It’s all the same: dead is dead

16 03 2009

Drill Babies, Drill’?

Ah, yes. Another stunning allegory from William Saletan. He’s just discovered that scientists find fetal tissue useful, and wonders why arguments in favor of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research aren’t similarly applied to research on fetuses.

What he neglects is that federal guidelines on fetal research have long been in place (here’s the relevant statute, revised in 2005; see subpart B), as well as being subject to ethical and political skirmishes (regarding, for example, the admissibility of transplants of fetal material; cf. then-Secretary of HHS Sullivan’s rulings in the late 1980s).

So what’s new in what Saletan has to say? Not much.

I guess he’s going after the rhetoric: Those in favor of hESC research tend to argue for the urgency of such research: It’ll save lives! It’ll improve quality of life! We’ll learn so much more about human development. . . which will help us save lives and improve the quality of life!

If this is the case for hESC research, he wonders, why aren’t those in favor of research on fetuses making similar claims?

Well, in some cases, they have (I’ll have to dig out the cites), but these were arguments made years and decades ago. More to the point, perhaps, is precisely what Saletan both highlights and elides: Partisans in the hESC debate deploy rhetoric strategically (disassembling a blastocyst versus dismembering a human being), such that those who favor fetal research are likely not to want to trumpet a line of research which would create rhetorical openings to those opponents.

After all, many people distinguish between the status of an embryo and that of the fetus, such that most folks (if you trust poll data) don’t see embryo destruction as equivalent to dismemberment, while harvesting tissue from a fetus might seem, mm, grotesque.

Thus the reaction of Rod Dreher at Crunchy Con, who theorizes that fetal research will lead to the mining and cannibalization of babies.

As I point out in the comments to his initial post, however, I question the logic which links the harvesting of cadaveric fetal tissue to cannibalization—not least because he doesn’t consider how this situation is any different from the harvesting of adult cadaveric tissue for research and transplantation.

In other words, as grotesque as research on cadaveric fetal tissue may appear, it’s not clear to me that it is in kind any different from research on any other cadaver-derived tissue. The only difference is what led to the availability of that tissue: Abortion, in the first case, and death caused by accident or disease.

I have my own questions regarding transplantation and the pressures to donate (or create a market for)  tissues and organs, and generally think skepticism ought to be applied to any claims of Imminent Medical Breakthroughs! That said, I think that those who criticize fetal-tissue research exclusively are unwilling to allow that there could be any medical-social benefits from abortion.

They might truly be appalled by research on fetuses. I simply wonder why they are not similarly appalled by research on adults.


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