Michael Kinsley's True Dilemma of Embryonic Stem Research

Last Friday, Washington Post columnist Michael Kinsley, who is generally regarded as one of the smartest liberal pundits around, wrote a column promoting human embryonic stem cell research and castigating pro-lifers for the inconsistency of their views. However, he mostly succeeds in demonstrating the disingenuous nature of his own side.

Consider his claim that the U.S. government has a "continuing near-ban on stem cell research," even though stem cell research of all varieties is unrestricted if funded privately. Does Kinsley really expect us to believe that limited federal funding of a practice constitutes a "near-ban"?

Setting such dishonesty aside, his argument had two simple prongs: Pro-life opponents of embryonic stem cell research are inconsistent because they do not oppose in vitro fertilization (IVF) loudly enough — or sometimes at all; and human embryos are really, really small and undeveloped, so they can’t be human beings.

In regards to Mr. Kinsley’s first objection, he assumes too much. There are many pro-lifers who oppose IVF, including the American Life League, our nation’s largest grassroots pro-life organization. One suspects that he does not notice pro-life opposition to IVF because he does not care to look for it.

He is, however, correct in noting that "that if embryos are human beings with full human rights, fertility clinics are death camps — with a side order of cold-blooded eugenics. No one who truly believes in the humanity of embryos could possibly think otherwise."

This, of course, leads into the question of what human lives should be protected. The embryos destroyed for stem cell research or IVF are living members of the human species. Mr. Kinsley doesn’t deny this, but rather than parsing the logic of which human beings are not worthy of human rights, he makes emotional appeals, writing that, "I cannot share, or even fathom, their conviction that a microscopic dot — as oblivious as a rock, more primitive than a worm — has the same human rights as anyone reading this article."

One idly wonders what sort of worm Kinsley was referring to: The common earthworm; a nematode; or perhaps a platyhelminth? More relevantly, one wonders what he means by primitive. Considering a human embryo against an adult worm, the human has the more evolved information, but it has not yet had the time necessary to use the genetic blueprint in constructing the more advanced form. Mr. Kinsley’s argument is akin to claiming that a Ph.D. thesis being sent to the printer is more primitive than the handwritten hard copy of a third grader’s report.

Mr. Kinsley professes himself undecided and unconcerned about the question of when human life begins. This is nonsense. Scientifically, it’s unequivocal that human life begins at conception. What Kinsley and his political brethren dispute is the idea that all human beings are human persons. The argument is that those members of the human species that are beginning their lives, and are therefore less developed, can be used and discarded as the older and more developed humans see fit. In short, the strong shall exploit the weak. But this Nietzschean outlook is unpalatable to the American public when presented bluntly, so we are routinely treated to the spectacle of the sages as our society pronounces itself baffled at a question that basic biology textbooks answer.

The irony is that while pro-lifers are accused of putting religion before science, it is the so-called pro-choice position that is irrationally mystical. The pro-life view rests upon two points: Each human life begins at conception; the intentional taking of innocent human lives is wrong and ought to be illegal. The first is a biological fact with no necessary relation to religion; the second is a moral proposition that is generally agreed upon and dependent upon no particular religion. In contrast, the position exemplified by Kinsley is one of sentimentalism and prejudice. It basically consists of saying to the preborn human: "You must possess exactly the attributes I want you to possess or you have no human rights."

Thus, there is a dichotomy to the attacks on pro-lifers. On the one hand, we are derided as religious fanatics, on the other, as cold logic-choppers. When a pro-lifer quotes the Bible, he’s an irrational theocrat; when the same fellow pulls out an embryology textbook, he’s subjugating the mysteries of human existence to the cruel realm of frigid reason.

Mr. Kinsley closed his article by stating that he wished pro-lifers would think again. Well, we have been thinking all along. In fact, pro-lifers support ethical science such as adult stem cell research and the use of umbilical cord stem cells.

For Kinsley and his ilk, it would appear that science is just a mistress. They gladly embrace her when they like the potential of some research, but abandon her when she shows that such research is unethical according to our commonly accepted moral standards. And they corrupt science by replacing ethical guidelines — such as the principle that human beings shouldn’t be destroyed for research — with the idea that whatever science can do, she should do. Therefore, we would ask Mr. Kinsley to think again.