Jewish World Review August 17, 2001/ 28 Menachem-Av, 5761

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Thoreau, Walden and stems cells -- THERE comes a point when Henry David Thoreau and other hermit philosophers seem logical. Mr. Bush has pushed me ever so close to my Walden Pond. His authorization of federal funds for limited stem-cell research via televised speech with barren Crawford, Texas in the background was foreboding. If tumbleweed had rolled by as a cattle skulls rested in peace on the windowsill, the moment's ethical significance would have been captured. Lost hope needs a bleak scenario.

Approval for research with already extracted stem cells was a politically expedient one, in theory. There will be no destruction of embryos and Christopher Reeve, the B movie actor turned god of the left since his equestrian accident, can relax.

But, for all of the decision's touted political expediency, it is a struggle to determine whom Mr. Bush appeased. His base wonders why he started down this path. Meanwhile, Patricia Ireland and companies such as Advanced Cell Technology complained instantly about the need for more embryos, more federal bucks, more!

The polls show a split public on this issue (although I question any poll that does not prescreen participants for their understanding of stem-cell research). Tax dollars will be used for something that is spiritually objectionable to at least half the population. What are those of us who conscientiously object to the use of public funds for a shove down the slippery slope of tinkering with genetically complete beings to do?

Those who believe the issue ends here are positively daft. We will move from research on already dead embryos to research on abandoned embryos. Then on to embryos from women have reached menopause. It will never end.

The reason we find ourselves in the "But they're just going to throw the embryos away!" mode is because we trotted down that in vitro fertilization road. We had promises then about limitations on creation and use of embryos. Those promises have been breached. Advanced Cell Technology has been paying women $4,000 a pop, as it were, for eggs and won't disclose its inventory levels. This egg gathering is done as it fulfills a contract with Spain for cloning the endangered bucardo mountain goat.

Drawing lines is difficult because of our addiction to exceptions born of rationalizations: "Just this once," or "It doesn't really hurt anyone." But ethics is drawing lines. Embezzlers don't wake up one morning and decide to forge a $600,000 check. They start with the office postage meter and rationalize their ways to six figures.

Drawing lines in stem-cell research is particularly tough because this is not an evil vs. good dilemma. There is the good of preserving life vs. the good of saving lives. But, the latter requires the taking of life to accomplish. Good intentions do not always result in good actions, means or ends. See, e.g., welfare programs and athletic scholarships.

Mr. Bush violated a cardinal rule, as it were, of ethical analysis: Never resolve an ethical issue if it's avoidable. The biotech industry has a history of overstatement. We're still waiting on promised fetal tissue miracles. These businesses oversell potential and progress. Stem cells injected into mice with tremors seem to make the mice better. But it is one gigantic leap from rodent to mankind. This alleged utilitarian decision and compromise is based on miracles never realized and reached before other avenues, such as adult stem cells, are fully explored.

The Bush decision is more disconcerting because of its monetary roots. Behind the Christopher Reeve, Nancy Reagan and Orrin Hatch vaudeville show is a biotech industry waiting with IPOs that will rival the dot-com boom. There's gold in them thar Petri dishes.

These companies are using parents, children, relatives of Alzheimer victims and even Mary Tyler Moore to shill for high finance in the name of compassion. Don those lab coats and goggles to make ready for the biotech boom. Desperate humans paying whatever it takes to survive as biotechs stand at the ready with option-holding executives. Biotech stocks jumped 28% following the Bush pronouncement.

But federal tax capital comes through politicians. Mr. Bush had contributions from executives of biotech firms such as Amgen, Biogen and Genzyme. Pro-life Senator Orrin Hatch's bizarre advocacy for this research and his expressed disappointment with President's Bush's restraint is easily explained. Seven of Mr. Hatch's top individual contributors are health and pharmaceutical companies. The pharmaceutical industry was his #2 contributor in 2000.

The decision was bad enough; the money ties are embarrassing. Having made it through the Vietnam era with nary a protest or arrest, it is a surreal experience as I near 50 to become a subversive for life that hangs in the balance because stem-cells enter the capital markets via campaign contributions to those who sold out so easily. Thoreau wrote, "The government stands for what appears to be expedient or practical, but not necessarily for what it moral." Cue skulls. Roll tumbleweed. Enter Walden.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings