Stem cell research for the treatment of cancer
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Michael Kinsley Out on a Limb

Stem-Cell Rationale Recalls Ideas of Debunked Scientist

The Clinton Administration recently issued a new set of rules permitting federally funded research on embryonic stem cells. The guidelines were hailed in many quarters as a victory for “science.” But what kind of science? Astonishingly, some supporters are offering arguments that echo the ideas of the racist scientists who paved the way for the Third Reich.

The medical value of stem cells consists in their ability to develop into any other cell type in the body; experts hope that eventually stem cells may be used to replace diseased cells with healthy ones. The reason such research has sparked ethical objections is that stem cells are typically taken from fetuses that have been killed by abortion. Others are obtained by destroying extra embryos left over from in-vitro fertilization.

Stem-cell research thus raises once again all the moral concerns involved in abortion. And once again, some are trying to discredit those concerns by relegating them to the private realm of religion, over against reason and science. For example, in his syndicated column Michael Kinsley dismisses moral objections by linking them to “faith,” as opposed to “reason.” Yet the scientific theory Kinsley himself invokes is outdated, discredited, and downright dangerous.

To support stem-cell research, Kinsley invokes the old principle of “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” the idea that the human embryo replays the steps of evolution. The phrase was coined by 19th-Century German biologist Ernst Haeckel, often cited as a progenitor of National Socialism because of his support for race-based eugenics. To bolster his theory, Haeckel offered the now-familiar illustration of embryos lined up side by side–fish, reptile, bird, human. The trouble is, the illustration was faked. Haeckel was charged with fraud in his own lifetime, and scientists continue to point out that he doctored his drawings to make the embryos appear more similar than they really are. Three years ago Science quoted British embryologist Michael Richardson calling Haeckel’s drawings “one of the most famous fakes in biology.” And last March in Natural History, Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould called the drawings “fraudulent” — “the academic equivalent of murder.”

Yet Haeckel’s illustration continues to appear in modern biology textbooks, and it has entered the public consciousness as one of the best-known “evidences” for evolution. As a result, one sometimes hears the principle of recapitulation invoked explicitly to justify abortion (“After all, at that stage it’s only a fish or a reptile.”) But more commonly the same idea appears as the fuzzy notion that at early stages the embryo is not quite fully human.

Kinsley acknowledges that scientists have debunked the theory of recapitulation per se. But he goes on to restate the same idea in simple, folk terms. He insists that “something similar” to evolution happens in “the development of the individual human being”–namely, “that we each start out as something less than human, that the transformation takes place gradually.”

But stating the concept more vaguely does not mysteriously confer on it scientific credibility. The fact is that, biologically speaking, the human embryo is human from day one. At conception, a new member of Homo sapiens comes into existence as a self-integrating organism whose unity, distinctness, and identity remain intact as it develops.

This is not a matter of anyone’s private “faith,” as Kinsley would have it. It’s a fact of biology.

Indeed, nothing would please pro-life advocates more than to see issues like abortion resolved precisely in accord with the best science regarding the beginning of human life. The case for the pro-life position rests firmly on empirical evidence of the type scientists accept in regard to every other species.

Perilously Thin Basis For Any Ethics

By contrast, the so-called pro-choice position rests not on science but on metaphysics–on concepts such as “personhood” that cannot be detected empirically. Kinsley turns the phrase “human life” into just such a metaphysical concept by insisting that it does not refer to anything factual but is simply a “label we confer.” What’s more, he says, it’s a label that depends completely on “how we choose to define it,” based on what’s important to us in various contexts.

This is the postmodernist view of human life: The term is merely a social construction that we confer if it serves our own purposes.

No doubt Kinsley senses that this is a perilously thin basis for any ethical stance, which is why he appeals to science to bolster his own. But the scientific theory he offers is outdated and discredited. How odd that a contemporary liberal is resurrecting the long-defunct argument of a racist German scientist.