Two decades ago, that
kind of anxiety might have sounded alarmist. But we now live in a world
where 8 percent of the infants who die each year in the friendly, civilized,
democratic Netherlands are killed by their own doctors. This is the same
Netherlands where doctors have cooperated in the suicides of people with
early-stage HIV, anorexia and depression; the same Netherlands where an
unsettling number of doctors admit to killing patients without even bothering
to get their permission.
Most pro-lifers already
know the challenges to the sanctity of human life that now exist in nearly
every developed country. Many have been warning about the drift toward infanticide
and euthanasia since the United States legalized abortion 30 years ago.
But what's always struck me as strange is the size of the gulf between how
right the warnings of the pro-life movement have been, and how stubborn
so many people have seemed in ignoring those warnings. It's as if pro-lifers
were the Cassandras of American politics doomed to be correct and
doomed to be ignored at the same time.
Now I think pro-lifers
can and do have a significant influence on American political life. But
it seems pretty reasonable to ask why so many otherwise good people in our
country simply don't see any connection between the advent of Roe v. Wade
and today's arguments over human cloning, or eugenics, or breeding embryos
purely for science.
So I want to suggest
four problems embedded in American culture today that make it almost impossible
for some people to understand what pro-lifers are talking about.
Here's the first problem:
our inability to reason. Most of the arguments in favor of embryonic stem
cell research come down to two main points: (a) Stem cells are really, really
small, therefore they can't be human; and (b) the end justifies the means.
time. It requires a vocabulary of ideas. It involves the testing and comparison
of competing arguments. But America in our lifetimes is a culture built
on marketing, and marketing works in exactly the opposite way. Marketing
appeals to desire and emotion, and it depends on the suppression of critical
thought, which gets in the way of buying the product or the message. That's
why marketing is tied so tightly to image images operate quickly
and very effectively at the sub-rational level. That's why we've seen so
many alien-looking close-ups of stem cells in magazine and newspaper spreads.
The implicit message of the image is: This can't be human; it doesn't even
look like us. The fact that these cells are unique and contain all the genetic
information a person will ever need, and that left alone they will inevitably
progress to a fetus, to an infant and finally to a human adult, is often
The other argument
for embryonic stem-cell research the end justifies the means
is basically an exercise in cost-benefit analysis. And it goes like this:
We need to sacrifice the few for the sake of the many, because the many
outweigh the few. But again, the power of that argument is not rational
but emotional, and it usually translates, in the media, into stories that
pit this or that suffering Parkinson's Disease patient against an inarticulate
petri dish. Of course, we should never dismiss the suffering of individual
patients or their hunger for a cure. But my point is that the structure
of such a comparison is inherently flawed; it's designed to appeal to something
other than our reason. We gravitate to the Parkinson's Disease patient naturally
and emotionally . . . and meanwhile, a very dangerous argument from utility
sneaks past us masquerading as compassion.
Here's the second
problem: our inability to remember. The historian Christopher Lasch once
observed that Americans have an addiction to the new, the fresh and the
practical. We're a people of the "now" the present moment.
We like to think that we invent ourselves, and that anything is possible.
It's part of the American ethos. But the cost of that illusion is that Americans
tend to have a very poor grasp of history, and thus we often learn too little
from the lessons of the past.
To mention just one
example: Quite a few Americans have some general knowledge of Hitler's campaign
against the Jews. But I suspect very few understand that the ethical framework
for the Holocaust was already in place in the German medical establishment
before the Nazis ever came to power. Before turning its attention to the
Jews, the Third Reich had already systematically killed tens of thousands
of people the official word was "disinfected" people
who were insane, mentally handicapped or terminally ill . . . and it did
so using some of the same utilitarian excuses we now hear in the Netherlands.