Sunday, March 29, 2009

Empty Political Yammering

[This is a re-posting from August, 2006 concerning the political argument that is often raised to defend Embryonic Stem Cell Research. Since that time, the congressional candidate I responded to has won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and is currently serving as a freshman Congressman from the 29th District of NY. Unfortunately, his views are still as vacuous as they were 3 years ago ... only now he actually gets to impact the debate by voting. Just another thoughtless politician who uses empty rhetoric to defend his own moral cowardice.]

My former college roommate, who is running for Congress in the 29th District of New York, issued a press release about his stance on Embryonic Stem Cell Research (ESCR) to which I am compelled to respond. I understand Mr. Massa’s zeal for pursuing medical solutions and being “pro-cure” (as he calls himself). As a cancer survivor, Mr. Massa’s sensitivity to these issues is perfectly understandable. I share them. So, I should preface my remarks by saying that I, and many like me, do not in any way oppose stem cell research – as long as it does not entail the destruction of human embryos.

Mr. Massa said that his opponents hold "an extreme, politically convenient belief system that favors frozen, microscopic cells over living human beings. How pro-life is that?" I believe this statement is loaded with inaccuracies and deserves a reasoned response:1) Labeling those who disagree with his position “extremist” is not only ad hominem, it completely avoids responding to the actual arguments offered by ESCR opponents. If Mr. Massa considers an opposing position “extremist” just because someone else holds it, his position could be labeled in a like manner. It is the sign of the weakness of his own argument that Mr. Massa, and others like him, refuses to actually respond to the intellectual position of his opponents.

If Mr. Massa’s position rests on the assumption that minority-equals-extremist I would point out that polls which allow respondents to differentiate between their approval of stem cell research and research which requires the destruction of human embryos, the percentage who favor stem cell research quickly falls. In that case, polling shows that opposition to ESCR is as high as 70%.

Though these statistics are interesting, they are also irrelevant to the argument in question. The moral status of a position is not dependent on its popularity. Opposition to slavery wasn’t very popular in the South in the mid-nineteenth century, just as support for the Civil Rights Movement was lacking (mostly among southern Democrats) in the mid-twentieth century. Does that mean that slavery and racism were morally defensible?

Likewise, the claim that opponents of ESCR are motivated only by "political convenience," makes absolutely no sense. If a majority of Americans agree with Mr. Massa’s position as he claims, what is the political benefit of catering to the "extreme" minority?

2) The position of the Catholic Church regarding ESCR is as follows:
"The Catholic Church is against stem-cell research because it involves the destruction of human embryos. Pope John Paul II says embryonic stem-cell research is related to abortion, euthanasia and other attacks on innocent life."
The pope rearticulated his position on the use of embryos by saying:
"Experience is already showing how a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb, leading to accommodation and acquiescence in the face of other related evils such as euthanasia, infanticide and, most recently, proposals for the creation for research purposes of human embryos, destined to be destroyed in the process." (Both quotes from The Catholic Digest, emphases mine)
As a Catholic himself, it would be interesting to know how Mr. Massa reconciles the teachings of his own church with the political position he holds regarding ESCR.

3) The distinction between "frozen, microscopic cells" and a "living human being" is an arbitrary one. For one thing, the thermodynamic state of an entity does not change its ontological status. The decision of an outside agent to freeze a human embryo, does not suddenly render that embryo non-human. Mr. Massa’s distinction is a false one. Every one of those embryos contains the potential (even though it is artificially mitigated by those who froze them) to develop into a fully formed human being.

Secondly, Mr. Massa (like many who share his view) seems to equate "frozen, microscopic cells" with an unborn human embryo. He then contrasts that entity with a "living human being," claiming that we "extremists" value the former over that latter. This assertion shows that Mr. Massa grossly misunderstands (or distorts) the position of those who oppose ESCR.

Let me say this as clearly as I can: The problem opponents have with ESCR is precisely that we place the exact same value on the unborn human embryo as we do on what Massa calls a "living human being." And there is a good reason for it. It is precisely because we believe that the embryo is a living human being. To so flippantly shrug off that position shows at least an alarming lack of tact, at best a gross ignorance of the facts of the issue. An embryo is not a thing. It is a stage in the development of a thing.

What is that thing, Mr. Massa? If an embryo is not a human being, what is it?

If it is a human being, how do you justify its destruction for any reason?

4) There is little (if any) opposition to stem cell research. It is the creation and use of human embryos that is morally objectionable, not stem cell research in general. Along those lines, alternate forms of stem cell research, which do not raise moral objections, show more promise. As Scott Klusendorf of the Life Training Institute points out in his August 2, 2006 blog entry:
First, embryonic stem cells, though allegedly more flexible than their adult counterparts, are hard to control once implanted. They sometimes form tumors instead of usable tissue.

Second, the cloning procedures needed to produce embryos for research are hugely expensive. As Wesley J. Smith points out, "The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) claims it could take about 100 human eggs per patient—at a cost of $1,000 to $2,000 apiece—just to derive one cloned embryonic-stem-cell line for use in regenerative therapy." If true, it would be next to impossible to secure the billions of human eggs needed for widespread therapeutic cloning. And even if the biotechnology could be developed, "it would either be available only to the super rich or so costly that it would have to be stringently rationed."

Third, non-controversial adult stem cells are currently treating 65 known diseases while their embryonic counterparts are treating none, leading some scientists to wonder if embryo cells have any therapeutic value whatsoever.

Fourth, prospective investors have so far failed to pony up the cash for research which, in their view, appears highly speculative and might not cure anyone for years to come.

Finally, there's at least some research (summarized here ) by the USCCB which indicates that cloning technology might never yield substantial treatments unless cloned humans are developed well past the embryonic stage.
The promises of ESCR are highly questionable. It is irresponsible to offer false hope and mislead people into thinking otherwise. Mr. Massa accuses his opponents on this issue of taking their stance for "political convenience," but his exaggerated promises are far crueler and more politically expedient than anything his opponents are saying.

So, Mr. Massa, you asked, "How pro-life is that?" Let me respond directly by saying, "As pro-life as it gets."

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