You know a debate has reached a dead end when Tom DeLay starts offering ethical advice. He offered some yesterday as the House of Representatives did the right thing and voted to lift restrictions on embryonic stem cell research. Unfortunately, DeLay doesn't have a monopoly on the double standards and willful misinformation that are fueling the fight against stem cell research.
I met someone last year who, in a viewpoint that I'm afraid is indicative of many people who oppose embryonic stem cell research, was strongly in favor of in vitro fertilization - a relative had been conceived that way - but felt using those same embryos for research was equivalent to both abortion and murder. She didn't see any contradiction in those two views; not only was she not aware that the embryos used in stem cell research come from surplus products of in vitro fertilization that otherwise would be destroyed, she did not want to know this and never acknowledged it.
I can at least understand not wanting to accept that your beloved relative's life is dependent on a process you have been told is tantamount to murder. Many other stem cell opponents don't have that personal excuse but replicate the determined avoidance of the facts. Their logic is perverse, but on its own terms it takes on a sinister consistency: it's okay to cultivate embryos for in vitro fertilization, and it's just fine to destroy the surplus embryos created by this cultivation, as long as it's done solely for pregnancy. (Which suggests the money quote from this Katha Pollitt column on conservative Christians' attempts to block an HPV vaccine that would help prevent up to 70% of all cervical cancer cases: "Their real interest goes way beyond protecting fetuses--it's in keeping sex tied to reproduction to keep women in their place.") But if you use stem cells from those same embryos to help cure or ameliorate diseases that afflict the living - to do anything other than knock up a woman - you're somehow committing murder.
And slavery. The Congressional debate on the stem cell bill was marked, on the conservative side, by all the usual bankrupt analogies to slavery and Dred Scott that have been so successfully deployed by the Christian right as no-longer-quite-code words for abortion and fetuses. The great thing about this analogy is that it allows antichoice and antiscience forces to try to steal a little reflected moral authority from the abolitionist and civil rights movements while comparing blacks to nonsapient, nonsentient, undeveloped embryos.
But the hyperbole prize goes to Henry Hyde, who not only trotted out the Dred Scott fallacy but also said, "For the first time in our national history, taxpayers' dollars are going to be spent for the killing of innocent human life."
For the first time in our national history. It's not even the first time right now, as taxpayers' dollars are also supporting an optional war that's killing U.S. soldiers and Iraqi civilians alike - mostly at the hands of insurgents, at this phase of the war, but our leaders chose to walk into it - and the torture, humiliation, and murder of prisoners in Iraq, Afganistan, and Guantanamo Bay. Yes, many of those prisoners are probably guilty of something, but almost certainly some are not, and in any case they're all still human - inarguably human, and alive, at least until we chain them to the ceiling and beat them to death. (Via Jim Henley.) The Republican leadership pushed that fabricated war (no, simpler still: fabricated the cause for war) and signed on for everything it's created; surprisingly, Tom DeLay and Henry Hyde haven't been so concerned about the opinions of millions of taxpaying Americans who oppose that.
I can understand a certain religiously-based stance that opposes stem cell research; I may not agree with it, but I can understand and respect that if you honestly believe life begins at conception, then you would feel morally compelled to oppose anything that destroys such life after it has begun. (There is no medical basis for equating a fertilized or implanted egg with a human being, but I can recognize such things as a matter of faith - although our government isn't supposed to be in the business of enforcing one group's articles of faith on everyone else.)
Yet the Republican leaders in Congress, and the religious extremists who own their votes, only follow that principle when it's convenient. Their "culture of life," as so many have noted, begins at conception and ends at birth; there is no room for sympathy, outrage, or aid when the already-born are suffering; and most hypocritical of all, many of them don't seem to mind and pretend not to notice the cultivation and destruction of embryos when it's done for the purpose of getting a woman pregnant - or getting rid of the leftovers. This is the difference between an authentic moral stance (however fallible) and a cynical, utterly amoral manipulation of the language of morality for political gain.
My deepest appreciation goes out to those Republicans who were willing to defy their party leadership and their increasingly close-minded base to do the right thing - and, of course, to that vast majority of Democrats who have been fighting to do the right thing on this issue all along. Their support and more will be needed again to overturn an expected, and unconscionable, presidential veto.