An Associated Press report on President Bush’s veto of the stem-cell research bill emphasized that it served “to underscore his politically risky stand against federal funding for the embryonic stem-cell research that most Americans’ support.” The same report asserted that conservatives “consider embryonic stem cells to be early human life.” It concluded with a quote from one of the bill’s supporters, former Sen. John Danforth, “who lost a brother to Lou Gehrig’s disease. … ‘I think a lot of people are going to vote on this issue. … Is somebody telling me I don’t count? My brother doesn’t count? What counts is that religious theory that says that what takes place in a lab dish takes precedent [sic] over my brother?'”
This report is sadly typical of the propaganda that today’s news media pass off as unbiased reporting. The article’s political slant implies that no issue of real substance is involved in President Bush’s disagreement with the Congress over this issue. It reinforces this impression by misstating the conservative position, pretending that conservatives see stems cells as human life and object to all stem-cell research, when in fact it is the use of stem cells obtained through the destruction of the indisputably human embryo that we find morally reprehensible. Playing off this willful misrepresentation, it highlights Danforth’s caricature of the veto as the imposition of a religious dogma that places less value on his brother’s life than on “what takes place in a lab dish.”
If most Americans are basing their judgment on this biased caricature of the issue, it should come as no surprise that they take sides against President Bush. He appears to be sacrificing respect for human life in order to pander to a political constituency. Most Americans would agree that this is wrong. They would applaud courageous politicians who insist on respect for human life above all political considerations. And they would be right. But once the real argument for President Bush’s veto is given fair consideration, they would be forced to agree that on this issue he is the courageous statesman, and his opponents are the ones willing to sacrifice not only respect for human life, but the moral foundations of all democratic liberty, in hopes of pandering to what the pollsters tell them is a politically salient majority.
The first premise of democratic self-government involves rejecting the idea that one human being has a greater moral worth than another. The diseased brother of a rich and powerful U.S. senator cannot claim greater moral dignity than the impoverished son of a single mother on welfare or a child with Down syndrome. In aristocratic societies, people with wealth, power, talent or social standing have asserted their superiority over others, the right to abuse their labor and their lives because of their inferior station and condition.
America rejects this assertion. Our way of life rests on the premise that all human beings are “created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” Because all are equal, no one can claim that someone can rightly be forced to give life or labor to serve another’s needs, satisfy his passions or even save his life. Lawyers for the famous geneticist just convicted of sexually molesting a 10-year-old girl may try to argue that his intelligence and his scientific achievements entitle him to some special exemption for his abusive actions, but the creed that sustains our freedom refutes them. Relative inferiority does not give license to abuse any human being, regardless of sex, age, wealth or material circumstances.
The famous scientist in this case pioneered a medical approach that may save and improve countless human lives. Disgraced and imprisoned, he will doubtless be far less likely to encourage further advances in the field. Yet most people would agree that none of this justifies granting him the right to sexually abuse a 10-year-old, even though she is alive to rejoice in the vindication of her dignity, while the people his knowledge could help may die without it.
What if he had taken her life? Would that act of destruction somehow change our view of justice? It would only make us more implacably resistant to claims of aristocratic privilege. One form of human life cannot be treated as intrinsically inferior to another, fit to be sacrificed so that its betters can survive and prosper. If we abandon the principle of human moral equality, we open the path by which the justification of aristocratic privilege and abuse regains its footing. After all, there is a certain calculating logic to the idea that people who make a greater contribution to society shouldn’t be subject to the same standards as everyone else. If a relative few must suffer or die so that the many can benefit from their life and work, isn’t this a reasonable trade-off?
American conscience rebels against the very idea of such inequality, except when its perception is deceived by the glamour of evil. “Surely,” say the demagogues, “an embryo in a Petri dish can’t be compared to a 10-year-old girl. They are materially quite different.” But as the 10-year-old differs materially from the embryo, so the distinguished scientist with an IQ of 176 differs from the 10-year-old. As a matter of fact, the potential of the 10-year-old can’t measure up to the proven achievements of the adult. Our sense of justice isn’t based on their material condition, but on a moral principle that asserts the worth of every human being, regardless of material condition. If we abandon that principle because an embryo is not as materially developed as a 10-year-old , what shall we say when someone points out that we are not as materially developed as the scientist whose knowledge may save thousands, or the general whose skills are needed to defend millions. Will we accept the judgment that our claims of right are irrelevant because our betters have developed the material know-how and means to benefit or destroy us?
The hardest stands in American political life may be the ones a statesman assumes to save the majority of the people from demagogues who offer material benefits at the expense of the principles that justify the people’s claim to equal rights and self-government. They are also the stands that merit not only our applause, but our sincerest respect, admiration and support. The president should get all that and more. True, he has not acted as some say a politician should. He has acted as a statesman must. In this respect his use of the veto power corresponds exactly to the reason for its existence in the Constitution. The media and the demagogues will not treat him justly, but like our founders he can appeal with confidence to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of his decision. He deserves our thanks and praise.
Related special offer: