The back-and-forth in the Senate and the White House these past few days had me thinking, thinking about life and what it means to be alive, to take a life. I kept thinking about what the President said, that he would execute his only veto in six years should the Senate approve a bill to resume federal stem cell funding for embryonic stem cells. It was the *reason* he said this that really bothered me: he equates the destruction of an embryo to conduct research (even if it saves a million humans in fifty years) with murder.
Murder – the deliberate act of taking the life of another – is a crime. Even though the Bible, and most other major holy texts – are full of justified murder, killing another human being is broadly condemned by God. In civil society, the law looks upon the murder of a person quite unfavorably, and rightly so. It’s the ultimate act of infringing on the rights of another, the intentional and irreversible robbing of life.
The trouble in all of this is the word “life”. Everybody defines it, based on a private morality, and that’s the problem. Some people define the fertilized egg as life, some define it as the moment the central nervous system makes the fetus responsive to its environment, and some define it as the moment the baby is born into the world. When life begins, and what gives value to life, seem to be where the President and the Senate (and me) split. The President considers a human embryo as a life, entitled to the same rights as a child or a full-grown adult. The Senate takes the more measured and thoughtful view that human embryos are not the same as humans (let’s see an embryo defend itself, or find food, without the protection of the mother’s womb), and that their destruction is inevitable (especially in bulk in fertility clinics) but should not be without reason. This thoughtful view is about to be wiped off the table by the President’s reactionary and myopic definition of “life”. I only hope that the Congress can muster the votes to overturn the veto.
My own view is complicated, but can be summarized as follows: I am more than a collection of a few tens of cells, rattling around in the soft comfort of a petri dish or a womb. I am more than a blastocyst, which is the fertilized structure that is sacrificed to obtain embryonic stem cells (picture to the left). I am a feeling, sensing, articulate being, capable of forming memories and language, capable of expression and deep understanding. I am more than my cells, whose mechanistic function day-in and day-out maintains my immunity to disease, digests my food, and processes oxygen for energy. To define a human being as nothing more than a pile of cells is insulting, in just the opposite way that valuing animal life below human life is insulting. In the former, we degrade our being and equate a few tens of cells with the kicking of the baby, the first cries after birth, the first day of school, the first kiss. In the latter, we set ourselves apart from nature and make ourselves masters, better than the universe that created us.
I, and you as well, have a sense of what a friend once called “I”. “I” is a perception that lives above the normal routine functioning of my kidneys, my spleen, my stomach, my brain. “I” means I somehow perceive myself as a collection of experiences, and “I” am somehow capable of distilling experience to guide future decisions. “I” am capable of understanding that four forces govern the structure of the universe, that there are 12 building blocks and countless questions to which I do not have an answers. I believe this is the result of a complex chemistry in my brain, a rich blend of reactions that make possible my ability to put thoughts into this blog. I challenge any blastocyst to do the same.
I value the whole life, not just the stuff that life is built from. I value the ability of a fetus to feel pain after several months of development, I value the loving and learning mind of a child hungry to know the world, and I value the health of an adult who has put so much of their life already behind them. If sacrificing castaway blastocysts can save lives, then I say let us invest our lives to realizing the potential of stem cells. But please do not tell me that I am no more human, no more alive, than an unfeeling, inarticulate blastocyst.