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Jewish World Review Oct. 7, 1999 /27 Tishrei, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Looking up the slippery slope -- THE NEWS that will shape our culture and therefore our future now tends to be made not by the generals and politicians, but by the scientists and bioethicists. For example:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Clinton's top advisory panel on medical ethics is recommending government financing of limited forms of research on human embryos ....

The promise of such experiments is breathtaking -- new bodies for old! -- and so is the danger. We will have taken another step toward scientific experimentation on human beings.

Today, research on the embryo, tomorrow on the fetus, soon enough on the old and infirm, the insane or deformed, the imprisoned or maybe just the socially undesirable. It's a familiar path in this century, as anyone who has read about the development of social polices first in Weimar Germany and then the Third Reich may have noticed. The Nazi regime was evolutionary as well as revolutionary.

With research on human embryos approved in this country, another border is now being crossed in man's search for the best of all possible worlds, and the best of all possible humans to fill it.

The Germans may have given eugenics a bad name, but it is still thriving under different names -- research, choice, assisted suicide (aka Kevorkianism) or, in this case, the advancement of science.

It's all a matter of proportion, we're assured, of how you look at it. Of weighing the ends against the means. Balance a limited invasion of human life against the potential benefits for Parkinson's patients, a little genetic manipulation against the perfection of the species in general, and who would say no?

Do we really want to hold up scientific progress, or deny a cure to those suffering from hereditary diseases? Frame the question, and you frame the answer.

Think of the possibilities for medicine: There's no telling where extracting these stem cells from the embryo might lead.

Which is just what worries me.

But why let a few scruples stand in the way of the golden, beckoning, perfect future? To quote from this report of the National Bioethics Advisory Commission:

"This research is allied with a noble cause, and any taint that might attach from the source of the stem cells diminishes in proportion to the potential good which the research may yield.`

Have you heard a better defense of relative as opposed to absolute standards lately? Could any German scientist in the '30s have put it better? By the '40s the most scientifically and technologically advanced society in the world was experimenting on the socially undesirable -- the misfits, the politically incorrect, those inferior races who wouldn't have survived the Darwinian struggle of the fittest anyway.

Of course we're past all that now. We have national advisory panels on bioethics. We are assured that the embryos used for these experiments, leftovers from fertility clinics, would have been destroyed anyway. So why shouldn't they do somebody some good? They were just going to waste. Where's the harm?

Here's the harm: Such experiments blur the once bright line between humanity and fit subjects for scientific experiment, between ends and means, life and death, good and evil. They reduce morality to a mathematical equation in which any evil done "diminishes in proportion to the potential good .. . . ''

Good and evil aren't absolutes, we're told. They meet and merge, like parallel lines headed for some distant horizon. That may be only an illusion, but for now it serves our scientific purposes well enough.

Boundaries exist to be crossed. And once we cross them, it'll be as if those old lines between good and evil, between reverence for life and scientific curiosity, had never existed. Just as we have crossed the line from abortion to partial-birth abortion to infanticide to ....

Some of us who can still remember those moral boundaries that used to exist begin to get the distinct impression that we're no longer looking down a slippery slope but up.

Nothing has so degraded our ethics in this modern era as our ethicists. The great champion of infanticide at Princeton University, Peter Singer, is after all a professor of, yes, bioethics. It is astounding what a supposedly civilized society will routinely accept. Last time I checked (June of 1998) the going price of human fetuses for research purposes varied from $90 to $280, depending on gestational age and whether you wanted yours fresh or frozen.

Quite aside from whether our scientists are practicing good ethics, are they practicing good science? Why must stem cells for experimental purposes come from embryos that are due to be destroyed? Why not extract them from adults capable of giving their informed consent? Experimentation along those lines has shown good results. Or would that be too much trouble? Would it interfere soon enough with the efficient production of embryos for research purposes?

For economics will soon enter this picture, if it hasn't already. If doomed embryos are valued only for their stem cells, soon enough they will be produced only for their stem cells. It's called supply and demand, another of the natural laws.

Science is knowledge but not necessarily the knowledge of good and evil. Call it Greenberg's Law: Whatever scientists want to do, they will find reasons do it.

Ever since ethicists replaced ethics, the lines between good and evil have steadily blurred. One suspects that the ethical line in these matters was crossed not when scientists began experimenting with human life but long before, when humans first began seeing themselves as means rather than ends and therefore fit subjects for experimentation in any noble cause -- political, social and now scientific.

"Any taint that might attach to such research,'' to quote from this latest rationalization for an old confusion, "diminishes in proportion to the potential good.'' It's the latest amendment to the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not -- unless it advances the common good. Once it was the social planners who determined the common good, now it is the scientists, including those called ethicists. As in bioethics -- to distinguish it from the real kind.

Now the common good cannot be achieved instantaneously but only incrementally -- one court decision after another, one assurance after another from the learned scientists, one advisory report after another from the bureaucrats. But one day we shall achieve our brave new world with its brave new creatures, and be our own authors at last.

It is the oldest temptation: You shall be as gods. The scientists call it progress. C.S. Lewis called it the abolition of man. At last man will no longer be only creature but Creator.

Just remove that single, atavistic barrier -- the reverence for life, the awareness of the sacred -- and everything is possible. Everything. If the history of this dying century should have taught us anything, surely it is that.

And yet my greater argument is not with those who take their stand on the other side of this latest dividing line between life and death, but with those who can't see what the fuss is about.

After all, why keep science waiting because of a speck of life no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence? That human life should begin on such a scale tempts some to dismiss it, when instead it should fill us with awe.

There will always be those who don't see any problem, who want to believe in danger-free, guilt-free decisions. They believe in choices without consequences. They believe human life can be used like any other commodity, and not affect our respect for it. They would deny that these embryos are really human, just as they resist calling a fetus an unborn child.

You doubtless know people like that. You may be one of them. They'd like to believe that means can be divorced from ends, and the common good from the good. They don't want to think about all that. Why not just do it? In their own way they have already ceased to be man in the sense of a creature who weighs moral alternatives, and have become something else -- not necessarily something evil, only something soulless.

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©1999, Los Angeles Times Syndicate