Thursday, August 18, 2005

Embryonic Stem Cell Research (op-ed piece)

ESCR: ‘Little Eichmanns’ in Our Midst
August 17, 2005


When fake-Native American college professor Ward Churchill dubbed 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns" (after the infamous Nazi), non-liberal Americans reacted with shock and horror at Churchill’s twisted ideology and hatred for his country. But his comments were demonstrative of a highly visible trend: cultural commentators comparing people, ideas, or actions they disagree with to Nazi Germany. Of course, sometimes this Nazi talk is important and entirely justified.

On a recent Focus on the Family radio broadcast, Dr. James Dobson compared embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) to Nazi death-camp practices during World War II. Predictably, the August 3rd remarks have prompted a flurry of criticism.

For example, Colorado Congressman Diana DeGette said Dobson’s commentary “must be condemned by all rational people,” branding it “extremely ignorant and insulting.” Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League demanded an immediate apology.

In an August 10th Wall Street Journal piece, David Gelernter labeled the comparison “grotesque” and said Dobson "proved that he lacks sufficient control to be pitching in the major leagues of public discussion and ought to be sent back to the minors." Even conservative columnist Suzanne Fields supplied a gentle condemnation.

Dobson’s remarks were chiefly in response to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s newly minted support for expanded federal funding of ESCR. Sharply breaking with social conservatives and the Bush administration, Frist now joins many of his Republican colleagues, virtually all Democrats, and numerous activist celebrities in his support for the research.

But much of the public remains largely ignorant about the stem cell issue, which perhaps best explains ESCR’s popularity. It is important to note, for instance, that there are two different types of stem cells: adult and embryonic.

Adult stem cell research is federally funded and has produced 65 different medical treatments (and counting). ESCR, said to have greater scientific potential but which necessitates the destruction of human embryos in order to harvest their cells, has yet to generate any benefits at all. And while it’s perfectly legal in the private sphere, current government policy only funds ESCR on stem cells derived from a group of embryos destroyed prior to the policy’s implementation.

But Frist and company would like to change that. In order to garner the requisite support for taxpayer-funded, embryo-destructive research, advocates have wildly over-hyped ESCR’s medical promise. The thinking seems to be that if Americans are convinced of the good that may arise from this research, they’ll sanction it without question – even though it requires the systematic harvesting of a small, unwanted portion of the population for their body parts.

One would hope that Americans won’t accept this kind of utilitarian ethic. Actions, after all, can be right or wrong independent of their consequences; thus, the crux of the issue isn’t ESCR’s healing potential but the moral status of human embryos. Since all human beings possess an inherent worth and dignity upon which “wanted-ness” (for lack of a better noun), instrumental value, and other morally-trivial characteristics have no bearing, ESCR is tantamount to genocide.

But this is lost on those critical of Dr. Dobson’s comparison, which is far from surprising or unnatural. “In World War II,” he observed, “the Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there would have been some discoveries there that benefited mankind.”

Granted, Dobson didn’t mean to actually “equate” ESCR with Nazi medical experimentation, as he has since underscored. After all, embryos feel no pain, and they aren’t exactly being tortured. Moreover, their deaths generally fail to elicit the grieving of family members (usually because such people want them dead).

But the essential similarity is simple: Nazi “doctors” took innocent human life for research purposes. Today, ESC researchers take innocent human life for research purposes. How is this comparison controversial?

Congressman DeGette claims that it “diminish[es] the enormity of the Nazis’ atrocities,” which is particularly absurd considering Dobson’s solemn account of Nazi horrors. Mores substantially, Gelernter’s critique notes that Nazi researchers and ESC supporters hold vastly different motives (though sometimes I’m not so sure). With regard to the latter, Gelernter asks: "Is Dr. Dobson so small-hearted that he can't cut such people a little slack? Can't concede that they are acting out of love, even if their conclusions are wrong?"

But who says Dobson can't concede the noble motives of those pressing for ESCR? Clearly, Gelernter never actually listened to the show. Dobson compared practices, not motives.

Indeed, Gelernter grants that despite good motives, a conclusion may be “wrong.” And that’s all Dobson’s comparison is concerned with. The conclusions undergirding Nazi research and ESCR are both wrong in a morally equivalent way.

Of course, this Nazi talk doesn’t make sense to ESCR proponents, who simply downplay the humanity of the embryo (but not that of Nazi victims). Their justifications make clear the questions upon which this issue hinges: Do human beings maintain some kind of transcendent moral status? Does a human being in the embryonic stage of development, therefore, deserve the same protection and care given to human beings in other stages? The moral logic is no different than that of the abortion issue, which makes the stem cell betrayal of “pro-life” politicians like Bill Frist all the more frustrating.

Sadly, Dr. James Dobson’s message could not be more appropriate and necessary: If we “remove ethics and morality…you get what happened in Nazi Germany.”

And those who support this removal may aptly be called "little Eichmanns.”

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