- The Washington Times - Friday, December 6, 2002

It's only a small, indeed microscopic, matter, but it made the news. It seems the Bush administration has changed the federal regulations governing scientific research in order to class human embryos as human.
Goodness, has somebody in Washington been reading a biology textbook? What did they think the human embryo was before feline? Equine? Crustacean? Or just a meaningless clump of cells in a petri dish?
This new addition to the list of "human subjects" whose welfare must be considered in scientific experiments along with fetus, child and adult is not expected to have any dramatic effect on society's ethics. American society in 2002 being American society in 2002, what would?
But it's assuring to see the scientifically obvious recognized. So many of the terms used to describe the embryo in its earliest stages blastocyst, zygote, fertilized ovum seem designed to dehumanize it. No wonder some innocents are shocked to realize the human embryo might be, goodness, human.
After all, here is human life no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence, as those given to dismissing its importance like to say. Every time they do, they only increase my awe in the presence of such a miracle: Imagine that this minuscule being has all the genetic components, and even more miraculous, the encoded inner knowledge, to become an adult to be born, to do noble or terrible things, to know love and joy and anger and hate, to die and yet leave an immortal legacy. What a piece of work is man.
We were all that smaller-than-a-period size once you, me and even a distinguished scientist like Robert R. Reich, executive associate dean of research at Emory University's school of medicine in Atlanta, the very embodiment of the depersonalized New South.
Dr. Reich doesn't sound too happy at the official recognition now being granted our (and his) smallest personal stage, the embryo.
It seems the good doctor was on an advisory committee appointed during the Clinton administration to look into the ethics of research on humans. (It seems there was an unfortunate, if highly predictable, series of scandals in that fast-developing field.) But the doc was left off the committee when the Bush administration reorganized it with an eye to broadening its scope.
"I'm very concerned," says Dr. Reich, "that this addition (of the embryo to the list of human subjects) will serve to seriously politicize the reconstituted committee."
Dr. Reich doesn't seem to realize that not recognizing the human embryo as human was just as political a decision. And at least as serious.
It's as though, when the doc talks politics, we're supposed to believe he's talking only science. And if he's denying human embryos are human, it's mighty poor science.
But, no, surely Dr. Reich understands the human embryo is still human just as human as those at the other end of life's cycle. For example, the debilitated old woman with Alzheimer's talking to imaginary friends from her nursing-home bed.
Neither of these examples of human life might be considered very human by those eager to experiment on them, or just to toss them out with the other refuse.
Perhaps what Dr. Reich means when he objects to including embryos in the range of human subjects is that they don't belong to a stage of human life worth protecting. And that their welfare need not be considered if they could be used for scientific research.
In time the same exception will surely be proposed for the aged, the comatose, the disabled. It will be argued that they are not fully human, either. So do the needs of research trump our common humanity.
The Germans of the last century had a term for the kind of human subject that need not be protected by law or ethics. It was "lebensunwertes Leben" life unworthy of life. And those classified as such were considered fit for scientific research. This classification only began with the mentally retarded. Later it would be expanded to include not just the physically disabled but the racially, politically and just personally offensive.
Once you accept the concept of lebensunwertes Leben, or human but not worthy of the protections due human beings, there's just no end to the irritating folks you can get rid of.
Herr Dr. Reich may not be familiar with the genealogy of the idea he's expressing in his vague way, but he would be right at home in the Germany of 1935. Just as, God help us, he is in the America of 2002.

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