The contemporary argument regarding stem-cell research may not be on the radar screen of a whole lot of Americans, but for those who understand its significance, the issue raises considerable emotion. President George W. Bush is said to be experiencing severe angst as he tries to make up his mind on whether or not to authorize government funding of such research. Why? Aren’t we only talking about a few soon-to-be-discarded human embryos hardly larger than the period at the end of this sentence? And don’t the possible results of such research look so promising in the area of easing human suffering in the future? So what’s the big fuss? Isn’t this a slam-dunk?

And of course the answer to that question is an unqualified “yes”–if one applies only the logic of pragmatism to the entire debate. Frankly, the argument on the side of funding–and proceeding full-speed ahead with–the research is a compelling one, looked at pragmatically. The upsides are many:
• The potential easing of pain and suffering in the lives of countless people with illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease and other painful, debilitating ailments.
• The gaining of insights into the prevention of birth defects.
• The fact that the embryos in question are likely to be discarded at some point anyway.
• The reality that something the size of a pin-head, be it human or otherwise, cannot be said to experience pain or suffering as a result of the procedure.

Add up all of those arguments and others, and it would seem that we should jump at the chance.

But not so fast. The reason the President is agonizing–and that others are lined up in solid opposition to the idea–is that there are other factors which operate in the reasoning of many of us. To put it in a nutshell, the issue is one of principle: can we afford to treat human life–even in its embryonic form–in a cavalier fashion? The implications to our answers to this broader question are consequential indeed, for they involve matters of life and death.

When it comes to respecting human life, many have argued against abortion on secondary grounds. Abortion, they say, can harm women–and it clearly can. Abortion can create psychological wrecks of women, lading them with feelings of guilt they never overcome–unarguable. Abortion is not nearly as safe as pro-choicers would have us believe–true. The aborted fetuses often can feel pain–remember “Silent Scream”? One can martial pragmatic argument after pragmatic argument against abortion–and be met with pragmatic argument after pragmatic argument in its favor. What’s more, most all of the pragmatic arguments don’t work when it comes to stem-cell research issues. So again, why not?

The answer–unpopular as it is to say it in this pragmatic age–is that there is, at least potentially, a principle at stake. I know, I know, millions of Americans say they don’t believe in principles anymore; “no such thing as absolute truth” is the mantra of the postmodern generation. And yet there are principles that transcend time, morality that transcends culture, truth that is absolute. And the principle in this case is that human life must be treated with the dignity which it deserves as coming from a Creator.

Even so, one might ask, isn’t it a stretch to apply such a principle to a pin-dot embryo? And the answer to that question boils down to one issue: what is it? Is the thing human, or is it not? People who argue for abortion-on-demand want to talk about “women’s rights” and “every child a wanted child” and “the financial burden” and assorted hokum, when the issue there is the same: what is it? If “it” were a three-year-old, we wouldn’t argue for killing “it”, because “it” would be a child, and we’d go to great lengths to preserve its life, regardless of financial burden or whatever. My argument is that the full-term fetus is human, and so is the tiny embryo, and so if every pragmatic argument in the book can be marshalled in favor of stem-cell research, we ought not do it. Because we don’t treat 3-year-olds as guinea pigs, let’s not treat any viable fetus that way either.

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