Thursday, January 11, 2007

Ethics and Legislation of Stem Cell Research

Indiana Representative Mike Pence, contesting new House Legislation to authorize Federal funding for stem cell research, remarked, "Proponents of this legislation don't just want to be able to do embryonic stem-cell research...they want me to pay for it and, like 43 percent of Americans who believe that life begins at conception, I've got a problem with that."

Rep. Pence's remarks, which echo a Bush Administration statement on the matter, reveal a dangerous double-standard and a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means for our Federal government to collect and spend tax money. Considering that some 70 percent of Americans are obligated to fund a war in Iraq with which they disagree, I imagine there are relatively few Americans who would find no objection whatsoever to the use of their tax dollars.

Alexander Hamilton, in the Federalist No. 31, asserts that, "
A government ought to contain in itself every power requisite to the full accomplishment of the objects committed to its care, and to the complete execution of the trusts for which it is responsible, free from every other control but a regard to the public good and to the sense of the people."

Stem cell research represents an opportunity to provide effective cures and treatments for life-threatening diseases, to preserve liberty in various forms for those who suffer ailments that impinge upon the exercise of liberty (such as through the impairment of mobility, dexterity, or cognitive function), and to secure the pursuit of happiness on the part of those citizens constrained by such diseases as the Federal government is in a position to help cure.

Beyond the hypocrisy implied by pro-life Representatives who apportion funds to war over schools, art, and life-saving medical research, there is the blatant and concerted effort to obscure the fact that existing and accepted medical procedures (such as in vitro fertilization) create and discard precisely those types of cells required for stem cell research.

The position of Rep. Pence - that human life begins at conception - if not political (insofar as current purveyors of medical treatments have an economic interest in selling perpetual remediation, rather than a singular cure) is bound to be religious or arbitrary. By arbitrary I do not mean ridiculous or unfounded, but subject to the same qualifications as any definite demarcation between entities whose boundaries are porous or gradated. The Representative's criterion does not appear to be founded in the standards of our courts, which hold permissible those procedures that, given pressing medical concerns, affect the viability of an embryo only until that time when the embryo might support its own life independent of the mother and the womb. It is worth noting that this court standard is upheld by the thinkers of Greek Antiquity.

There remains the matter of personal conviction, which may be religious in character, or related to a secular ethic. Religious traditions, which in our Nation ought to be restricted in the degree to which they influence or direct political processes, are by no means unanimous as to whether human life begins at conception or at some later time. Within the Judeo-Christian Tradition, one finds in the
Babylonian Talmud, Yevamot 69b, the assertion that "the embryo is considered to be mere water until the fortieth day." Exodus 21:22, in discerning punishments for causing a miscarriage or the death of a pregnant woman, seems to assign to the fetus a value that is somewhat less than that of a fully-developed human.

Should the personal convictions the Representative and his like-minded companions be a matter of secular ethics, he and his companions have some explaining to do. How is it that one man with a few allies should withhold the Constitutional entitlements of so many?

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