Ronald M. Green says Gotcha!
After ten years, the US debate over the ethics of embryo research drags on without an end in sight. Opinion polls, though often unreliable, suggest that most Americans are in favour of embryonic stem cell research as a way of curing dread diseases. At the same time, many couples have inarticulate misgivings about donating their "spare" IVF embryos for research. The battle lines between informed supporters and informed foes are as clear and unyielding as ever. Even though the incoming President has promised to undo Bush’s restrictions, the terms of the debate have changed very little.
So it was interesting to see new rhetorical weapons deployed in an article by Ronald M. Green, of Dartmouth College, in the latest issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics. Green, who must surely be on Obama’s short list of possible bioethics advisors, comes from the libertarian fringe of mainstream bioethics. In his most recent book, "Babies by Design" he even argues that we should embrace genetic engineering so that we can direct our own evolutionary path.
In his provocative article Green identifies inconsistencies in his opponents’ positions and deploys a couple of novel arguments of his own. Essentially his analysis is post-modern, even Nietschean: he believes that the debate is not about searching for truth, but merely about defending personal interests.
First, he points out a gotcha! inconsistency: how can you oppose embryo research and embrace IVF? Both involve creating and destroying embryos. And then, what about the hundred million embryos which perish naturally every year in their mothers’ wombs? Why is there no outcry, no funding, no research? If people genuinely believed in the sanctity of human life, they would move mountains to save these microscopic humans.
A decade of debate shows – or so Green contends — that this muddled thinking is immune to his rigorous analysis. So something else must be going on: the sanctity of the embryo is just a symbol of an outmoded conservative values structure. In the words of a feminist scholar, "While the embryo in the abortion context is… a stand-in or replacement for concerns about family life and structure, the embryo in the context of IVF exists primarily to allow married, heterosexual, economically stable couples to ‘complete’ their families by having children."
Basically, then, the issue is not human dignity, but fear of change, of modernity and of secularisation.
How about the Catholic role in the debate? Catholic leaders have been resolute in opposing IVF as well as embryo research, Green acknowledges, but they are really concerned with defending their shaky position, not embryos. Now that the American church has lost its ethnic roots and a shared experience of discrimination, it desperately needs a cause to bind its flock together. "The intense in-group reinforcement once provided by ethnic identity and the shared experience of cultural difference and discrimination are now partly sustained by a countercultural religious–ethical position. The stance has further served institutional needs by affording the Catholic Church an active presence in national affairs."
Green’s article is significant because it signals a shift in the argument away from whether or not the embryo is a human person towards whether or not opponents understand their own values. It’s an argument that may appeal to the president-elect, because he has used it before. As he said in the campaign about poor white voters, "It’s not surprising, then, they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them… as a way to explain their frustrations." ~ Journal of Medical Ethics, December
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