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Baby, It's Cold Inside! | The Nation

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Baby, It's Cold Inside!

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The President now says he will make the decision on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research before Labor Day--in time to catch the wave of his just-announced refocusing of his Administration on "values." (Apparently tax cuts for the rich and drilling in the Arctic aren't catnip to women voters. Who knew? Bring on that all-abstinence-all-the-time cable station America's soccer moms are clamoring for!) Perhaps revealing more than he intended about customary decision-making procedures at the White House, Bush has said that his Administration is being "unusually deliberative" about stem cells. Most people, not to mention the powerful biotech industry, say they want the research to go forward, even though it involves the destruction of four- to six-day-old blastocysts left over from fertility treatments. However, Bush not only promised during the campaign that he would eliminate the funding, he went to the Vatican in July for direction, as any good Methodist would do, where the Pope declared that "a tragic coarsening of consciences accompanies the assault on innocent human life in the womb," and out of it, too. If only Bush had gone to a rabbi--modern medicine practically is the Jewish religion.

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Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt
Katha Pollitt is well known for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. Her "Subject to...

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In a rational world, the President would decide on funding by thinking about whether this was the best use of the country's money and brainpower--but then, in a rational world, the President would not be making this decision at all, as if he were a medieval king dispensing largesse and boons. In this world, the stem cell debate is not about health policy, it's about abortion: Is a 150-cell blastocyst--the equivalent of a fertilized egg not yet implanted in the womb--a person or not? Many people usually lined up on the antichoice side have a hard time visualizing a frozen speck as a baby, especially since, as my friend Dr. Michelle pointed out, that frozen speck could be helping to cure diseases Republican men get, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. (Would we be having this debate if the research showed promise to cure Chagas' disease and sleeping sickness?)

According to Orrin Hatch, it's OK to destroy a frozen embryo because the embryo is only a person if it's in a woman. This location theory of personhood is obviously unsatisfactory: You put the cells in the woman, it's a person, you take them out, it's not a person, you put them back in, voilà!--it's a person again. You might as well say Orrin Hatch is a person in his office but not in his car. If, as antichoicers like to claim, what makes personhood is a full set of chromosomes--rather than, say, possession of a gender, a body, a head, a brain--then a clump of cells in an ice cube tray is at least as much a person as Trent Lott. Maybe more.

I think I see a way to help the President out of his difficulties. The White House should ask opponents of embryonic stem cell research to sign a legally binding pledge forgoing any treatment or procedures derived from it, both for themselves and their minor offspring. If they really believe that frozen embryos are children, they should have no problem with this. An impressive list of right-wing pundits have laid out the argument in characteristically colorful fashion: Andrew Sullivan, for instance, insisted in The New Republic that the blastocyst is "the purest form of human being" and to kill it is to "extinguish us." (Someone should tell him that nearly half of all fertilized eggs fail to implant and are washed out with menstruation--maybe there should be funerals for tampons, just to be on the safe side.) In the Washington Times, Michael Fumento writes that stem cell research "rightly or wrongly" summons up visions of Dr. Mengele's Auschwitz experiments. Who, after all, would be willing to treat their illness with a potion of boiled 5-year-olds? Well, maybe some very bad 5-year-olds, already set on the path to crime and low SAT scores by single mothers, but you see my point. As Eric Cohen put it in The Weekly Standard, "to ask the sick and dying to love the mystery of life more than their own lives" is a bit like asking comfortable Americans to sacrifice themselves in wars against tyranny around the globe: "Both require a courageous commitment to something larger than self-interest." The mystery of life versus, well, life. Let's put people on record.

If frozen embryos really are children, though, is it enough not to kill them? Don't we need to rescue them from the icy wasteland to which they have been consigned? Their selfish yuppie biological parents may have abandoned them, but the Family Research Council says that every frozen embryo should have "an opportunity to be born" and I am surprised that the antichoicers haven't yet rallied to the cause. True, a few women unable to conceive naturally have been implanted with the leftover embryos of others, but there are some 100,000 frozen embryos in need of homes--it's like a whole other foster-care system.

Antichoice women are the only hope to get those embryos out of Frigidaire limbo. As they like to say, an extra pregnancy is just an inconvenience, its health dangers much exaggerated by prochoice babykillers and its opportunities for moral growth scorned by our culture of death. So, Concerned Women for America, give a frozen embryo the gift of gestation! Mona Charen, Ann Coulter, it isn't enough to write columns comparing stem cell research to tearing transplantable organs out of freshly killed prisoners--you could be leading the way! Think of the talk-show opportunities. ("Chris, some people think we right-wing women are a pack of peroxided harpies, but when I thought of those adorable cells just trapped in there with the yogurt, I knew I had to help!") They can always put the baby up for adoption so it will be raised by normal people, as they think pregnant singles ought to do. Frozen embryo rescue would be an interesting project for the Sisters of Life, the antichoice order of nuns founded by the late John Cardinal O'Connor. Sort of a virgin birth kind of thing.

In a pinch, the President can always call on welfare moms laid off from their jobs at Wendy's in the looming recession. It would be a natural extension of his plan to offer healthcare directly to poor fetuses, a sort of housing program for blastocysts. Compassionate conservatism at its best!

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