Writing in the New York Times, Yuval Levin strips always the straw men arguments surrounding the embryonic stem cell research debate and gets to the heart of the matter. He starts by noting that the US House has passed a bill to strip federal limits on financing embryonic stem cell research, but says it was done on a false premise. Proponents of the bill had claimed that President Bush’s policy had banned financing, when in fact it banned the appropriation of taxpayer funds to set up new stem cell lines. It did not ban private financing or cells taken from lines already in place when the ban was enacted in August 2001. Likewise this is not an argument of science versus a supposed Medieval anti-science, faith-alone approach since it is quite obvious that Christians at least do not oppose scientific research and using the fruits of science in moral and ethical ways.
Levin, however, takes the anti-embryonic stem cell side to task for denigrating embryonic stem cells in favor of adult stem cells. While adult stem cells have certainly led to many treatments, Levin says that this approach makes the mistake of arguing on utilitarian grounds rather than moral grounds.
Ultimately, Levin is arguing that this is a debate over human life, when it begins, and whether it should be preserved.
The debate is also not about whether there ought to be ethical limits on science. Everyone agrees there should be strict limits when research involves human subjects. The question is whether embryos destroyed for their cells are such human subjects.
But that does not mean the stem cell debate is about when human life begins. It is a simple and uncontroversial biological fact that a human life begins when an embryo is created. That embryo is human, and it is alive; its human life will last until its death, whether that comes days after conception or many decades later surrounded by children and grandchildren.
But the biological fact that a human life begins at conception does not by itself settle the ethical debate. The human embryo is a human organism, but is this being — microscopically small, with no self-awareness and little resemblance to us — a person, with a right to life?
Human dignity and equality
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