Monday, June 07, 2004

Not wasting a second

First up to politicize Reagan's death (as if in death he could be less political than in life, or would want to be, probably), Safire in today's NYT, on stem-cell research. Natch.

The genetics is out of the bottle. This research, whether the government likes it or not, is growing apace. Unless we act now to direct it toward morally acceptable ends — cure and treatment of disease and the extension of active life, not monstrous manipulation and production of clones for spare parts — we risk losing the imperfectability that makes us human.

Yes, imperfections - imperfectability is a labored word, isn't it? - are lovely. The small flaws and ticks that make us who we are - from dimples to off-beat eye color, little glitches in the code leave us snowflake-like in our individuality. But research here isn't so much concerned with eye color or baby gender. Or maybe if it is it's a small price to pay for the potential benefits.

Alzheimers, Parkinsons, and a host of other tricky, awful, debilitating diseases may be cured - or at least better managed through the products of stem-cell research. And while all the world - no, make that all of government and pseudo-theologically based ideologues - fears the proverbial "slippery slope," we're going to fall down eventually. Or someone will - it can be us, or it can be another country who may or may not share the fruits of its labors with the unfriendly Americans.

Safire manages to use the Reagans to ease his usually more hardline warnings on research. It's disturbing the ease with which he waltzes between hope and fear.

Take this winner of a graf:

The widowed former first lady speaks for herself; her husband's views on this will never be known. And perhaps it is unfair to allow sentiment to influence an ethical debate.

A) Yes, she speaks for herself. And I'm sure that Reagan, brain moth-eaten and mind completely lost, were he granted a moment of lucidity, would stand up and say "No, Nancy - that stem-cell research is a slippery slope, we mustn't let science come before careful ethical consideration of every hypothetical doomsday outcome!"

B) Perhaps it's unfair to all sentiment to influence a MEDICAL debate.

Safire does no favors to anyone here. If we'd had careful ethical review of nuclear technology, would we have the bomb today? Okay, how did you answer that question? Now, was that (whatever your answer) a good thing or a bad thing? And doesn't science happen anyway? Time and progress march on - the best we can do is deal with the consequences.

A few designer babies is a small price to pay for the elimination of Alzheimers - a disease that takes away humanity more than stem-cell research could because it eats up the only thing we are - memories, recognition, experience.

And as for Safire's fears of organ harvesting. That is a creepy thought, isn't it? Fields of brainless bodies grown for their functioning hearts or lungs. But is it that much creepier than any family out there praying for the death of an appropriately sized child? Hoping for a teenager to brain-die in a head-on crash that spares his liver?

It's not easy to balance life and death and progress. But it's even less easy for a commission of ethical experts to conceive of rules that would govern a fraction of the situations that arise.

Stem-cell research isn't black and white - it's always a shade of gray matter.

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