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The “Emergencies” of the Stem-Cell Debate

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank offers a portrait of the debate on stem-cell research that took place in the Senate over the last two days. He notes the extent to which Senators, especially those working to remove the boundaries governing federal funding of embryo research, focused on sad, often quite touching stories of illness and suffering in their own lives and those of their families and friends.

This makes sense, of course, since the debate was about medical research. But on the other hand, it does raise the question of exactly what case those stories were intended to make. The stem-cell debate is not about whether our country should support medical research—there is an absolute consensus on that point. The federal government spends about $30 billion on such research through the National Institutes of Health each year. The debate is not even about whether to support stem-cell research. The federal government has spent about $3 billion on various forms of stem-cell research since 2001, including more than $130 million on embryonic stem-cell research.

But that money has been spent under the constraints of President Bush’s embryonic stem-cell funding policy, which says only research that uses lines of cells created before the policy was enacted can be funded. Those created from embryos destroyed after the policy came into effect are not eligible. The idea is to prevent taxpayer dollars from offering an incentive to destroy human embryos–which is precisely what the bill the Senate passed last night (by a vote of 63 to 34, falling short of the margin needed to override a veto) would do.

What’s wrong with such research? The President believes (as do I) that human embryos—human beings in their earliest developmental stages—should not be treated as raw materials for scientific experimentation. America’s commitment to equality requires us to treat all human beings with at least that minimal regard. (I laid out this case on the New York Times op-ed page a few months ago.) Others believe that human embryos are not worthy of that degree of regard or protection, because they’re not developed enough, or large enough, or possessed of the capacity for cognition or pain.

These are legitimate arguments about the nature of the human embryo and the appropriate attitude toward it. But what bearing does a Senator’s story about his neighbor’s diabetes have on the argument? The point of these stories in the stem-cell debate is to argue not that one approach or another is ethical, but that the fact that so many of us and our loved ones suffer from serious ailments should cause us to put ethics aside. It is a case for approaching medical research—and indeed the very fact of illness, if not of death itself—with what might best be called a crisis mentality. Our illnesses, our deaths, are an emergency, and until the emergency is over we can’t bother with abstractions about equality and dignity.

This, too, is not a senseless attitude. But it is deeply misguided and dangerous. The “emergency” will never be over. Disease and death will haunt us always. We are right to struggle against them, and modern medicine offers us some formidable tools in that effort, which we ought to use and develop further. But we must do so with a sense that medicine is a science of postponement and an art of delay, not a crusade for final victory over death. That means the mission of medicine is permanent, not temporary. And that in turn means modern medicine must find its place in everyday life, rather than insist that we treat everyday life as an emergency that requires the suspension of moral and ethical rules. If we can have no recourse to ethics until we’re done fighting disease, then we can have no ethics at all.


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