May 29, 2024


The New York Times has published a concise defence of the Bush policy on stem cells by the former executive director of the President’s Council on Bioethics. Yuval Levin attempts to bring precision to a debate which is often dismally foggy about what is really at stake. He points out that no one disputes that human life begins at conception — this is “a simple and uncontroversial biological fact”. The real dispute is over whether an embryo is a person, with a right to life.

“And surely we would not deny those who have lost some mental faculties the right to be regarded with respect and protected from harm. Why should we deny it to those whose faculties are still developing?

“At its heart, then, when the biology and politics have been stipulated away, the stem cell debate is not about when human life begins but about whether every human life is equal. The circumstances of the embryo outside the body of a mother put that question in perhaps the most exaggerated form imaginable, but they do not change the question.

“America’s birth charter, the Declaration of Independence, asserts a positive answer to the question, and in lieu of an argument offers another assertion: that our equality is self-evident. But it is not. Indeed, the evidence of nature sometimes makes it very hard to believe that all human beings are equal. It takes a profound moral case to defend the proposition that the youngest and the oldest, the weakest and the strongest, all of us, simply by virtue of our common humanity, are in some basic and inalienable way equals.

“Our faith in that essential liberal proposition is under attack by our own humanitarian impulses in the stem cell debate, and it will be under further attack as biotechnology progresses. But the stem cell debate, our first real test, should also be the easiest. We do not, at least in this instance, face a choice between science and the liberal society. We face the challenge of championing both.”