The Age of Tantalus
The Age of Tantalus
The Greeks told a story about a man named Tantalus who ate of the very food of the gods. In return, he butchered his son Pelops and served him as a feast for the Olympians, presumably hoping to curry favor.
I’m reminded of that myth when reading about embryonic stem cell research (ESCR). Indeed, proponents of the research depend upon mythic elements in making their case, invoking miracle cures such as making the lame walk again.
But a few points must be clarified. First, no treatments or cures exist with this type of research. It is potential only. Scientists are finding cures and treatments using adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood, however, which pose no ethical problem.
Second, this research requires the destruction of human beings. Setting aside the question of personhood for a moment, an embryo is a nascent human being with a unique DNA signature. You were one. I was one. That microscopic embryo already “knew” that I would have brown hair and brown eyes. To destroy it then would be to prevent you now. Indeed, the embryo must be a human being to hold so much “promise”; the entire claim of the pro-ESCR side is that look-alikes just won’t do.
Third, some claim that these embryos would be “discarded” anyway, so why not use them for good purposes? It is an attractive but monstrous claim. In that vein, why not use the dead for spare parts or even fertilizer since we’re essentially “discarding” the bodies anyway? Indeed, if we are to judge humans by their condition or value or use, why not follow the lead of the Chinese with the Falun Gong and execute prisoners for their organs?
Fourth, the slippery slope is a legitimate worry. I have seen the charge leveled that one cannot strongly oppose ESCR unless they also loudly oppose the creation of multiple embryos. Call for the shutdown of fertility clinics, these say, or shut up. And so we slide down the slope to dystopia, as this charge can be repeated at every stage.
Finally, I cannot but sympathize with those folks who hope for cures for conditions like Parkinson’s, diabetes, or paraplegia. Who cannot be touched by such stories? But I grow very angry at the dishonesty and cynicism of certain proponents who desire the money, prestige, and political power ESCR could bring. One letter even hoped to turn Bush’s veto into votes for Claire McCaskill [state Senatorial candidate]. Of course! Let’s cannibalize our young so that the Democrats can regain power!
Tantalus’s story ends with his punishment: to stand in water under a fruit tree but to never quench his thirst or satisfy his hunger. If we continue to sacrifice our little ones to the gods of health and long life, will we encounter the same fate?