Murdered to Order
Opponents of stem cell research see their worst fears realized in the
by Ryan T. Anderson
12/28/2006 12:00:00 AM
The Drudge Report recently highlighted a shocking story from the BBC
that centered on "disturbing video footage" of
"dismembered tiny bodies." "Healthy new-born babies" in the Ukraine,
"the self-styled stem cell capital of the world," have
allegedly been killed "to feed a flourishing international trade in
Apparently this isn't an isolated problem. The Council of Europe
"describes a general culture of trafficking of children snatched
at birth, and a wall of silence from hospital staff upwards over their
fate." Imagine the horror of young mothers who "gave
birth to healthy babies, only to have them taken by maternity staff."
What happened to these newborns was anybody's guess,
but recent footage obtained by the BBC may provide insight into their
fate: "The pictures show organs, including brains, have
been stripped--and some bodies dismembered."
The BBC report comes as a complete shock to most readers. But to those
steeped in biotech news and bioethical literature, the
latest out of the Ukraine is only a partial shock. While no one
expected baby-snatching in maternity wards, it seemed inevitable
that the business of stem cell research would, at some point, produce
an abomination of this kind.
At least publicly, supporters of various embryo-, fetus-, or
infant-killing programs have always argued that these options were
reluctantly chosen, out of dire necessity, and only on the least-human
of subjects--so-called "spare" embryos, "unwanted"
pregnancies, and gravely disabled newborns.
And so at first the abortion lobby argued that fetuses aren't human.
Then, as embryology and developmental biology decisively
demonstrated that an unborn child is most definitely a complete, though
immature, human being, the rhetoric shifted to
discussions of competing rights and interests between the mother and
her unborn child, along with appeals to the right to
privacy. It was conceded that the decision for abortion is tragic, and,
though it entails the ending of a life, sometimes it is an
absolutely necessary result of the conflicting needs between the mother
and child. And it was insisted that it is best if doctors
and women are allowed to adjudicate these situations, in private, for
Intellectual defenders of abortion painted a picture of simply ceasing
a pregnancy: The unborn child has no inalienable right to
inhabit the mother's womb. A woman doesn't make a choice to kill,
simply a choice to end pregnancy--to remove the unwanted
baby from her body. Her body, her choice.
Yet this didn't prove to be satisfactory. The further claim was made
that the "right" to an abortion consisted in the right to an
"effective abortion." And an effective abortion entails not the ending
of a pregnancy, but the death of a child. Witness the
phenomena of partial-birth abortion and born-alive abortion.
But the issue of stem cell research can not appeal to any of these
claims of women's welfare, privacy, or "the right to choose."
Though the case of embryonic stem cells doesn't pose a direct
competition of rights or interests--unborn embryos do not pose a
threat to anyone--public arguments were made about competing interests
of patients: "You pro-lifers are favoring embryos over
Parkinson's victims." When these arguments prove ineffective, defenders
of embryo-destructive research turn to a utilitarian
one: embryos can be put to better use as raw material for biomedical
Even here, however, the public arguments are always made that human
embryos merit a certain amount of respect and
dignity--even if killing is still acceptable--and that the choice to
destroy embryonic human beings is always made reluctantly,
with the hope that new technologies will soon be developed that make
their destruction unnecessary.
Now, however, we are seeing more and more clearly that this is all a
hoax. Sure, people like Princeton's Peter Singer have
argued for a long time in defense of infanticide. But no one ever
considered infanticide a real possibility; Singer's arguments
always seemed to be an eccentric intellectual exercise. Recent
developments abroad and at home, however, force us to
reconsider. Sadly, the BBC report out of the Ukraine is just the latest
in a long line of startling developments in this trend.
In July of 2005, the Slate magazine science reporter William Saletan
argued in a five-part series titled "Organ Factory: the
Case for Harvesting Older Human Embryos" that given the current
acceptance of embryo destruction there is no reason to limit
it to the early embryo. He pointed to studies from around the world
arguing that seven-week old embryos are what researchers
really want. And Saletan made the case that they should have them:
"Don't be scared. We don't have to grow a whole new
you. . . . an embryo cloned from one of your cells would need just six
or seven weeks to grow many of the tissues you need.
We already condone harvesting of cells from cloned human embryos for
the first two weeks. Why stop there?"
And in the startling conclusion to part five, Saletan made clear that
nothing should stand in the way of science: "But if all you
want is tissue, who cares? You can tell yourself what we already tell
ourselves about unwanted in vitro embryos: They're
doomed anyway. Patients' lives are at stake. We can't let personal
morality get in the way of science. We can't wait."
The Princeton philosopher Robert P. George, arguing the other side of
the issue, picked up on Saletan's article and noticed a
frightening development right in his own backyard. Under the title
"Fetal Attraction: What the Stem Cell Scientists Really Want"
in the pages of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, George rang the alarm bell warning
that embryonic stem cell research was leading to
the macabre practice of "fetal farming." He noted that blastocyst-stage
embryonic stem cells are therapeutically unusable
because of their tendency to produce tumors when injected into
subjects. Claims that they will cure people are pure hype.
Nature herself, however, stabilizes stem cells in the normal
gestational process, eliminating the tumor-formation problem by
what appears to be an extraordinarily complex system of intercellular
signaling; a complex system scientist were having trouble
George warned that this would lead some scientists to demand the right
to create human clones and gestate them in female
volunteers or artificial wombs to the late embryonic or even the fetal
or infant stages before killing them to harvest non-tumor-
forming stem cells:
"My suspicions and sense of urgency have been heightened by the fact
that my home state of New Jersey has passed a bill that
specifically authorizes and encourages human cloning for, among other
purposes, the harvesting of 'cadaveric fetal tissue.' A
'cadaver,' of course, is a dead body. The bodies in question are those
of fetuses created by cloning specifically to be gestated
and killed as sources of tissues and organs. What the bill envisages
and promotes, in other words, is fetus farming."
That was last year in New Jersey. This year in Missouri a provision was
passed that created a constitutional right to human
embryo cloning--provided the cloned embryo isn't transferred into a
woman's womb--while also creating a constitutional
mandate to destroy human embryos. More startling, however, was the
window intentionally left open for fetus farming. If the
technology of artificial wombs is perfected, cloned embryos can be
developed in artificial wombs and then harvested not only
for stem cells, but for developed cells and even organs. This, it
appears, is what the doctors in the Ukraine are after. What
guarantee do we have that they aren't after the same thing here?
Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things. He is also the
assistant director of the Program on Bioethics and Human
Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ.
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