Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
President Bush’s non-decision on funding for stem-cell research isn’t simply the political compromise it’s being taken for: It’s a moral fumble that hides its essential cowardice behind sanctimonious rhetoric about “vast ethical minefields” and “profound ethical questions.”
On the surface, Bush’s announcement that he will support federal financing for stem-cell research — but only on those stem cell “lines” that have already been created from previously destroyed human embryos — looks like a split-the-difference decision that, while hardly Solomonic in its subtlety, seems to offer something to both sides of this debate. Supporters of the research, which scientists believe offers a revolutionary new opportunity to cure intractable illnesses such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, get to feel relieved that at least some research will be funded. Opponents are supposed to be placated that no further embryos will be destroyed in the cause of medical research.
But that’s where the logic of Bush’s decision simply falls apart. The fact is that thousands of embryos were destroyed each year before stem-cell research was an option, and thousands will continue to be destroyed each year no matter what Bush decided. These embryos are a byproduct of in vitro fertilization techniques that are in widespread use today by couples who have difficulty conceiving children by natural means. These couples aren’t “anti-life”; they’re trying to have families. Modern science, in its miracle-working clumsiness, can help them, but excess embryos are an inevitable byproduct. Since there are far more embryos than donors willing or eager to provide wombs for them, even those couples who have qualms about destroying their unwanted embryos aren’t often able to find an alternative.
For opponents of stem-cell research, like Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas, who feel that destroying embryos is tantamount to murder, the campaign against stem-cell research is a pathetic dodge: If they really feel that way, they should be campaigning to outlaw in vitro fertilization itself. They’re not doing that because it’s politically suicidal and self-contradictory: Fertility treatment, after all, is just a latter-day means to be fruitful and multiply; what could be more “pro-life”?
Embryos are being destroyed, and will continue to be destroyed, as long as in vitro fertilization is available. Bush’s decision doesn’t change that. So the only real question is, will these embryos have any meaning or offer anything toward the greater good of humanity? Can anything of value be rescued from their destruction? Can their loss help save other lives?
Stem-cell research actually offers a positive answer to this moral quandary. President Bush could have embraced this opportunity, and still drawn a clear ethical line: There’s a difference between embryos created with the intent to make a baby, like the in vitro castoffs, and those produced — as a private stem-cell lab recently announced it had done — solely for the purpose of research.
Bush could have taken a courageous stand, drawing a more sensible, and defensible, ethical distinction: not between embryos destroyed in the past and those to be inevitably destroyed in the future, but instead between embryos created with intent to produce life and those created solely to be destroyed for their stem cells.
If intention carries any moral weight, as our laws generally have it, then this is the decision Bush should have made, and could have been applauded for. If intention doesn’t make a difference — and Bush believes that destroying embryos is immoral no matter what the original purpose behind their conception — then he should have stood in front of the nation Thursday and called for the shutdown of fertility clinics.
Of course, doing so might cost him the next election. And that, not morality, is what’s governing his handling of this particular “vast ethical minefield.”
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)