Jewish World Review June 23, 2005 / 16 Sivan 5765

Paul Greenberg

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A modest proposal | Did you see Arlen Specter's justification for subsidizing stem cell research on human embryos?

The senator from Pennsylvania noted that "there are some 400,000 of these frozen embryos, which were created for in-vitro fertilization, which are going to be thrown away . . . ." So why not put them to good use?

For some reason — can't imagine why — listening to the senator brought back the reasoning that German doctors once used to justify their experiments on concentration camp inmates. They were going to die anyway; why just throw them away?

So these subjects of scientific curiosity would be dipped into freezing water to determine how long downed fighter pilots might be expected to survive in the North Atlantic. When they froze to death, the experiment was successfully concluded.

Or the victims were injected with deadly germs to study the course of terrible diseases. Yes, they died awful deaths, but science would be advanced, terrible plagues cured. It was all for the greater good.

The trick is not to think of the subjects of these experiments as human, but as Jews, Slavs, Gypsies . . . the eugenically undesirable. And remember that they were doomed anyway, and you can see the (brutal) logic of it.

That's the trick in this case, too: Think of these embryos as something other than human, not as microcosms somehow programmed to turn into fully developed human beings with all of a human being's capacity for good — and evil.

Think of them as microscopic dots, as pre-human, or under-human, literally untermenschen, and anything we do with them is ethically permissible. Even commendable. Focus instead on the future patients to be helped, the suffering alleviated, the scientific breakthroughs that await, the progress (and maybe profits) to be made.

Call the subjects of these experiments blastocysts, surplus embryos, pre-embryos, whatever, but don't let on that they're what all humans are at that stage of our development.

The secret of promoting scientific research on human embryos is not to call them human embryos.

But no matter what word games are played, something deep within rebels at the idea of using these embryos for research purposes. Why should that be?

Remember the various experiments the Japanese performed on prisoners of war during the 1940s? These subjects were going to be worked to death anyway, so why not put them to some scientific use? Back then we could see through such rationalizations. Not even the records of those experiments would be used.

Why not? Those files might have pointed the way to great advances in medicine. The victims of the Japanese research squads could no longer feel any pain — they were beyond all that now — and here were all the details of their suffering just waiting to be put to good use. Why waste all this knowledge?

Because something within was repulsed at the idea. Some atavistic shred of reverence for the dignity of man. And it whispered: Thou shalt not.

And we didn't. In the end these records were set aside — unused, untouched. What a waste. And yet no one seemed to think so at the time. No scientist, no politician, no bioethicist — if there were such things half a century ago.

All seemed to understand what didn't have to be said back then: This research was . . . unclean. To touch it would be to defile oneself, and risk infection by the same ethical absence that motivated the experiments in the first place.

There is no scientific explanation for such a feeling; it is just there. Call it the wisdom of repugnance.

Science got us into this and soon enough it may get us out — by perfecting a way to obtain even more useful stem cells without having to first produce, then destroy human embryos.

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In the meantime, a U.S. senator decries the reluctance to use human embryos for experimental purposes.

He points out that they're just going to be thrown away, anyway, at least those that aren't thawed and allowed to become "snowflake babies" and eventually living, breathing, reasoning adults. (What do you think they'll have to say about this debate one day?)

How far we have come, and not necessarily up.

For the senator's logic has all kinds of possibilities. Think of the prisoners on Death Row. Or comatose patients in nursing homes who are not living so much as waiting to die. And what good are the Terri Schiavos doing anybody? Why not experiment on them, too? Or just use them for parts? They're just hanging around. Like those tiny embryos.

In another age, when the Rev. Jonathan Swift made a modest proposal to combat famine in Ireland — why not consume the next generation? — his essay was called a masterful satire.

Now it reads like today's news.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. Send your comments by clicking here.

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