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Chris Reeve at URI Follow-Up

I don't have too much to add to my comments regarding the Providence Journal's article about Christopher Reeve's visit to the University of Rhode Island to talk about stem cell research. But, since the Projo printed a follow-up about the actual event, I thought I should, as well.

It was about what I expected. Mr. Reeve received a standing ovation coming and going, as is appropriate, and the "opposition" in the debate, Rev. David Ames, Episcopal chaplain at Brown University, appears to have offered up a sufficient lack of opposition. At least the reading public doesn't, apparently, need to know about it. And, really, it would take a courageous man indeed to be too hard on Superman in a wheelchair before an overflowing audience of college kids.

One point made by Reeve jumped out at me, though, so I thought I'd mention it:

"Last week, California took a very bold, brave, courageous initiative," Reeve said. "This is a case of a win-win situation for patients, for researchers, and for an industry."

Even leaving aside the status of the embryos, there's one very interested party left out of this "situation": society. Of course those who benefit from an industry benefit from additional funds and loosened regulations for that industry. I mean, even slavery was a win-win situation for the plantation owners, the slave transporters, and the whole slave industry... even the agriculture industry of the day.

I know, I know, that's a horrible thing to say. Patients are interested in their physical well-being, while slave owners were only interested in their financial well-being. And of course, slaves were obviously "persons," whereas embryos are merely... well... that's the question, I guess. I do remember studying all about the evil racism that was perpetuated in the guise of "science," purporting to prove that slaves were something less than human. Even the law counted them as less than a whole "person." But at least proponents of embryonic stem cell research don't distort science to make their goal seem less objectionable.

Well... the author of the article, G. Wayne Miller, did write:

Use of stem cells is controversial because one type is derived from human embryos, which develop from fertilized eggs and can become fetuses and then babies.

But stem cells can also be grown from unfertilized eggs into which DNA from another individual has been implanted, a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning -- a term that some people confuse with reproductive cloning, a similar technology with the dramatically different goal of producing an identical copy of a person.

Hmm. So the choices are: 1) embryonic stem cells, 2) "unfertilized" eggs magically cloned in some way that isn't really cloning, or 3) no stem cell miracles at all. What about the un-morally-objectionable method of adult stem cell research, which has proven promising? Well, mustn't cloud the waters. And I must be one of those people who "confuses" therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning for the same technology. Would it be a merely a "similar technology" that separates having small children pull my car at the urging of a whip if I'm going to go gambling or to serve soup to the homeless?

Mr. Reeve clarifies, saying that "we all abhor" reproductive cloning:

"But is it possible to agree that life as we know it is the union of male and female?" Reeve said. With unfertilized eggs as the source of stem cells, somatic cell nuclear transfer, he said, "involves no union of male and female."

But wait a second — wouldn't that make a full-grown clone not really "life as we know it"? And isn't that sort of the point? That we don't want to go messing with the creation of life as we don't know it. And why, exactly, do we "abhor" reproductive cloning if not for this reason? But we should not abhor "therapeutic" cloning because:

"Think of loved ones and what might even happen to you in the future and go with your conscience," Reeve said.

My father was frequently told that he looked like Superman back when Christopher Reeve was just beginning to build his fame, so I can picture the juxtaposition pretty well. And it would be difficult, but I would make the same argument to him. I would help his recovery through personal effort, money, fundraising, and prayer, but I could not, in good conscience, change my position because it suddenly affects me (that would make me pretty immoral up to that point). Mr. Reeve's conscience argument could be applied to almost anything. Death penalty: think of your daughter raped and murdered; think of your son as a gone-astray guy who raped and murdered in a fit of passion. War: think of your child being sent off to fight in the desert; think of your child dying of radioactive poisoning at home. And so on... go with your conscience.

Mr. Reeve achieved the underlying goal of an actor for me: he reached me with his performance, in Williamstown, MA, as the lead character in the play Death Takes a Holiday. As I recall, a central conflict toward the end of the play is that somebody has to do the job of Death. It is part of life. Breaking down walls of immorality to achieve immortality — farming unborn human beings — is unnatural, and there lie the seeds of evil.

(If I seem to have gone over the top with this one, consider that, since it is my position that the moral and social costs of pursuing this specific technology — I'm all for adult stem cell research — are not worth the benefits to unfortunate folks like Mr. Reeve, it is incumbent upon me to believe it to be worth a strong stance.)

Posted by Justin Katz @ 09:32 PM EST