Yuval Levin has some more to add on the stem cell debate as well. Like many of his fellows, Levin also rather overplays the science here: painting the currently discovery as any sort of scientific endpoint is simply silly. The technique in question answers some questions and opens new avenues of possibility, but it does not by any stretch negate what there is still to learn. Nor does it, as many have suggested, take embryonic stem cells out of the picture. Despite surely having heard about it by now, he apparently still can’t quite bring himself to tell his readers that this somatic research owes much, and will continue to owe much, to knowledge gained from studying embryonic cells, even those outside Bush’s stand. Researchers in Japan, of course, work outside of American restrictions, and have created and delved into embryonic lines and their mysteries. As such, his picture of how the breakthrough was attained by proudly holding firm against immorality is still a distortion.
But look: if you believe the things Levin and Bush believe, their core position is reasonable and perhaps their Solomonic moderation was indeed laudable. I can empathize with that, and appreciate the back-patting that’s going on as legitimate for how they view things.
But can they do the same? What if those ethics are mistaken? Then their decision is not laudable, and is, simply put, immoral. It would indeed be wrong to overlook some moral importance to developing embryos, but it would also be wrong to falsely ascribe moral importance to something that doesn’t have it. There’s harm either way.
The best conservatives seem to be able to do in empathizing with our position is in arguing that by avoiding embryonic research, we are “playing it safe.” Maybe they can’t convince us for sure that embryos are morally important, but shouldn’t we acknowledge the possibility and be more careful? They even seem to imply that we should now universally agree that handicapping the research was and is a good idea.
No. There is no playing it safe when it comes to moral decisions. Putting undue value on something leads to harm just as surely as overlooking its value. Reading the Bible such that you believe that blood transfusions are immoral, for instance, can lead to death. There is no “playing it safe” by avoiding blood “just in case” it turns out that it’s wrong to take it.
I can put myself in people’s shoes and see why they feel embryos are worth saving. But instead of doing the same and appreciating the values that suggest to us that they are not, polemicists on the right generally prefer to ignore our values and paint us as nihilists: rapacious scientists who are driven to devalue human life so that we can use it as raw material for our obsessive devotion to experiment. Surely they know that this is precisely the opposite of our position: that in fact it is a deep respect for human life and human dignity that drives us as well. But, they prefer to argue otherwise.