- The Washington Times - Friday, June 24, 2005

Did you see Arlen Specter’s justification for subsidizing stem cell research on human embryos?

The Pennsylvania senator noted, “There are some 400,000 of these frozen embryos, which were created for in-vitro fertilization, which are going to be thrown away.” So why not put them to good use?

For some reason — can’t imagine why — listening to the senator brought back the reasoning German doctors once used to justify experiments on concentration camp inmates. They were to die anyway. Why just throw them away?

So these subjects of scientific curiosity would be dipped into freezing water to determine how long downed fighter pilots might survive in the North Atlantic. When they froze to death, the experiment was concluded.

Or victims were injected with deadly germs to study the course of terrible diseases. They died awful deaths, but science would be advanced, terrible plagues cured, all for the greater good.

The trick is not to think of these experimental subjects as human, but as Jews, Slavs, Gypsies … the eugenically undesirable. Remember they were doomed anyway, and you can see the (brutal) logic of it.

That’s the trick in this case, too: Think of these embryos as something other than human, not as microcosms somehow programmed to become fully developed human beings with all of a human being’s capacity for good — and evil.

Think of them as microscopic dots, as pre-human, or under-human, literally untermenschen, and anything we do with them is ethically permissible. Even commendable. Focus on the future patients to be helped, the suffering alleviated, the scientific breakthroughs, the progress (and perhaps profits) to be made.

Call the subjects of these experiments blastocysts, surplus embryos, pre-embryos, whatever. But don’t let on they’re what all humans are at that stage of our development. The secret of promoting scientific research on human embryos is not to call them human embryos.

But no matter what word games are played, something deep within rebels at using these embryos for research. Why?

Remember the various experiments by the Japanese on prisoners of war in the 1940s? These subjects were to be worked to death anyway, so why not put them to some scientific use? Then we could see through such rationalizations. Not even the experiment records would be used.

Why not? Those files might have pointed the way to great advances in medicine. The victims of the Japanese research squads could no longer feel pain — they were beyond all that now — and here were all the details of their suffering just waiting to be put to good use. Why waste all this knowledge?

Because something within was repulsed at the idea — some atavistic shred of reverence for the dignity of man. And it whispered: Thou shalt not.

And we didn’t. In the end, these records were set aside — unused, untouched. What a waste. And yet no one seemed to think so at the time. No scientist, no politician, no bioethicist — if there were such things a half-century ago.

All seemed to understand what didn’t have to be said back then: This research was … unclean. To touch it would defile oneself and risk infection by the same ethical absence that motivated the experiments in the first place.

There is no scientific explanation for such a feeling; it is just there. Call it the wisdom of repugnance.

Science got us into this and soon enough it may get us out — by perfecting a way to obtain even more useful stem cells without having to first produce, then destroy human embryos.

In the meantime, a U.S. senator decries the reluctance to use human embryos for experimental purposes.

He points out they will just be thrown away, anyway, at least those that aren’t thawed and allowed to become “snowflake babies” and eventually living, breathing, reasoning adults. (What do you think they’ll say about this debate one day?) How far we have come, and not necessarily up.

For the senator’s logic has all kinds of possibilities. Think of the prisoners on Death Row. Or comatose patients in nursing homes not living so much as waiting to die. And what good are the Terri Schiavos doing anybody? Why not experiment on them, too? Or just use them for parts? They’re just hanging around. Like those tiny embryos.

In another age, when the Rev. Jonathan Swift made a modest proposal to combat famine in Ireland — why not consume the next generation? — his essay was called a masterful satire.

Now it reads like today’s news.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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