You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Stem Cells And Ivf

There's been an interesting web debate taking place between Michael Kinsley and Ross Douthat on the question of how it is that opponents of stem-cell research can be at peace with in vitro fertilization techniques that result in the creation--and eventual destruction--of millions of fertilized eggs each year. Kinsley's initial piece, concluding that anti-stem-cell activists aren't morally "serious" is here. Douthat's response, arguing that pro-lifers have come to a "compromise" in which they accept IVF--which is in theory politically unassailable--and focus on stem cell research, where public opinion is more divided, is here. I admit I'm decidedly less knowledgeable on the issue than either of them, but I'm extremely curious to see how Douthat replies to Kinsley's latest salvo:

 If it was a tactical compromise to make an issue of stem-cell research while ignoring the vast majority of surplus embryos produced in fertility clinics that are simply destroyed, this compromise was a mighty strange one. Ordinarily, if you intend to compromise, you start by playing up your maximalist position as much as possible, emphasizing how strongly you feel and how difficult it will be to accept half a loaf. Then you compromise. In this case, though, Douthat can only point to a couple of columns by Will Saletan in Slate—one about the octuplets controversy and the other about some law in Italy—to support his contention that pro-lifers “would like to heavily regulate fertility clinics.” Maybe they would, but this has played absolutely no part in the stem-cell debate. In Bush’s original speech announcing his stem-cell research restrictions eight years ago (now praised by conservatives as a masterpiece of moral reasoning the way liberals praise President Obama’s speech on race in Philadelphia) Bush actually praised the work of fertility clinics, claiming—correctly—that in-vitro fertilization has brought happiness to many.

Furthermore, if you’re going to draw a line to facilitate compromise, the line between embryos used for research and embryos simply destroyed is an odd one to draw—at least if your intention is to ban the research but allow the pointless destruction to continue. Why not the other way around? Also, while stem-cell research involves the destruction of embryos, IVF involves the purposeful creation of embryos with the certain knowledge that many or most of them will be destroyed. Once again, it’s an odd compromise that saves the former by preventing scientific research while allowing the latter much larger and pointless slaughter to continue unmolested.

My own suspicion is that this fertility-clinic anomaly hasn’t even occurred to most pro-lifers. And I think, or hope, that when they realize that their logic in opposing stem-cell research would condemn all IVF as well, it will give many reasonable pro-lifers pause—maybe even about their pro-life position in general, certainly about their opposition to stem-cell research. That’s why I keep harping on this analogy. And that is why the leaders of the pro-life movement keep avoiding it.

While again confessing my relative ignorance on the subject, this strikes me as a pretty overwhelming case. In his post, Douthat argued that the eventual destruction of the hundreds of thousands of IVF eggs that are currently frozen was "probable" rather than certain, but given that any other outcome is almost inconceivable, I think the distinction comes close to collapsing. (As Douthat himself acknowledges, noting that freezing them in the first place is probably an "empty gesture.") And while I understand that there is a philosophical distinction between destroying fertilized eggs and creating fertilized eggs that will have to be destroyed one day, as a matter of public policy that seems to me at best a punt. Whether you "want" to destroy those eggs or not, it is an essentially inevitable outcome.

Insofar as there is any organized pro-life effort to regulate fertility clinics and reduce the number of eggs that will ultimately be destroyed, it seems marginal to the point of invisibility. This is particularly true given that, to a far greater degree than stem-cell research, IVF is not only a public policy question but an issue of individual morality. That is to say, the pro-life movement could presumably put a significant dent in the number of unnecessary eggs created without passing a single law or enacting any new regulations, simply by aggressively publicizing the issue. If pro-life priests and pastors were alerting their flocks to the hundreds of thousands of human deaths (in pro-life terms) caused by IVF and shaming congregants into avoiding the process, if activist groups were taking out regular ads in national newspapers and magazines, these actions would have presumably have a real impact. But as best I can tell, they occur infrequently if at all.

Again, this is a subject of curiosity rather than expertise for me, so take this post as a question rather than a conclusion. Kinsley's argument seems to me fairly decisive, but I look forward to the response from Douthat--and anyone else who would like to take it on.

--Christopher Orr