Three Questions about President Bush’s Embryonic Stem Cell Policy

[1] Tiefel asks three questions of us: What sort of language we should use when speaking of stem cells outside of science, what place does the religious voice have in the public arena in this matter, and how can we speak of the moral ambiguity which has been called to our attention.

Three questions about President Bush’s Embryonic Stem Cell Policy

[2] “Embryonic stem cells” – the terms of the debate have been set by those who advocate research with this promising “material.” The object of study is defined in strictly scientific and technical, impersonal and reductionist words. By contrast, the results promised to flow from this cornucopia offer stories of personal suffering and promise healing and cures from life-threatening and life-long diseases. Who would fault the near-miraculous benefits that become more certain with each recitation? It is the wording of the cost that gives pause. For if it is to be true in law, ethics, and public policy (as well as in marriage) that what you say is what you get, then those who object to “harvesting” embryos and their cells need an alternative and faith – or liturgy – friendly language. We are all cells but would be offended if we were reduced to that word. And if our lives were at stake, we would know the news was bad if our we were discussed only in cellular terms, leaving out all the other aspects of us that make up our identity. We were all embryos but would not use that scientific word when we thank God for life and new beginnings. I remember a fellow divinity student inviting friends to a conception party (conception that he celebrated as “God’s blessing despite the best defenses of the gentiles”). It was not an embryo that occasioned the celebration but a child-to-be, a new human life on the way, the image of God in its earliest form. And it was theirs, their child-on-the-way, not an entity in a parentless void. If President Bush’s limitation on this research is going to have a future – a future challenged as soon as it was announced – he and those who support respect for incipient human lives need words that honor such vision. Speaking the language of science in contexts where one wishes to value and honor human life functions as a Trojan horse that defeats from within. What then to call this issue in non-dehumanizing words? “Research with human body parts”? “Research that consumes its subjects”? “Ending some lives for the benefit of others” paraphrases President Bush’s statement. That may be a valid alternative to his earlier use of “stem cells.” What is the right way to speak here?

[3] Critics from the left define the President’s policy as religious and therefore as serving a single faith rather than the good of all citizens. Actually he only mentioned “matter of conviction” and “belief.” He enunciated conservative humanistic respect for all human life. But the contrast between a liberal culture, in which only rational persons count, and religious communities that link faith, God, and standing to human life from its start, is so well rehearsed by now, that even the President’s generic and humanistic terms are classified as religious. Most likely he will not protest such linkage, since much of his support lies there and since he himself has spoken of religious convictions. But everyone comes from somewhere. And liberal intuitions about who or what counts or does not count are not privileged. If only liberal arguments may have a legitimate public voice, all but the secular are disenfranchised. We all speak our vision and try to persuade each other as best we can. A president, who must speak on behalf of all citizens, must weigh the good of all in following his conscience. This President Bush seems to have done, judging from conclusions of compromise coming from all sides. However, the criticism of some who disagree with his policy will need sounder arguments than ad hominem – actually ad deum – reasoning. How best then to respond to the charge that religious voices disqualify themselves because they lack universal or universally intuited reasons?

[4] Critics from the right object to deriving benefits from human embryos destroyed earlier for their still-existing cell lines. These critics invoke the repulsive precedent of Nazi destructive use of human subjects or of gaining benefits from those who were destroyed. The story of a German university using a human skeleton as a teaching model after WW II – bones that apparently originated in one of the death camps – or of others extracting gold from the teeth of corpses in those camps become precedents for this issue. The source affects the outcome. It is morally troubling to derive benefits from unjustified killing. Some things come too dear to be used – reminiscent of the story of King David who pours out the precious water obtained for him by his soldiers at the risk of their lives. In philosophical categories, the deontological ought trumps utilitarian value now and then. And yet one expects that if any of the cures hoped for from this research come about, even conservative critics of the Bush policy will recommend using those therapies. If one retains the compromising link with the source – and I think that we must since we cannot plead amnesia – one cannot avoid moral ambiguity. Perhaps that is the best one can do in this regard. Lutheran ethics recognizes our bonds with fellow citizens for better and for worse. Such ethics also acknowledges moral ambiguity, dirty hands, our compromised moral condition – as well as the need and source for forgiveness. Is that the way to think here? What say you, Lutherans?