Right Question

Asking the right question is usually more productive than trying to prove the right answer.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Thoughts about Embryos, Part I

In any moral issue, the question "what is this called" is never the Right Question, and a debate about what terms to use is equivalent to the part of foreign policy negotiations where we work out what size flags to put next to the seats. In contemporary politics, it's become a way to appear to take positions and debate issues, without having to actually do anything of the kind. This isn't what I thought I was getting into when I eagerly opened up Charles Krauthammer's recent column on the Washington Post's Op-Ed page. I've grown accustomed over the last year or two to agreeing with most of what he writes, or at least finding a well-thought-out position that I don't agree with - his pieces on foreign policy have become essential reading for me. This week, his topic is an amalgam of stem-cell research, cloning, embryos, and an apparent "gotcha" on congressional democrats.

Let's start with the gotcha -- during this year's State of the Union, President Bush reiterated his desire to "ensure that human embryos are not created for experimentation or for body parts." There was applause for this principle on both sides of the aisle. "Aha!" cries Krauthammer, but many congressional Democrats support exactly that. In research cloning, a somatic cell is returned to totipotence, effectively making it an embryonic cell. Therefore, he says, a human embryo has been created. And thus supporters of research cloning who applauded the no-new-embryo's line are hypocrites.(*)

Some readers will probably be nodding their heads at this logic and yelling "touché" at their pro-research-cloning friends. Others will be crying "foul!" at the notion that a single embryonic cell constitutes a human embryo. They will point out perfectly good terms like blastocyst and zygote, and claim that it's not an embryo until it's implanted, or until 14 days post-conception, or something like that. Behold the Orwellian arena of argument by redefining terms. Rather than make an argument against a moral distinction your opponent is making, just call the two things he wants to distinguish by the same term, call him a hypocrite and claim victory. ("But you already agreed that embryos shouldn't be used this way - and this is an embryo too!") This is just the flip side of the faux argument by defining different classes with science-based distinctions and claiming victory. ("That's not a baby, it's an eight-month fetus.") In both cases, the debater has sidestepped the part where he actually makes an argument supporting his position - that a single cell should be treated with the same respect as a complex organism or that an organism's rights are a matter of location (the only distinction between a one-month premature baby and an eight-month fetus).

So count me among those crying “Foul!” on Mr. Krauthammer - he knows perfectly well that these congressional Democrats aren't being hypocrites, they just have a different understanding of the issue than he does. He knows when they rose to applaud they didn't hear what he heard, when the president said "that human embryos are not created" they didn't hear "that no somatic cells are rendered totipotent." They see an important moral distinction between a half-dozen cells and a four-week embryo with the beginnings of a nervous system. He's welcome to disagree, even to believe that their view is incoherent -- he might even be right. But having a mistaken or different belief on an issue is absolutely not the same thing as coming to the debate in bad faith. There's been far too much use of the important and meaningful terms, "hypocrite" and "liar" in the past several years when what the speaker (or writer) really means is "someone who disagrees with me" or "someone who is wrong." And when the two sides in an important public policy debate refuse to understand what the words mean to those on the other side, nothing good can come of it.

(Coming soon, Parts II and III... in which I actually talk about the issue of research cloning and stem-cell research)

(*) In fairness, he actually writes, "The Democrats were oblivious to this contradiction." -- and never uses the word hypocrite, but he does simply assume that their applause indicates support for what he wants the declaration to mean, not what we all know they took it to mean.

UPDATE: Some discussion of the op-ed which spawned this at Of Cabbages and Kings. Note especially the piece it references from Slate, with reporting on the recent meeting of the President's Council on Bioethics which prompted Charles Krauthammer's piece.


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