The Denver Post today published an editorial on the current legal and legislative battles around embryonic stem cell research (http://www.denverpost.com/opinion/ci_16075319). I’m not interested in getting into the weeds concerning the legal interpretation maneuvers required to circumvent the “Dickey-Wicker Amendment,” which prohibits the use of federal funds in any research that results in the destruction of human embryos, or the history of Diana DeGette’s stem cell research bill, twice vetoed by GW Bush. I’m interested in discussing the essence of the issue, and the essence of the two fundamental sides defined by it. This is an issue over “loving life” as a moralistic dogmatic abstraction which condemns conscious human beings to continued suffering, or loving life as the expression of empathy and compassion for creatures that think and feel and are aware of their own existence.
The argument over whether (human) life begins at conception or birth is clearly a semantic game, and clearly dodges the messy functional truth: Human life is a thing in constant formation, even after birth, and, in some ways, even before conception. If we identify the newborn infant as something that is unambiguously a human being deserving of all rights and protections accorded to human beings (something that is pretty well settled at this point), then the messy fact is that that human being comes into existence, as a human being, at some indeterminate point between conception and birth. Regardless of the sophistry employed, the cluster of cells that is a zygote is not a “human being” in any sense that applies to our legal and social structure, whereas (as inconvenient as it may be for people, like myself, who are staunchly pro-choice) the only difference between a late-term fetus and a new-born baby is location (though that locational difference has huge legal implications, and huge implications for what it means to have individual rights).
While I think there is some moral complexity to the issue of late-term abortions, in the final analysis, for both pragmatic and moral reasons, it’s simply not tenable to reduce pregnant women to the legal status of incubators. The bright line, legally, has to be drawn at birth, as it generally has been throughout human history, and as our laws have evolved around. But the complexity that makes that a not completely unproblematic solution simply does not apply to the issue of embryonic stem cells. The embryos involved are not on the newborn side of that indeterminate point in a pregnancy when a cluster of cells becomes a baby. Those embryos are just clusters of cells, in anything other than a mystified perception divorced from the true complexity and subtlety of the real world we live in.
So the question is whether one is the kind of person who loves life in an abstract and dogmatic manner that does not flinch at condemning conscious human beings to continued suffering from paralyzing injuries and diseases that would otherwise be far sooner curable, or the kind of person who loves life as the state of consciousness that makes it so precious, and embraces the sincere empathy of caring about the sufferings and joys that attach to those embued with such consciousness.