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On moral imagination and fear.

"Stem-cell research is typically done by using frozen embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. If these embryos were placed in the womb, they might eventually implant, become a fetus, then a child. Unused, they are the earliest undifferentiated collection of cells made by the joining of the egg and sperm, no larger than the period at the end of this sentence."

Anna Quindlen, "A New Look, An Old Battle." April 9 Newsweek

Whatever else we can say about the ethically benighted effort to cull stem cells from human embryos, we know that proponents are absolutely captivated by their alleged "potential." What supposedly can be done resembles alchemy, only better.

Turn lead into gold? Child's play. Soak these cells extracted from "surplus" embryos left over at fertility clinics in the right biochemical elixir, and presto, chango, scientists can supposedly transform them into a slew of tissue types which can be used to remedy, or even cure, any number of devastating neurological diseases. That a tiny human being is killed in the process pales in comparison, we're told, to all the "good" that can be done.

However, the reigning orthodoxy - - that the best, if not sole, source for these gifted and talented cells are human embryos and fetuses - - has come under all-out siege. In the past couple of years further investigation has discovered that the adult body is replete with stem cells, including (I kid you not) from human fat! There are lots of other sources, including cells teased out of placentas.

Not that this will ever dissuade the true believers. Take Anna Quindlen's April 9 Newsweek column. In "A New Look, An Old Battle," Quindlen is practically giddy that inflationary claims about the remedial powers of fetal stem cells will stimulate "a certain long-overdue relativism to discussions of abortion across the land."

Her column is best understood as the latest chapter in the search for the [un]holy grail that began in the early 1980s. Researchers persuaded themselves that a sister atrocity - - harvesting tissue from the brains of unborn babies - - would provide a staggering source of curative powers so overwhelming that it would stop just this side of providing eternal life.

Once people saw that Alzheimer's and Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries could all be cured by fetal tissue, pro-abortionists dared to hope, no longer would pro-lifers have a corner on the empathy market. Pretty heady stuff.

Fetal stem cells merely update the con job.

In a kind of political/moral jujitsu, if the public buys into the exaggerated claims for these tissues, Quindlen believes pro-abortionists can become the good guys - - the realists who want flesh and blood people to benefit from the magical powers of fetal stem cells/fetal tissue. Left in the lurch will be "the life-begins-at-conception crowd," whose abstract appeal to principle will be overcome by the public's desire to cure an ailing grandparent suffering from Alzheimer's, or enable a paralyzed child to walk again.

Forget for a moment that not a syllable appears in Quindlen's column about the host of acceptable alternatives to fetal stem cells. Forget as well that she manages to ignore that the same polyannish promises accompanied the (failed) experiments that transplanted tissue harvested from the brains of unborn babies.

[It is worth noting, just for accuracy's sake, that Quindlen gloats over the idea that the human embryos from which stem cells are extracted are very tiny, taking away "the oft-used slogan" that "abortion stops a beating heart." But what she conveniently fails to mention is that the harvested brain tissue comes from babies 9-12 weeks old, whose developmental inventory includes brain waves, a heartbeat, the beginnings of fingerprints, and much more.]

So how does Quindlen deal with the results of the first rigorous examination of what happens when brain tissue from aborted babies is transplanted, into patients with Parkinsons? The study which revealed not only that they don't work, but that they come with what one scientist called "tragic, catastrophic" side effects? Quindlen's response is to hammer a story I wrote for NRL News which was based on the published research and a story in the March 8 New York Times - - hardly a kept publication for the pro-life movement.

My story was "an almost gloating report" the tone of which "is a reflection of fear." Come again? "It's the fear that the use of fetal tissue to produce cures for debilitating ailments might somehow launder the process of terminating a pregnancy, a positive result from what many people still see as a negative act," Quindlen writes. It's this "real thinking," she argues, that "might bring a certain long-overdue relativism to discussion of abortion across the land."

But do I "fear" the instinct that we all have to try to justify what we've done wrong by pretending that there is an attendant "good" that can redeem evil? What an odd choice of words. I appreciate fully how pervasive is this need to clothe wrong in right, because I am as weak as the next person. Like everybody else, I want to put a high moral gloss on my failure to do what is right when confronted with difficult circumstances.

But if the implication is that we are starry-eyed optimists, this is both right - - we do believe that good wins out in the end and that there must be a better "solution" than slaughtering unborn children - - and profoundly misleading. When it comes to dealing with reality, it is pro-lifers whose experience is far more complicated, layered, and hard-earned. We know first hand the extraordinary challenges a crisis pregnancy presents but are also blessed with having hands-on experience in finding a life-affirming solution that saves both mother and child..

The only part in Quindlen's column that I "fear" is her dismissive observation that pro-lifers practice what she calls "an act of presumptive ventriloquism," that is, "pretending to speak for those unborn unknown to them by circumstance or story." Talk about missing the point! Almost no abolitionists had first-hand knowledge of the horrible existence of slaves, but that did not stop them from speaking out against the outrage of slavery. Was Uncle Tom's Cabin nothing more than "presumptive ventriloquism"?

Just to make the point clear one more time, scavenging the brains of aborted babies has proven to be a grotesque failure, ethically and in practice. Indeed the alternatives to fetal tissue transplants are much more likely to work and come with many fewer potential negative side effects.

Likewise, there are any number of alternatives to stem cells lethally extracted from human embryos. But there's much more beyond "practical" considerations to be weighed.

It's wrong to commodify human beings, to tell ourselves that the ends justify the means, to persuade ourselves that the intended victims aren't really "fully" human. Speaking out on behalf of the voiceless, the powerless, and the victimized is among the noblest endeavors we as humans can ever undertake. Pro-lifers may be trashed for this but that is to be expected.

Tragically, so often it is only very long after the fact - - after brutality that defies description - - that the world wakes up and sees to its horror that millions and millions and millions have perished. What pro-lifers do quietly and without fanfare has a long and honorable lineage. Your inheritance is one to be proud to carry on - - an absolute unwillingness to stand idly by while injustice reigns.

Anna Quindlen may not understand. Most people may not understand. But, to your everlasting credit and the ultimate good of unborn babies, you understand!

dave andrusko []>EN
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Title Annotation:human embryo research, ethical aspects
Publication:National Right to Life News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2001
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