In the book Sophie's Choice by William Styron, a woman is given a horrible choice by a sadistic Nazi officer. Either her son or daughter will be allowed to live – but not both. She must choose between the two.
The horror of such a choice would drive any parent to the brink of insanity – and perhaps beyond. It is a nightmare none of us can even imagine. And yet, in some ways, stem-cell research poses a similar choice, if one contemplates more deeply the questions it raises.
Those who oppose stem-cell research do not trouble themselves with questions; they are content to claim the high moral ground and cloak themselves in the purity and certainty of their religious convictions. They argue life is a gift of God, and that life begins at the very moment of conception. They claim all life is equally sacred and valuable. But I wonder if their beliefs can stand a simple test:
The room is on fire, and you have a choice – grab your six-month-old baby or seven frozen embryos in a Petri dish. It's one life against seven, right? What will you do?
I submit that unlike poor Sophie, the choice would be easy. I submit that no reasonable person would even think twice about their choice. There is no comparison between the life of the baby and the “life” of seven zygotes in a Petri dish. As far as I’m concerned, those who argue against stem cell research on such a basis are making a transparently foolish argument.
As the father of a child conceived through in vitro fertilization, I know full well how difficult the path from eight-celled zygote to birth. I can assure you, I never allowed myself the luxury – or as far as I'm concerned the stupidity – of thinking of those eight-celled zygotes as my children.
Like my son, millions of children have been granted life thanks to the miracle of in vitro fertilization. But not so long ago, that process was decried by people who claimed it was "playing God". But the truth is, those who tried to deny life to children like my son were the ones playing God.
Sad to say, the same sort of people now decry stem-cell research for much the same reason. Some may protest the "Sophie's Choice" I posed is purely hypothetical, but these questions are far from hypothetical:
(1) How is denying the benefits of stem-cell research to living people "pro-life"?
(2) As a practical matter, how long would these eight-celled organisms exist without the benefit of the scientific environment that created them?
(3) Do you really believe it is “pro life” to destroy embryos rather than to use them for research that might save your child or mine?
(4) Do you really believe there are enough "adoptive" parents ready, willing and able to "absorb" the hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of embryos?
Yes, I know stem-cell research is fraught with danger, but that is all the more reason why it should be rigidly regulated by the government rather than be left to the same sort of "free-market" forces that spawned the travesty and the tragedy of in vitro octuplets in California.
In that sorry episode, the true paradox in all this is revealed. By refusing to choose to reduce the number of embryos she was carrying, this mother very likely condemned all her children to a worse future. I suggest her "choice" was not a choice at all, but a cowardly abdication of her responsibility to her children – born and unborn.
Her refusal to choose was not the absolute moral equivalent, but it was akin to what would have been the case had Sophie refused to choose between her children. And it is akin to allowing millions to suffer or die rather than make the difficult choice to support stem-cell research.
Again, the Religious Right sees itself as occupying the moral high ground with its absolutist positions, but morality is seldom so simple as the Religious Right would have it. For just as doubt is an element of faith, so choice is an element of morality. In essence, those who claim they have no choice cannot also claim to have made one. That may be a fine distinction, but it is one worth contemplating.
But for those who'd rather avoid such deep contemplation, let me pose a couple more simple questions:
Haven't many of the people who were against in vitro – or whose parents or pastors or churches were – taken advantage of that procedure? Won't many of the people who are now adamantly against stem-cell research take advantage of its benefits in the years to come? The answer to the last question is as obvious as the answer to the first.
True-Believers would do well to keep in mind that one day they may face a Sophie’s Choice of their own if one of their children could be cured through some medical miracle wrought by stem-cell research. Any person so heartless as to deny their child such a cure would still be left with another question:
Which of you, if your children asked for bread, would hand them a stone?
©2009 Tom Cordle