That’s the point that Yuval Levin makes in his New York Times op-ed piece (free registration required), “A Middle Ground for Stem Cells,” today. The essay is also available online at the International Herald Tribune.
It is, to begin with, not about stem-cell research, any more than an argument about the lethal extraction of livers from Chinese political prisoners would be a debate about organ transplantation. There are ethical and unethical ways to transplant organs, and there are ethical and unethical ways to conduct stem cell research. The question is to which category a particular technique — the destruction of living embryos for their cells — belongs.
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; its human life will last until its death, whether that comes days after conception or many decades later.
But that does not by itself settle the ethical debate. The human embryo is a human organism, but is this microscopic being — with no self-awareness and little resemblance to us — a person, with a right to life?
Many advocates of embryo-destructive research argue that the human embryo is just too small, too unlike us in appearance, or too lacking in consciousness or sensitivity to pain or other critical mental capacity to be granted a place in the human family.
But surely we have learned the hard way not to assign human worth by appearances. Surely we would not deny those who have lost some mental faculties the right to be regarded with respect and protected from harm. Why should we deny it to those whose faculties are still developing?
At its heart, then, when the biology and politics have been stipulated away, the stem-cell debate is not about when human life begins but about whether every human life is equal. The circumstances of the embryo outside the body of a mother put that question in perhaps the most exaggerated form imaginable, but they do not change the question.
The evidence of nature sometimes makes it very hard to believe that all human beings are equal. It takes a profound moral case to defend the proposition that the youngest and the oldest, the weakest and the strongest, all of us, simply by virtue of our common humanity, are in some basic and inalienable way equals.
Our faith in that essential liberal proposition is under attack by our own humanitarian impulses in the stem-cell debate, and it will be under further attack as biotechnology progresses. But the stem-cell debate, our first real test, should also be the easiest. We do not, at least in this instance, face a choice between science and the liberal society. We face the challenge of championing both.
President George W. Bush’s stem cell policy seeks to meet that challenge. It encourages scientists to pursue the cells they seek without destroying life.
Please consider reading the rest at one of the links above.