Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Where science doesn't help: the stem-cell research example

I've spent a lot of time outlining the anti-scientific agenda of the Bush regime and talking about the need to apply the scientific method to thinking about policy. But it's important to underscore that I do not believe that every political debate can be resolved by the careful application of the scientific method.

Since the French Revolution, there have always been intellectuals who believed (or at least hoped) that science could trump politics. Especially in the middle third of the twentieth century, there were many technocrats who believed that value differences were reducible to incongruences of knowledge and information. This, however, is sheer nonsense, and of the most dangerous sort. (Later on I'll be discussing the superb movie, "The Fog of War," as a brilliant expose of the danger of thinking that science and numbers can resolve ethical dilemmas.) So those of you who are suspecting me of promoting scientism, calm down: I'm on your side.

In this vein, I'd like to debunk what some on the left consider a prime example of the Republican's "anti-science" agenda: the stem-cell debate. Democrats have (with political wisdom) tried to use the stem cell issue as a wedge to highlight GOP extremism. And it's true that the stem-cell debate does reveal extremism; but it's just not an example of the "anti-scientific agenda" of the Bush regime.

Rather, it's an example of their extremism on the abortion issue. As anyone who is remotely moderate on this subject can acknowledge, "life" emerges gradually from the fertilized egg. At what point this emerging life becomes worthy of state protection is very hard to determine. However you feel about the stem-cell issue, and however you feel about abortion generally, the point is that scientific reasoning is useless in determining what the right policy should be. It's a purely ethical debate about where to draw the line between two different things that most Americans value: the right to control your own body, and the right not to be killed.

(A confessional point here: my wife is currently pregnant, just entering her seventh month, which is when the state I live in officially begins to protect the child. However, there is little doubt in my mind that it's been a number of months since there was something -- or rather, someone -- alive inside my wife. If last week my wife had exercised her legal right to have an abortion, it would certainly have been a gravely immoral act.)

What the stem-cell issue shows is that the people who oppose stem cell research consider life not to begin at some ambiguous point around quickening, but rather literally at conception -- even (the truly extreme position) where such conception happens in a petri dish. Even where there is great potential medical benefit to be gained by using cells harvested from the 5-day old fertilized eggs known as blastocysts, these extremists are more interested in protecting discarded embryos than they are in helping full-grown humans who are suffering and dying.

So yes, the stem-cell issue reveals extremism. But anti-stem-cellers aren't necessarily "anti-scientific." Rather, they hold an ethical position that no amount of scientific evidence can amend.

1 comment:

zachawry said...

I think a good demarkation line would be the point at which the fetus can survive outside the womb. At this point, I think it's basically impossible to credibly argue that it is not its "own person," and the state's interest in protecting that person overrides the right of the woman to exercise full control over her own body.

(I've always been a little baffled at the "keep your laws off my body" argument of pro-choicers. There are, after all, a whole host of laws that determine what you can or cannot do with your body--say, concerning drugs or prostitution--that the pro-choicers seem to have no problem with.)

In Japan, the legal limit (often ignored) is 24 weeks, theoretically because this is the time at which babies can survive if born prematurely. I think this is a decent compromise (although recent medical advances give 22-23 week old babies a pretty good chance at survival).