Thursday, July 20, 2006

A "Moral Ayatollah"? Stem Cell Veto Invectives

As an Iowan, I live in a politically conflicted state. We have two senators who are polar opposites on most issues, cancelling out one another’s vote. Ratings by the American Conservative Union (ACU) illustrate this polarity. For 2005, Senator Grassley received a 96 rating, while Senator Harkin received a 4. Only Nevada shows a greater disparity (Reid 4, Ensign 100). Our neighbor to the northwest, South Dakota, also reflects a large divergence with Thune 92 and Johnson at 16.

Such disparities indicate a vastly different view of the world between these two representatives. Sometimes those differences come comes out in their political rhetoric. Normally I tolerate these differences and shrug. But Senator Harkin’s latest harangues on the president’s veto of the bill funding embryonic stem cell research is simply over the top.

Though you may have only heard a sound bite, here is a bigger piece of what Senator Harkin said. (This transcript comes from CQ Transcriptions, available on Lexis):

* * *
“Mr. Snow talked about the taking the life away from these embryos. The president said, they said, "It's wrong to end the life, ending this life to try to give life to something that's living."I want to make it very clear that when embryos are used for stem cell research, they are not destroyed. They are kept alive. How else do you get the tissues? How else do you get the nerve cells? How else do you get the spinal cords? Because they have to grow and exist and live.The only thing that destroys embryos is when they're discarded. And, yet, somehow the president finds that more morally acceptable to discard the embryos than to use them, to keep them alive, to keep them growing so that we can use them to ease suffering and pain and to save lives.

Well, lastly, I said that this displays a great deal of ignorance. You listen to the president's speech and you wonder, "Who was his science teacher?" He or she must be very embarrassed to ever admit that they ever had the president in a science class.And, lastly, let me just say this, how did the president -- who? I might ask: Who set up the president of the United States, this president, as our moral pope? The president of the United States is not our moral ayatollah. He may wish to be, but he's not.”

* * *

The President articulated a moral view (with which I happen to agree) that chose to draw a line in the sand when it comes to federal funding of research on using human embryos. (Keep in mind: this bill is only about using federal tax dollars to fund that research.) These embryos are human life by any definition. How much protection we give to human life says a lot about us as a society. You may disagree with the conclusion that we should or should not fund this kind of research, even if you start from many shared premises. But it is a profound moral issue, which cannot be divorced from important questions about how we treat human life.

We have never adopted a purely utilitarian calculus of benefits when it comes to medical actions. For example, we don't harvest the organs of condemned prisoners, regardless of the potential to save other lives. We do so based on other moral principles.

Like many on the Left, Senator Harkin apparently feels no moral qualms about treating human life like a commodity from which value can be extracted for the benefit of the many. However, the rationalization of the greater good poses dangers that cannot be taken lightly.

If we suppose instead that the Congress was voting on whether to use Senator Harkin for scientific research that could save others, I would speculate that Senator Harkin would object and perhaps even find that to be immoral. And his bizarre rationale – keeping the embryo alive to harvest the tissues is not killing them, and therefore morally acceptable – would probably not be found persuasive if we simply explained that we wanted to use the Senator as a living culture dish. (And of course, what happens when the tissues are extracted and the experiment is over?)

Apparently a majority of our representatives in both houses went along with Senator Harkin on this matter. But an attempt to divorce this issue from any moral debate suggests a cold conscience, which admits only fealty to the power of the majority will. Much evil is done in the guise of taking from some to help the greater good. We must keep watch. Not every issue can be resolved with utilitarian calculus, and life issues are particularly fragile ones.

To call someone who disagrees with your position a “moral ayatollah” in these times is shameful behavior. ("Moral pope" surely was also not intended as a respectful title, either.) The President was merely exercising his constitutional prerogative. Although the Senator may ask who was the President’s science teacher, I think a more interesting question is who was the Senator’s Sunday School teacher?



Anonymous said...

Maybe Senator Harkin was "on drugs."

shawn said...

You said in this article,
"Like many on the Left, Senator Harkin apparently feels no moral qualms about treating human life like a commodity from which value can be extracted for the benefit of the many."

Hey, wait a minute. Bush spent all his political power in Iraq. He feels no "moral qualms" treating the solders, or taxpayers, there as a means to his goal, which seems simply unachievable. So, this shows the right does this as well. Even further, people do this. People treat others as commodities regardless of left or right political affiliation. So in conclusion, this is not a left problem. Rather, a problem posed to everyone.

Ed Morse said...

Shawn, consider Marxism/Leninism as a prime example of the Left, where the state is preeminent and individual rights yield to the interests of the greater good. The starvation of the masses or killing of dissidents (in both cases, innocent life involuntarily taken) was of no moment, for it was for the good of the revolution.

Wars are different cases, in that combatants (in this case, persons who volunteer for our army) are intentionally entering the battlefield for the purpose of exercising force to dominate an enemy. They are submitting to the will of their commanders, to be sure. But the moral aspects of war differ substantially from that involving innocent life.

Moreover, even if life is taken in war, it is not to be taken lightly. Indeed, it is taken with such seriousness that we take great pains to avoid civilian casualties, to the loss of our own soldiers.

I used the word "commodity" to imply callous disregard. The Senator did not seem to see anything troubling about using the embryos in this way. (Yet they are human life, as the voices of all the children surrounding the President, who came from embryos just like them, aptly demonstrated in his press conference.)

I share your concern about treating life like a commodity, though. I agree it is possible for anyone to do this, and that it is a problem posed to everyone, as you say. However, history does show us that, on balance, this is a greater problem for those on the left, as illustrated by the deaths of so many in communist countries where the state is preeminent and human rights are dismissed. There is enough blame and error to go around, though. No one's hands are clean.

On this issue, realize that we are living off some of our past capital, where rights were ultimately rooted in the belief that they were endowed by God.

The left wing in the US often uses the language of human rights, but notice how often they are rooted in actions by the state to cut off the freedom of others. They also use the term without an adequate foundation for those rights. Views of moral philosophy are important here. (The amoral approach of the senator was particularly troubling.)If a commitment to human rights is rooted only in a majority vote, watch out. Otherwise,you may be the chicken in the group of foxes voting on what's for dinner.

Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

Shawn - your comment is absolutely correct.

Morse's statements about the "left" being the "more guilty" when it comes to treating life as a commodity simply ignore the fact that the REPUBLICAN dominated government approves of stem cell research. Identifying the minority party as chiefly to blame for treating life as a commodity is just silly, as is all that rubbish about Marxism/Leninism and the Left.