Babies or parts: What science do we want? 

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We have come a long way since the 2001 controversy over embryonic stem cell research. Back then, we witnessed heated public debates over whether such research should be federally funded: proponents pointed to possible cures for horrific diseases; opponents pointed to the sanctity of all human life and the danger of a “slippery slope.”

Although that debate died down after President George W. Bush’s peculiar compromise, whereby federal money was to be used to fund research on 71 already existing embryonic stem cell lines, we suddenly find ourselves at the bottom of that proverbial slope.

I am referring, of course, to the recent controversy over the revelation that Planned Parenthood had, for many years, been trafficking in fetal organs. It turns out, it is common practice, not only to kill viable fetuses in the womb, but to dissect them into parts for multiple uses. These atrocities have been committed under the radar in the name of science.

Nowadays, we are all scientists. We use scientific methods when we approach questions, critique answers, and pass judgment. But there is “good” science, which is an essential tool for gaining a deeper understanding of ourselves and our world, improving our health, and raising our standard of living – an endeavor in the service of humanity. And there is “bad” science, which is an instrument of human hubris and ambition.

The selling, donating, or utilizing of fetal organs provides a glaring example of how bad science harms and destroys without compassion and consideration of human life. By contrast, good science renders visible the humanity of the unborn through sophisticated ultrasound, helps babies born prematurely to survive, and enables doctors to perform surgery in utero.

Women who opt to donate the organs of their aborted fetuses are, no doubt, often persuaded that they are acting in the “interest of science.” In many cases, a woman’s complex and often painful emotions surrounding her choice to abort may often be alleviated by the idea that her decision will “help others.”

From a purely utilitarian point of view, this scientific justification might carry some legitimacy, especially since those who hold this view do not consider a fetus worthy of protection. From this perspective, a fetus might be regarded as a member of our species, but not as a “person.”

As Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer argues in Practical Ethics even newborn infants deserve protection only in so far as the parents desire the life of their child. According to Singer’s logic, “the life of a fetus … is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-awareness, capacity to feel and so on.” According to Singer, these arguments “apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus.” Thus, Singer proposes pushing the threshold of a “full legal right to life” to “perhaps a month” after birth.

Singer’s philosophy seems radical, but it is wholly consistent with Planned Parenthood’s “scientific logic.” Planned Parenthood has, of course, been crushing, cutting up, and burning as garbage thousands of viable babies over decades. But, thanks to the videos, abstractions have given way to the reality of miniature corpses piled up as scientific waste.

There is something deeply wrong with the philosophical framework upon which the “science” of Planned Parenthood’s fetal harvesting and late term abortion rests. In the eyes of most, a fetus that looks like a baby is simply more than the sum of its scientific parts.

But Singer rejects our natural human response as irrational and unjustified.  He argues that “to think that the lives of infants are of special value because infants are small and cute is on par with thinking that a baby seal, with its soft white fur coat and large round eyes deserves greater protection than a gorilla, who lacks these attributes.”

But is it?

Courtesy of Flickr

Courtesy of Flickr

The sanctity of human life is not verifiable.  But our impulse to protect the weakest and smallest in our midst can be explained scientifically and from an evolutionary point of view. As a species, we are hard wired to instinctively protect our young; like any mammal, we are fully invested in the survival of our offspring. A mother will fight to the death to protect her children. Could we come up with scientific proof for that? You bet. Shouldn’t our culture and our laws be consistent with our basic desires and needs, our basic human instincts that are geared towards protecting and nurturing those who depend on our care?

But there’s more to it: Our encounter with infants, with the weak and needy, makes us truly human and perfects our personhood. It invites our compassion and triggers a nurturing impulse without which a society cannot survive — without which there can be no meaningful human connection. And where else, but in the celebration of a baby’s birth, do all of our best human characteristics come to the fore, in the joy of giving life, in a hope for a future, and in a love that gives meaning?

The exploitative cutting up of a human fetus dehumanizes all those who take part in the process:  the nurse, technician, and doctor. Their impulse to protect and nurture is numbed. It is their humanity, not just that of the fetus, that is at risk.

The Planned Parenthood videos have forced us to confront the question of what kind of society we want to be and to differentiate “good” science from “bad.” The initial outrage and anger that many felt over Planned Parenthood’s use of fetuses in the name of “science,” must give way to a willingness to heal as a nation. As a society, we must come to an agreement on the basic ethics of our human ambitions. And we must strive to create an example of a just society in which the weakest and the most helpless are safe in our charge.

Tina McCormick is Publisher of the NewBostonPost.


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