Much attention is focused right now on President Bush’s preoccupation with the question of what, if any, restrictions should be placed on the harvesting of medically-promising “stem cells” from artificially conceived human embryos. The choice is usually described as “complex” or as a “dilemma,” and we are told that it involves new and unfamiliar factors. I would like to suggest that it is, instead, a fairly simply matter, raising the oldest moral question: Will we do what is right, or merely what seems useful?

This was the question, posed in the form of slavery, that hung over the early Republic so darkly that the survival of American self-government itself was eventually cast into deep and bloody doubt. Despite efforts to present slavery as an institution motivated chiefly by racism and prejudice, the truth is that the foundation of slavery was greed and the consequent willingness to disregard the dignity of human beings for the sake of profit and material comfort.

Laboratory techniques such as cloning and embryonic manipulation are now confronting us with the same temptation – that we may disregard the dignity of some human beings for utilitarian “benefit.” This arbitrary discrimination is proposed to rest upon how these tiny human beings are conceived. Those conceived after the fashion of the bedroom are entitled to rights equal to ours, it seems (unless their mothers object before birth, but that’s another story) . But we are being asked to presumptively disrespect the humanity of those who are conceived in a petri dish, so that society may put them to use for its own purposes.

Our leaders, we are told, are “agonizing” and “wrestling with their conscience” on this issue, because of the difficulty of balancing the alleviation of human suffering through medical advances with the moral cost of “harvesting” embryos. We should be clear that the “dilemma” presented by the “opportunity” to begin a morally illicit exploitation of a class of innocent human beings is essentially no different than the decision to introduce the commercial slave trade into the New World. Do we really want to veer off the Founders’ path of striving to uphold the cause of human equality? For the sake of a momentary acceleration of the pace of medical magic, we risk a permanent detour onto the corrupting path of justifying evils first as necessary, and later as “positive goods.”

Gentlemen of the southern slave owning states willfully decided that, despite their professed paternal affection for their slaves, it was necessary to sacrifice the black man’s humanity for the sake of the white man’s bread. It was a decision that corrupted the slave owners themselves, requiring increasingly tortured rationalizations in the search for a peace that could not be found in economic gain or clever theories of the “positive good” of slavery itself.

We stand on the brink of a similar self-destruction. Violating the dignity of other human beings for the sake of benefits to our own health and comfort is simply to choose greed over justice, whether the profit to us is the cash crop of cotton or high-tech medicine. If we make the wrong choice, we will ensnare ourselves in the same web of self-justification and nagging doubt that hardened the conscience of the pre-war South. And the tragedy will be that we did so simply because we were in a hurry to achieve material advantages that will be decently accomplished soon enough anyway.

Once we have adopted the position that anonymous embryos can be denied equal respect because of the circumstance of their origin, the principle at the root of the decision will be inexorably advanced. Human ingenuity will soon devise ways to bring fully developed human beings forth without the benefit of the normal process of procreation. That’s what cloning represents for us now – not science fiction anymore, or a distant and hypothetical future, but a fundamental moral issue that we must confront in principle now. The seeds that we plant in our thinking today will decide whether or not, in the course of this century, we shall see whole new classes of human beings brought into existence by our cleverness but condemned to indignity, injustice, exploitation and slavery just as my ancestors were condemned.

I can think of a fate worse than being born into a generation that accepted slavery. It is to be born into the generation that renewed the horrors of slavery for millions yet unborn. And if we are not careful, that will be our fate.

We can avoid it by seeing in the current debate an opportunity to renew our allegiance to the great principles of our Declaration of Independence. The Declaration not only proclaims our rights, it implies a necessary discipline in our use of those rights. Our right to the pursuit of happiness depends upon our willingness to acknowledge the limits and checks on human power and human willfulness. Our rights depend upon submitting our human will to the authority of a transcendent and benevolent power that wisely dictates that we respect the life and dignity of every human being, regardless of station, of strength, of condition or of the circumstances of birth.

If we understood this, we wouldn’t even think of trading our extraordinary national heritage of liberating moral dignity for the pottage of a few years advancement in the development of new medicines. We would recoil in horror from the suggestion that we consider violating the dignity of human offspring for the sake of marginal improvements in our material condition.

The decades to come will see an avalanche of “liberating” technological developments, as man’s ability in practical terms to alleviate suffering and enhance the material conditions of human life, particularly for the poor, achieves critical mass. But will these technologies be placed in the service of human dignity, or will human dignity be sacrificed to the technology – and to those powerful enough to control it?

For the beneficiaries of science, the result will appear much the same – health and comfort will increase, at a material cost that diminishes toward invisibility. The question we must face is whether those beneficiaries will sit, as the plantation owners of old, on shady porches of leisure while their hired agents extract what they want from whomever they need to use – and abuse.

The American choice – and the right choice – is to ask first if we are doing our duty to those God has willed that we acknowledge as our equals in dignity, and our brothers in the pursuit of happiness. This is the question that the embryonic stem-cell debate is really about, and it is, as well, the question of the future of American liberty.

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