument before, and time has not improved it. Pro-lifers are often damned for being uncompromising zealots; here Kinsley is taking a case where the pro-life movement pretty clearly has gone in for compromise - drawing the line at having their tax dollars used for embryo-killing, rather than trying to get the practice banned outright - and damning them for being morally unserious. Heads he wins, tails we lose, I guess.  As should be clear from other examples, at home and abroad, most pro-lifers would like to heavily regulate fertility clinics, and would support efforts to give every embryo a chance at life. (I will pass over his line about miscarriages, which seems to imply that a "serious" pro-life movement would be trying to pass laws against accidental deaths.) But that's not where the national debate is at the moment, to put it mildly, so instead pro-lifers have done what you're supposed to do in a democracy, which is to meet the general public where they are. This doesn't make them insincere; it makes them sensible. (By Kinsley's screwy logic, a supporter of universal health care in a country where half the country's uninsured and there's no chance of passing single-payer would be "morally unserious" if he concentrated his energy on, say, mandating health care for newborns; after all, what about the millions of people who aren't newborns?)

Also, to the extent that pro-lifers do accept the current fertility-clinic culture as a given, I still think there's a worthwhile moral distinction to be drawn between "pointlessly" freezing the embryos left over from an attempt to have children, and just handing them over to be killed. Yes, a frozen embryo will probably be destroyed eventually, and the pro-life gesture involved in freezing it is probably just an empty gesture. But there's still a difference between a situation in which death is probable and a situation where it's inevitable, and I think it's a mistake to efface that line as completely as Kinsley's argument would have us do.

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

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