Jewish World Review July 13, 2001 / 22 Tamuz, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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We have forgotten how to shudder -- I'VE been down this road before, or rather this slippery slope. And the same, assuring signs still dot the way: This way to Scientific Progress. This way to Compassion. It's only One Small Step. It'll all be Strictly Regulated. It'll be Safe, Legal and Rare.

Way back then, in 1973, the issue was abortion. We were assured it was going to be legalized only in rare cases and for good reason. For example, to save the life of the mother or prevent monstrous births. A woman who needed an abortion for a perfectly good reason wouldn't have to fly to Sweden to get it. It was a private medical issue. This was No Big Deal. I bought it. And the descent began.

We all know what happened. Abortion turned out to be not only a big deal but a big industry, with more than a million abortions being performed every year. It became an accepted method of birth control. It is no longer a medical issue, but a social and political and, to those of us trying to claw our way back up that slippery slope, a moral one.

And it's no longer just abortion that is the issue, but euthanasia and eugenics and now research on human embryos. Soon enough we'll be debating whether to permit human cloning. Or have we already started? We're no longer talking about just one issue, but a whole way of thinking. Or maybe a whole way of not thinking. Call it a lifestyle. Or rather, a deathstyle.

Abortion, it turns out, is about a lot more than abortion. It's one of those American issues, like slavery in the 19th Century, that seems to affect all the others. It's a touchstone, revealing how we feel about all else -- like what is the source of our rights, and whether we're all created equal, and when life need be respected, and shall we do evil so good may come of it? And why not? Somebody else will if we don't, and we can do it a lot better -- in a scientifically controlled way. Why not just let people do their thing? Live and let die.

But the questions gnaw. They keep coming up with every step, or rather slide, down this mindless slope.

Now the issue is whether the government should allow scientists to destroy human embryos in order to use their stem cells, those protean cells that are capable of growing into a whole array of different tissues and organs -- a prospect that offers hope for treating a wide variety of disorders.

Expect to see a lot of familiar faces out of Hollywood making the case for this kind of research: Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's. Christopher Reeves, paralyzed as a result of a riding accident. Mary Tyler Moore, who has diabetes. It won't be easy to ignore such appeals. Even when they're made by people without famous names. Mike Ross, a congressman from Arkansas, came out strongly for embryonic research after a visit with a young man in his district who has juvenile diabetes, explaining:

"My visit with him and his mother renewed my commitment to put politics aside and put life and all its possibilities, including the potential to discover cures for many diseases, first.''

It's a powerful argument. And while stem cells have yet to actually cure Parkinson's or Alzheimer's or AIDS, researchers keep reporting the most promising breakthroughs:

Did you know that scientists have used stem cells to create muscle tissue in rats? That researchers have used such cells to produce tissues that "integrated seamlessly into the surrounding brain tissue, maturing into the type of cell appropriate for that area of the brain'' That some stem cells injected with anti-HIV genes have developed into the kind of white blood cells that fight AIDS? Or that stem cells from cows have been used to create heart tissue?

Even if you know about the potential of stem cells in treating the widest spectrum of ills, you may not have heard that all these breakthroughs have been achieved without using stem cells from human embryos. To quote Wesley J. Smith, who's become a reliable chronicler of our culture of death:

"What will surprise many people is that none of these remarkable achievements relied on the use of stem cells from embryos or the products of abortion. Indeed, all of these experiments involved adult stem cells or undifferentiated stem cells obtained from other non-embryo sources.''

Indeed, some of the experiments with stem cells from human embryos or fetal tissue have had disastrous results. "Utterly devastating'' was the phrase one researcher used to describe the results of one experiment on Parkinson's patients. Embryonic stem cells have also shown a discouraging tendency to form tumors when used in animal trials.

Meanwhile, adult stem cells are being used with some success to restore sight, help patients recover from leukemia and repair bones and cartilage. But all these hopeful signs are dismissed or perhaps not even mentioned as the campaign to experiment on human embryos reaches full pitch.

Why? Because this isn't mainly about science. It's about breaking taboos, perhaps for the sake of breaking taboos. It's about doing something because it can be done. And so the taking of human life, which ought to be a last resort, becomes the first.

We find ourselves on the cusp of a whole new expansion of the trade in fetal and embryonic tissue, for where there is a demand created, there will soon be a supply. And human embryos are about to become an object of demand-side economics. We're talking business here, big business.

When you think about it, Dr. Frankenstein was really a much misunderstood philanthropist. Today he could copyright his invention. Why not? The human genome has been patented. Will there be name brands of stem cells, or maybe of embryos -- like cling peaches and Fuji apples?

Soon the biotechnology sector will be talking about not just using "rejects'' from fertility clinics for its purposes, but (ital) creating (unital) human embryos in order to use their stem cells. That sensation you may be feeling about now is a familiar one: It's the feeling you get when sliding further down an incline, and the warning signs keep coming faster than ever.

Don't worry. A committee of experts will handle all these ethical questions and, if you repeat that assurance rapidly without stopping to thinking about it, you might even believe it. But how could anyone believe it after even a moment's sober reflection?

This isn't really about ethics. It's about politics -- the exercise of power. Which is why Congressman Ross' comment about putting politics aside in order to support research on human embryos struck me. Between the eyes. His is just the kind of innocent reaction that those promoting this brave new world are counting on.

The congressman wasn't putting politics aside, he was just being suckered by a different kind of politics -- the kind that pretends to be pure science. For the science most evident in this latest way to desanctify human life is political science. The PR, the pressure groups, the economic interests, the word games being played ... all those are the very stuff of politics.

Once upon a different time, it would have been unthinkable to use human embryos for experimental purposes. The very idea would have produced an involuntary shudder. Nobody had to read Kant to understand why such a thing was wrong -- because human life is not to be treated as an instrument, a means to some other end, a source of spare parts.

It is this instinctive knowledge of ours that we must be taught to forget if we're going to continue down this road, this increasingly steep slope. Strangely enough, those doing the teaching will be called ethicists.

I once heard a story about an undertaker who lived above his establishment, and who one day found his little boy playing with the corpses. He decided the boy should live elsewhere, said the father, until his son had learned to shudder.

That may be just what our society, with all its scientific sophistication, has forgotten: how to shudder.

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