(from tothesource.org) It’s no surprise that Americans are confused. The election [may have been] decided by stem cells and cloning, complex scientific issues that most people don’t pretend to understand, and that divide within as well as between the parties.
The press has hardly helped by presenting this as round two of the abortion debate. And the president’s carefully crafted principled compromise, which back in August of 2001 drew the ire of many conservatives who saw it as a sell-out, is being portrayed as an “extremist” pro-life position backed only by the “theology of a few,” in Ron Reagan Jr.’s infamous phrase.
Let’s add to the confusion and share some facts: that George W. Bush is the first president ever to fund embryo research of any kind; that “therapeutic cloning” ﾖ the holy grail of medicine, according to candidate Kerry ﾖ has recently been made a serious criminal offence in such generally liberal countries as Australia, Canada, and France; and that the specifics of the Bush embryo stem-cell funding policy were almost adopted last year as the policy of the European Union, and are exactly mirrored in Germany’s liberalized stem cell law.
And now we have Tom Harkin, Democratic senator who has worked hand-in-hand with Republican Arlen Specter, to undermine Bush’s stem-cell research policy and prevent a cloning ban. Harkin lays out his case with stark clarity. His recent Senate speech deserves to be memorialized in the cheap ethics hall of fame alongside Ron Reagan Jr.’s disingenuous “theology of a few.” As we review it, we need to remember that these guys keep telling us they are “pro-science;” they keep telling us that they are in favor of the truth; and, increasingly, they claim that it is they who are “really” pro-life, since they believe in “cures.”
Harkin’s speech is worth quoting, so we get the full effect. It is one of the most outrageous speeches ever made on the floor of the US Senate, so full of disingenuous, twisted half-truths that it is hard to know where to start. There are decent, honorable, arguments in favor of destroying embryos for stem cell research. They are flawed, as I myself argued when I testified before Senator Harkin’s committee a couple of years ago. But this is not one of those arguments. Instead, we have a mish-mash of ethical garbage that uses language to fudge the truth and bring disgrace to democracy.
Now, there are those who say, well, we can’t destroy these embryos because it’s life. Now this is something I have done before in my committee, and I did it once with Chris Reeve there, and he kind of liked it, so I’ll do it again in his memory. I have here a pen and a blank piece of paper. There. I hold this up, and I ask if anyone can see what I put on that piece of paper. What I’ve just put on that piece of paper is a dot, a little dot. That is the size of the embryos that we’re taking the stem cells from. A dot that you can barely see on a piece of paper. People say, well, that’s life. Of course it’s life. Every cell has life. All my skin cells have life. The cells in my hair follicles have life. Sperm has life. Eggs have life. But they say we can’t destroy these for stem cell research. They equate this little dot that you can barely see with someone like Chris Reeve. This is what we’re taking the stem cells from, that little dot.
Just let that marinate in your mind for a few minutes. Tom Harkin here invokes the memory of a courageous man who has only just died, and “in his memory” parades his cheapest shots. I was present when Christopher Reeve himself testified before the Senate, and while he made the memorably dangerous statement that “the duty of government is to do the greatest good for the greatest number” (a statement that confirmed my view that Reeve was as serious about his ethics as he was na?e), he spoke movingly and with integrity.
Harkin took a different tack. First, he pointed out a fact generally well-known: that human embryos are small. Using a kindergarten technique to make his point, he displayed his embryo-size dot in a grand-standing appeal to the unscientific prejudice of his audience. To suggest that the size of the embryo ﾖ or of any object ﾖ is its most significant aspect implies a thoroughly pre-scientific view of the world. Quite apart from human genetics and embryology, which have ﾖ as every PBS viewer knows ﾖ decoded the extraordinary complexity of the complete and self-organizing being that we know as a human embryo, the Senate recently approved nearly four billion dollars of spending on nanotechnology. For the uninitiated: a nanometer is one billionth of a meter, so there are hundreds of them in a dot on a paper of paper. We are already able to manipulate matter and even build tiny machines on the nanoscale. Of course the embryo is the size of a dot; but what’s in the dot? It’s a human dot. It’s exactly what a human looks like at that stage of development.
I am reminded of a science fiction story about a great civilization under threat that elects to send its brightest and best far away to a distant planet in the hope that they will thrive anew. We read of thousands upon thousands of the most carefully-selected trooping into great space ships and blasting off on their long journey to another solar system. Then the scene switches to a home on planet earth. A man discovers a strange metal ball in his yard, and sees hoards of minute creatures spilling from the ball onto his garden. Instead of seeing it as a spaceship filled with thousands of carefully selected beings just arriving from another planet, he quickly reaches for the insecticide.
Harkin’s second approach goes beyond the disingenuous into the deceptive. He says about the dot that “it’s life.” And then he jumps to the statement that every cell has life, including those in his skin and hair follicles. The early embryo, in other words, has life in the same way as any cell. This statement is of course unscientific. The human “dot” is a particular collection of cells that, given nothing other than a congenial environment and appropriate nutrition, will grow into someone who could be elected to the US Senate. Tom Harkin was once an embryo. He was never an egg cell or a sperm cell, he was never a skin or hair cell, but he was a human dot, and everything he now is has unfolded from that dot-sized member of the human species. A dot-sized member of the human species is already someone’s son or daughter, perhaps someone’s sibling, and if the processes of biological development are not impeded, in due time someone’s spouse and parent. It is in the nature of mammalian reproduction that we spring into existence as tiny genetically-complete beings.
Harkin goes on to locate the “dots” he wants to use for experiments in the freezers of test-tube baby clinics. But the pattern of disingenuity continues. For the “therapeutic cloning” model that people like Harkin are seeking does not depend on “spare” frozen embryos at all. In fact, it requires, specifically, the use of cloning to mass-produce hundreds of millions of embryos, so that individuals can have the hyped-for one-on-one medications, made to measure from the patient’s embryonic twin.
All in all, Harkin’s speech offers a tour de force of disingenuity. And, of course, if you are a Christian, looking forward to the feast of the incarnation, you will know that when Mary conceived in her virgin womb she conceived a dot. God became a dot, for all of us and for our salvation.
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