Governor Mario Cuomo announced last week the solution to the vexing moral questions raised by the stem cell debate about when human life begins: Convene an expert panel.
In a New York Times op-ed, Cuomo wrote: “If indeed such a panel confirms that…science cannot supply the proof that human life starts at conception, then…the president would be wrong to deny the rest of America that does not share his faith the vast potential benefits of embryonic stem cells.”
There's something dismayingly Catholic, in a decadent way, and political, in an obvious way, about Cuomo's suggestion. Replace the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church with the infallible magisterium of a group of people with Ph.D.'s.
Mario, Mario, a panel of scientists couldn't prove that you have a right to life, liberty or the pursuit of happiness either. The question of why human rights exist, and who therefore has them, is not a scientific question. Fobbing off core questions like this onto a panel of scientists is merely an attempt to evade moral and intellectual responsibility for one of life's most basic questions: Where does our shared American belief in equality and human rights come from?
With all due respect, Governor Cuomo, I believe scientists are human beings, not gods. They cannot be exempted from questions of right and wrong, and should not be placed in the unscientific position of corporately issuing dicta, dogma or fatwa about right and wrong that the rest of us are somehow obliged to accept as gospel.
When scientists are placed above the moral law by society, like other human beings, they sometimes do amazingly evil things. Scientists who believed scientific knowledge was above morality reduced black men to guinea pigs in Tuskegee. Scientists in Nazi Germany committed unspeakable atrocities in the name of scientific progress.
Let's get this straight: I'm in favor of stem-cell research. What I'm against is turning human beings into research objects that are “harvested” without their consent in the name of scientific progress. I'm greatly in favor of stem cells. I'm against cloning and killing in order to get them. I'm pro-scientific progress. I'm against creating an industry based on the destruction of human life. I don't want to eat my own offspring to find the fountain of youth or anyone else's children either.
Nor do I believe it is necessary. I believe that if you cut off immoral and destructive paths, new scientific vistas will open up, and more quickly than skeptics can imagine.
Indeed, it's already here. Professor Markus Grompe, a geneticist, and Professor Robert George, a Princeton political scientist who is on President Bush's council on bioethics, announced in last week's Wall Street Journal that scientists have discovered several new ways to get embryonic stem cells that do not require the creation or destruction of human life. For example, Oocyte Assisted Reprogramming (OAR) can take the nucleus from your skin cell, insert it into an egg cell, and with a flick of a genetic switch, make a factory for producing embryonic stem cells. Not only would this protect us from becoming consumers of unborn children, but “their genetic constitution would be virtually identical to that of the donor, thus helping to overcome the problem of immune rejection.”
Scientists didn't stumble upon this method by accident, but by conscientiously seeking a method of obtaining needed stem cells that would not require the killing of any human life.
Some people want a new political wedge issue. They want to convince you that endorsing cloning and killing of innocent human life is the gateway to paradise, to most likely a cure for Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, diabetes and a host of other cruel diseases.
Ah, but the devil is a liar and the father of all lies. I believe that truth, goodness and scientific progress all lie in the same direction. I believe that human beings, made in the image of God, have the creativity to find better solutions to human problems than those that require killing human life. I believe that, if we seek it, science can unlock human wonders that draw us together rather than divide and conquer our humanity.
What a miracle to find it’s already happening.
Maggie Gallagher is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, which sponsors www.marriagedebate.com.