People With One Watch, Part III

    I celebrate myself;
    And what I assume you shall assume;
    For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you. (Walt Whitman, Song of Myself)

(Note: This is a continuation of the previous two posts; if you haven’t read those, much of this won’t make sense.)

Embryonic stem cell research, from two perspectives. Elizabeth C. writes,

Regarding stem cell research, destroying human life at any time prior to its ability to sustain itself is murder. To the thinking mind, the term “harvesting” is descriptive enough to prevent legalization. We are messing with life itself, believing ourselves so scientifically advanced that we can get away with it. It’s just a matter of time before the legalized slaughter of the lambs via abortion finds us unprepared for the ultimate results: A world deprived of what would have been, had life been allowed. …

… My beloved grandchildren are proof enough for me that lives lost via abortion and stem cell research would have been lives loved, had their biological parents not made the easiest choice in today’s McDonald’s society, here today, gone tomorrow, whatever the reason.

The other perspective: Laurie Strongin writes in the Washington Post about the death of her son, Henry, who was born with Fanconi’s anemia. “Our only hope lay on the frontiers of science, in human embryo and stem cell research,” she writes. She found a doctor named Mark Hughes, then chief of reproductive and prenatal genetics at the National Institutes of Health, who had pioneered a stem cell procedure he thought could save Henry.

But on Jan. 9, 1997, an article in The Washington Post reported that Hughes was violating a two-year-old federal ban on human embryo research with his work on PGD.

Under the ban, Hughes was barred from performing that work as part of his position at NIH. Refusing to abandon his research or the families who were depending on it, he set up a lab as part of an in vitro fertility program at a private hospital across the street in Bethesda. But he was considered in violation of the federal law because his work at the hospital employed NIH research fellows and used NIH equipment — a refrigerator.

Over the following weeks, the daily headlines all read the same to me: Henry is going to die. As our doctor was forced to resign from his job and faced congressional hearings, Henry’s blood counts declined. We searched for alternatives to PGD, but none existed. The politically triggered delay had stolen precious time in our race to save Henry’s life. On Dec. 11, 2002, he died in my arms.

The procedure that Henry was denied because of a refrigerator was the same one used to save the life of Molly Nash, who also was born with Fanconi’s anemia. Today Molly is eleven years old and free from disease.

The odds that any particular blastocyst, once frozen, will ever become a baby are, well, long. It’s likely most will never be thawed. A large part of those that are thawed will not survive thawing. And of the select few that survive thawing and are implanted in a uterus, only some will result in a pregnancy. Yet by some twisted moral algebra, these blastocysts are considered more precious (to some people, like Elizabeth C.) than a child like Henry.

Recent news stories say that about 400,000 surplus frozen embryos are in storage in America. But according to this article in the current issue of Mother Jones, the number 400,000 represents the embryos stored in 2002. Four years later, there is every reason to believe the actual number is higher — close to half a million — and growing rapidly.

In other words, during the time it took for about 110 “snowflake children” to be born, another 200,000 blastocysts went into storage.

The Fetus People have persuaded themselves that since only a small percentage of stored embryos have been designated by their “parents” to be made available for research, the remainder are just sitting around waiting for Mommy and Daddy to thaw them out and pop them in the oven. This is, of course, nonsense. As the Mother Jones article linked above makes clear, the in vitro process requires creating a surplus of blastocysts to achieve one pregnancy. But once treatment is over many parents struggle with the choice of storing, donating, or destroying the leftovers. Many couples choose to store the blastocysts even though they have no intention of using them —

[A] woman described her embryos as a psychic insurance policy, providing “intangible solace” against the fundamental parental terror that an existing child might die. “What if [my daughter] got leukemia?” said yet another, who considered her frozen embryos a potential source of treatment. A patient put the same notion more bluntly: “You have the idea that in a warehouse somewhere there’s a replacement part should yours get lost, or there is something wrong with them.”

For others, embryos carried a price tag that made them seem like a consumer good; a few parents considered destroying them to be a “waste” of all the money spent on treatment.

Michael Kinsley, who supports stem cell research, writes that “if embryos are human beings with full human rights, fertility clinics are death camps.”

In any particular case, fertility clinics try to produce more embryos than they intend to implant. Then — like the Yale admissions office (only more accurately) — they pick and choose among the candidates, looking for qualities that make for a better human being. If you don’t get into Yale, you have the choice of attending a different college. If the fertility clinic rejects you, you get flushed away — or maybe frozen until the day you can be discarded without controversy.

And fate isn’t much kinder to the embryos that make this first cut. Usually several of them are implanted in the hope that one will survive. Or, to put it another way, in the hope that all but one will not survive. And fertility doctors do their ruthless best to make these hopes come true.

Kinsley argues that if one genuinely believes that destroying a blastocyst to extract stem cells is murder, then logically one must also be opposed to in vitro fertilization. The routine practices of fertility clinics destroy far more blastocysts than would ever likely be destroyed for stem cell research. “And yet, no one objects, or objects very loudly,” Kinsley says. “President Bush actually praised the work of fertility clinics in his first speech announcing restrictions on stem cells.”

The fact is, opponents of stem cell research routinely lie — to themselves, to each other, to anyone who will listen — in order to defend their belief that embryonic stem cell research is immoral. This suggests to me that the real reasons people object to stem cell research have less to do with moral principle than with some deeply submerged but potent fear. And this takes us back to elective ignorance. Something about flushing all those blastocysts makes the Fetus People uncomfortable in a way that condemning Henry Strongin to death does not. The arguments they make against stem cell research, which are mostly a pile of lies and distortions, are not the reasons they are opposed to stem cell research. They are the rationalizations created to justify their opposition.

Exactly what it is that frightens the Fetus People so is beyond the scope of a blog post. I hope the social psychologists will get out their chi squares and p values and get to work on finding the answer. But I hypothesize that many of them have years of ego investment in anti-abortion propaganda, to the point that they’re chanting “life begins at conception” in their sleep. If they give so much as a millimeter of ground on the “conception” issue their entire worldview, which includes their self-identity, will crumble apart. Hence, they are less concerned with saving Henry Strongin than with saving blastocysts. Hence, elective ignorance.

I’ve explained my views on “when life begins” before. Many on the Right are absolutely certain that “conception” is the only possible answer, but in fact there are a multitude of different answers that can be arrived at both scientifically and philosophically. As this essay explains nicely, across time and cultures there have been many different opinions as to when life “begins.” Even the Catholic Church has changed its papal mind several times in its history.

The Fetus People argue that since a human blastocyst is human, and alive, it must be human life and therefore entitled to all the rights and privileges and protections the law allows. Others of us think claiming a blastocyst is equal in value to, say, Nelson Mandela is self-evidently absurd; DNA does not equal personhood. And “human life” doesn’t explain why blastocysts are protected with more ferocity than Henry Strongin. We might giggle at Senator Brownback’s Amazing Talking Embryos, but in truth we’re allowing medical and scientific policies to be set by people with simplistic, childish, even primitive ideas about medicine and science. Not funny.

As I explained in Part I of this little trilogy, we’re all conditioned from birth to understand ourselves and the world around us in a certain way. Ultimately our understanding of blastocysts and Henrys and their relative value is based on how we understand some pretty basic stuff, like selfness and beingness, life and death, us and other. Those who insist that life “begins” at conception have a very rigid and narrow understanding of these matters.

I’m going to attempt to explain my understanding as best I can, just as an example. I don’t expect anyone to agree with me, which is not a problem as far as I’m concerned.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, it seems to me that life doesn’t “begin” at all. However it got to this planet four billion years ago, it hasn’t been observed to “begin” since. Instead, life expresses itself in myriad forms. And whatever it is you are is a result of a process stretching back those four billion years. Calling any point a “beginning” seems arbitrary to me.

What is the self? If you’ve ever done time in a Zen monastery, that’s the question the Roshi brings up, over and over again. Kensho might be defined as a paradigm shift of self-ness; a realization that you are not what you thought you were. The realized self is not something that can be explained, but a basic (if crude) analogy is that an individual “self” is a phenomenon of life, as a wave is a phenomenon of ocean. When a wave begins nothing is added to the ocean, and when a wave ceases nothing is taken away from the ocean. Although a wave is a distinct phenomenon, it is also ocean. A person is a distinct being, yet at the same time a person is the great ocean of Being. At birth, nothing is gained; at death, nothing is lost.

So, while I am I and you are you, at the same time I am you and you are me, whether we like it or not.

As I said, this is very crude, and if you ever get interested in Buddhism don’t attach to it. Concepts are always short of reality. But if you understand yourself this way, then you understand all individuals and organisms throughout space and time as a great interconnected process. And you and me and all the blastocysts in the IVF clinics and all the suffering people waiting for the cures that stem cell research promises are all One. In a sense, every atom belonging to one of us as good belongs to everybody.

The “life begins at conception” model, on the other hand, assumes that at conception the individual is broken off from all the rest of Creation and hence is alone in the universe. Seems cold, I say. The Buddha taught that understanding yourself this way leads to grasping and greed, which is the source of all suffering. (See The Four Noble Truths.) Thus the Fetus People are making us all miserable with their campaigns to Save Every Blastocyst while keeping people who have already dissipated back into the Ocean of Being hooked up to life support. At the base of this is (I postulate) their own existential fear.

That’s my take, which you are free to dismiss; I don’t insist everyone share my worldview. But I argue that there is nothing moral about saving surplus blastocysts from being used in medical research, just as there is nothing principled about lying to yourself and others to justify your opinions. Indeed, from a Buddhist perspective it is deeply immoral to keep hundreds of thousands of blastocysts in cold storage — where they are not expressing life — when they could be used to alleviate suffering and express life through other individuals.

If you respect life, you don’t waste it.

    What do you think has become of the young and old men?
    And what do you think has become of the women and children?
    They are alive and well somewhere;
    The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;
    And if ever there was, it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
    And ceas’d the moment life appear’d. (Walt Whitman)

19 thoughts on “People With One Watch, Part III

  1. Profound.

    It’s a shame the people who most need this article will never read it, or if they do, never understand it, or if they do, never accept it.

  2. This is beautifully simple. Thank you, maha! I also agree with Vaxalon, even if you could get the Fetus People to hear this, they would reject it as ‘heathen.’

  3. Back in the olden days when I used to argue with The Fetus People, they would always get around to asking me, “What if you’re mother had believed in abortion?”

    And that question seemed to tell me everything. They thought it was a show-stopper. But I always had the same answer: “She did. I was planned.”

    And they always seemed completely unprepared for that. It was as if it had never occurred to them that babies occurred any other way, as if all were unplanned and all would have been aborted if the mothers had not been opposed to abortion.

    As, I believe, they suspected they would have been.

  4. Masterful, thank you. I was looking forward to your post today and you didn’t disappoint me. Along with the others I wish some “fetus” people would read it.

    Something I’ve been realizing more and more is I have to have patience and just try and change one persons mind at a time.

    Thanks again.

  5. Why is a child’s life seemingly less important than a blastocyst?

    Because when a child’s life ends, it is because it is “God’s will.” When anyone’s life ends (unless it is done by the lawful means and methods of the various death penalties), it is “God calling him/her home.” The Fetus People simply are willing to accept the death of a child, and adult, or hundreds of thousands of people due to lack of treatments available because of God’s will.

    It’s not consistent, obviously. Terri Schaivo was not God’s will, at least not by their definition. But that’s the logic being used.

  6. “Because when a child’s life ends, it is because it is “God’s will.”

    Ah, right. This fills in a gap in my little armchair analysis from the Part II comments, as a specific theological version of a general principle which I will phrase very poorly as: a bad thing caused through inaction – or less direct, removed action – is better than one that happens through direct action.

    For example (I think):
    Anna [is] standing on the embankment above a train track, watching a track-maintenance team do its work. Suddenly, Anna hears the sound of a train barrelling down the tracks: the brakes have failed, and the train is heading straight for the six workers. Beside Anna is a lever; if she pulls it, the train will be forced onto a side track and will glide to a halt without killing anyone. Should she pull the lever?

    No moral dilemma yet . . . In the second scenario, Bob finds himself in the same situation, except that one of the six maintenance people is working on the side track. Now the decision Bob faces is whether to pull the lever to save five lives, knowing that if he does, a man who would otherwise have lived will be killed.

    In a third version . . . the sixth worker is standing beside Camilla on the embankment. The only way to stop the train, and save the lives of the five people on the track, is for Camilla to push the man beside her down onto the track. By pushing him in front of the train and so killing him, she would slow it down enough to save the others. . .

    . . .89 percent of subjects agree that it is permissible for Bob to pull the lever to save five lives at the cost of one but that it is not permissible for Camilla to make the same tradeoff by pushing the man onto the track.

    (from a very neat little article on recent work in moral psychology).

    Which suggests it might be useful to make as concrete as possible – as you do here, Maha – how the intentional act of passing such legislation directly results in bad outcomes.
    “As I’ve explained elsewhere, it seems to me that life doesn’t “begin” at all. However it got to this planet four billion years ago, it hasn’t been observed to “begin” since. Instead, life expresses itself in myriad forms. And whatever it is you are is a result of a process stretching back those four billion years.”

    Recently, I’ve had a picture in my head (originally in response to the desperate claims that if we were not all molded out of mud one lovely morning in 4004 BC, then we’re really just lonely meaningless nothings in a world of lonely meaningless nothing). All the way to one end, there’s me, holding (as I can no longer do in life) my mother’s hand, while she is holding her mother’s hand, who is holding her mother’s hand, and so on, down an unbelievably, impossibly long chain of care, past short, hairy women with little chin or forehead, past, in the inconceivable distance, some small furry beast defending a nest of pups from some bulk of teeth and claws, past, even further back, cool-scaled reptiles scratching out hollows to lay eggs, and . . .

    but you get the point. Really, image is too static – it’s really more of a kind of dance, where each turns and sways and hands off to the next one themselves . . .


    I’m not a fan of the “Fetus People” phrase. I tell myself that’s because it’s petty and demeaning, or whatver, but really, it’s just because it creeps me out, imagining an army of zombie-like oversized fetuses advancing on us.

    Which is kinda the point, after all.

    And of course, this is a superb series of posts.

  7. The woman who looks at the existance of “extra” frozen embryos
    as solace in case one is needed if a child of hers is lost is an example of people who have children for overly prescious reasons.
    She could also take the position that the use of her “extra” embryos
    for the greater good of mankind is a noble reason to allow them to be part of the human experiment.

    It’s all a perfect example of just how much the republican relegious right has made relegion a political tool. The founding fathers are now rolling in their graves.

  8. Well, what the post does point to is that the “Fetus People” are a part of us…..and we are a part of them.

    Realizing that ALL is connected and always has been and always will be……

  9. Ignorance is bliss! For me it’s mental anguish to even try to comprehend the deceitful stupidity that has invaded our country and the halls of government. My only consolation is the knowledge that the wave of stupidity we’re facing today is cyclical in nature and guys like Bush, Brownback,Frist and Santorum will will return back to the elements of which they are composed. And Bush is shit already, so he’s halfway there.

  10. Avedon, I was an “accident” so it is possible that if my mother wasn’t Catholic I would have been aborted. My answer to the fetus people is…so what? I wouldn’t know the difference. A collection of cells has no awareness. I also ask them if they think that God is all powerful, if he/she is, and God wanted me to be born then I would be. I may be born to my mother at a later date when I am planned or I may be born to another woman, but either way God would make sure I get here.

    Maha, have you ever heard the Native American saying, “We are all related”? It’s very similar to your Buddhist teachings. Although if you visit a reservation the joke is that we are literally all related. Every time I told my mother which boy I liked, she would tell me, “You can’t date him because he’s your cousin.” So we really are all related on the rez. LOL

  11. I just read the other two posts. I’ve been calling elective ignorance, willful ignorance. I think there have been several reasons why there is an upsurge in elective/willful ignorance in the US. Our education system is one, you don’t question the teacher/textbook’s authority, there is only one correct answer. Americans in recent times disdain shows of knowledge and intelligence. If you’re smart, you’re a nerd/geek. I remember my own parents as well as others making fun of me for my vocabulary. Because I was and still am a voracious reader sometimes more complicated words get stuck in my head and are easier to come to mind when I am speaking or writing. I seriously sometimes can’t think of the more common word!

    It’s also similar to fashion, what’s old is new again. American culture swings back and forth between conservative and authoritarian towards liberal and less authoritarian every few decades. We’re obviously in the conservative cultural aspect now and that means you do not question authority even if they are lying with every word they utter.

    Some people need a disaster before they will admit they are wrong and take in new information. We are at disaster stage now which is why many are waking up and smelling the coffee. Those who tend to vote Republican are losing jobs, health insurance, unable to keep up with the bills even if they do have a job and health insurance, (just like the rest of us). This is why you hear more and more of them turning on Bush and Republicans in congress. It doesn’t matter about the disaster in the Middle East to many of them (unless they are there or have loved ones there) but their own personal disasters will have them rethinking their beliefs. Watch Bush’s poll numbers continue to sink when the housing market drops out and gas prices go over $4 a gallon.

    Some people simply have closed minds on one or two issues and as long as they have someone on their side with those issues they will back them. It doesn’t really matter if that someone is wrong about everything else and their opponent is right about everything else. That’s why Republicans campaign on bigotry.

  12. I think you people have all managed to completly miss the point. here’s an article from wikipedia “To date, no approved medical treatments have been derived from embryonic stem cell research” . adult stem cells, which don’t require the destroying of embryonic life (which has SOME potential to become a new human) have treated 58 diseases. this article pretty much makes my point clear as day.'cured%20by%20adult%20stem%20cell%20research
    try spending your money on something that has pontential, not this embryonic garbage.

  13. Blake — You must have missed Part II, in which I explained the difference between adult and embryonic stem cells and why they have different properties and potential. Although they may both have theraputic uses, they are not the same uses. Adult stem cells don’t do the things that embryonic stems cells do.

    I’m sorry you are an ignorant fool, but ignorant fools like you are standing in the way of potentially life-saving therapies and the alleviation of much suffering. I realize you think you are being “moral,” but your version of morality is a sick travesty of morality, not true morality.

  14. Whether Blake missed your Part II or not is irrelevant. Yes, embryonic stem cells have a different “property & potential”, and that’s just the point…after 20 years of research all that potential has resulted in ZERO cures, but lots of tumors and abnormalities. (Check out search site for stem cell research). Regarding your constant accusations of anyone who disagrees with you as being “moral”, the opposite would be “immoral”…hmmm. I think, rather, the issue is being upset that people aren’t permissive, aren’t trapped by the notion of moral relativism, whereby “what I think is good is good, what you think is good is good, and let’s all just leave each other alone in our own version of good-ness”. This alludes to the notion that truth is relative, which it is not. Just because you may believe that a pen is really a car doesn’t make it so; it’s still a pen. So it is with your beliefs on life and death; at death there sure is something lost for those who refuse Eternal Life with God in Heaven, instead they suffer eternally in hell…but you probably don’t believe in hell, and as I said before, not believing in a reality doesn’t make it any less a reality. And I would think twice about believing that desperately trying to save the life of a sick person, while in the process failing miserably and taking the lives of others, is moral. No one in their right mind would agree that if I suddenly couldn’t breathe while standing in line at a grocery store, it would be moral & right to grab the oxygen tank from a nearby person suffering from the affects of a life of smoking, who’s life depends on the oxygen & dies while I attempt to save my own life. How is that any different? I think you’d enjoy reading G.K. Chesterton’s latest writings…or maybe they’d strike a nerve.

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