First, They Came for the Stem-Cell Researchers…


…and they eventually worked their way up to IVF practitioners.

Glad-handing frequent flier House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), notes the Wash Post, has called embryonic stem cell research "the dismemberment of living, distinct humans beings."

Writes the Post:

It's hard…to be dismembered if one has no limbs–being merely a cluster of a couple of hundred non-differentiated cells. These 5-day-old embryos get created all the time in fertility clinics to help people who otherwise could not have children. In a typical in vitro treatment, several more embryos are created than used, and the extras get frozen….A survey of fertility clinics in 2002 indicated that there were about 400,000 frozen embryos across the country. Many of these will never be implanted in a woman and will never become babies. All of this is commonplace and accepted because few people regard a group of cells that small as the moral equivalent of a human being. Yet, by Mr. DeLay's standards, each and every one of these embryos is a potential murder victim.

If Mr. DeLay really believes this, in vitro fertilization as practiced is legalized torture and murder on a mass scale. If a 5-day-old embryo is "a person," then putting it in a freezer–let alone allowing it to expire in a petri dish or throwing it out–should be no more acceptable for the goal of producing babies for the infertile than it is for discovering therapies that could help dying people. Nor should the issue be just federal funding but the legality of the practice itself. Mr. DeLay said yesterday in a news conference that he wanted to "look at" the issue of discarded embryos…But he stopped short of supporting any federal regulation, let alone the sort of draconian restrictions it would take to stop what he evidently sees as a slaughter of innocents. This makes no sense. A society that accepts the routine destruction of embryos cannot treat as "dismemberment" the one means of destroying those embryos that might produce great breakthroughs in science and health.

Whole thing here.

For the most part, I think the debate over embryonic stem cell research–especially in the political arena–is less about first principles and more about lining up in the culture wars. Both the Dems and Reps, liberals and conservatives, could plausibly be on either side, depending on how the issues are framed (calling Nancy Reagan). What we're seeing mostly is a quick choosing of sides based more of defining yourself against your opponent than anything else (hence, DeLay's philosophical confusion).

Let me add one more weakly developed notion: When it comes to these sorts of breakthroughs (IVF, stem cells), we're first and foremost pragmatists. If these technologies pan out and offer great advances to the living, even hard-core pro-lifers will cook up after-the-fact rationalizations for why they are just no matter what. That's one reason why Bush's biomedical czar, Leon Kass, doesn't talk about IVF anymore, even though he opposed it when it first became viable.

Indeed, you even get a whiff of this pragmatism in the abortion debate, where the issue is (at least for the sake of argument) much clearer: Very few pro-lifers, and certainly no major political figures, argue for putting doctors who peform abortions or women who have them on trial for murder. Even among strident pro-lifers, that's considered a nut job position, even if it is perfectly consistent with the view that abortion is a form of homicide. On the flip side, pro-choicers imply there's something skeevy about abortion when they insist it should be legal, safe, and rare–why "rare" if it is simply a routine medical procedure?

My point is that we quickly learn to live with biomedical technologies that give us what we want, even if we as a society (and yes, kemo sabe, I realize that "who's we?" is an important question) are not fully certain that they are "moral."

A while back, Reason's resident mad science correspondent, the award-winning Ronald Bailey, asked "Are Stem Cells Babies?" His answer: Only if every other human cell is, too.