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Murdered to Order

Opponents of stem cell research see their worst fears realized in the Ukraine.

11:00 PM, Dec 27, 2006 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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The Drudge Report recently highlighted a shocking story from the BBC that centered on "disturbing video footage" of "dismembered tiny bodies." "Healthy new-born babies" in the Ukraine, "the self-styled stem cell capital of the world," have allegedly been killed "to feed a flourishing international trade in stem cells."

Apparently this isn't an isolated problem. The Council of Europe "describes a general culture of trafficking of children snatched at birth, and a wall of silence from hospital staff upwards over their fate." Imagine the horror of young mothers who "gave birth to healthy babies, only to have them taken by maternity staff." What happened to these newborns was anybody's guess, but recent footage obtained by the BBC may provide insight into their fate: "The pictures show organs, including brains, have been stripped--and some bodies dismembered."

The BBC report comes as a complete shock to most readers. But to those steeped in biotech news and bioethical literature, the latest out of the Ukraine is only a partial shock. While no one expected baby-snatching in maternity wards, it seemed inevitable that the business of stem cell research would, at some point, produce an abomination of this kind.

At least publicly, supporters of various embryo-, fetus-, or infant-killing programs have always argued that these options were reluctantly chosen, out of dire necessity, and only on the least-human of subjects--so-called "spare" embryos, "unwanted" pregnancies, and gravely disabled newborns.

And so at first the abortion lobby argued that fetuses aren't human. Then, as embryology and developmental biology decisively demonstrated that an unborn child is most definitely a complete, though immature, human being, the rhetoric shifted to discussions of competing rights and interests between the mother and her unborn child, along with appeals to the right to privacy. It was conceded that the decision for abortion is tragic, and, though it entails the ending of a life, sometimes it is an absolutely necessary result of the conflicting needs between the mother and child. And it was insisted that it is best if doctors and women are allowed to adjudicate these situations, in private, for themselves.

Intellectual defenders of abortion painted a picture of simply ceasing a pregnancy: The unborn child has no inalienable right to inhabit the mother's womb. A woman doesn't make a choice to kill, simply a choice to end pregnancy--to remove the unwanted baby from her body. Her body, her choice.

Yet this didn't prove to be satisfactory. The further claim was made that the "right" to an abortion consisted in the right to an "effective abortion." And an effective abortion entails not the ending of a pregnancy, but the death of a child. Witness the phenomena of partial-birth abortion and born-alive abortion.

But the issue of stem cell research can not appeal to any of these claims of women's welfare, privacy, or "the right to choose." Though the case of embryonic stem cells doesn't pose a direct competition of rights or interests--unborn embryos do not pose a threat to anyone--public arguments were made about competing interests of patients: "You pro-lifers are favoring embryos over Parkinson's victims." When these arguments prove ineffective, defenders of embryo-destructive research turn to a utilitarian one: embryos can be put to better use as raw material for biomedical research.

Even here, however, the public arguments are always made that human embryos merit a certain amount of respect and dignity--even if killing is still acceptable--and that the choice to destroy embryonic human beings is always made reluctantly, with the hope that new technologies will soon be developed that make their destruction unnecessary.

Now, however, we are seeing more and more clearly that this is all a hoax. Sure, people like Princeton's Peter Singer have argued for a long time in defense of infanticide. But no one ever considered infanticide a real possibility; Singer's arguments always seemed to be an eccentric intellectual exercise. Recent developments abroad and at home, however, force us to reconsider. Sadly, the BBC report out of the Ukraine is just the latest in a long line of startling developments in this trend.

In July of 2005, the Slate magazine science reporter William Saletan argued in a five-part series titled "Organ Factory: the Case for Harvesting Older Human Embryos" that given the current acceptance of embryo destruction there is no reason to limit it to the early embryo. He pointed to studies from around the world arguing that seven-week old embryos are what researchers really want. And Saletan made the case that they should have them: "Don't be scared. We don't have to grow a whole new you. . . . an embryo cloned from one of your cells would need just six or seven weeks to grow many of the tissues you need. We already condone harvesting of cells from cloned human embryos for the first two weeks. Why stop there?"

And in the startling conclusion to part five, Saletan made clear that nothing should stand in the way of science: "But if all you want is tissue, who cares? You can tell yourself what we already tell ourselves about unwanted in vitro embryos: They're doomed anyway. Patients' lives are at stake. We can't let personal morality get in the way of science. We can't wait."

The Princeton philosopher Robert P. George, arguing the other side of the issue, picked up on Saletan's article and noticed a frightening development right in his own backyard. Under the title "Fetal Attraction: What the Stem Cell Scientists Really Want" in the pages of THE WEEKLY STANDARD, George rang the alarm bell warning that embryonic stem cell research was leading to the macabre practice of "fetal farming." He noted that blastocyst-stage embryonic stem cells are therapeutically unusable because of their tendency to produce tumors when injected into subjects. Claims that they will cure people are pure hype. Nature herself, however, stabilizes stem cells in the normal gestational process, eliminating the tumor-formation problem by what appears to be an extraordinarily complex system of intercellular signaling; a complex system scientist were having trouble replicating.

George warned that this would lead some scientists to demand the right to create human clones and gestate them in female volunteers or artificial wombs to the late embryonic or even the fetal or infant stages before killing them to harvest non-tumor-forming stem cells:

"My suspicions and sense of urgency have been heightened by the fact that my home state of New Jersey has passed a bill that specifically authorizes and encourages human cloning for, among other purposes, the harvesting of 'cadaveric fetal tissue.' A 'cadaver,' of course, is a dead body. The bodies in question are those of fetuses created by cloning specifically to be gestated and killed as sources of tissues and organs. What the bill envisages and promotes, in other words, is fetus farming."

That was last year in New Jersey. This year in Missouri a provision was passed that created a constitutional right to human embryo cloning--provided the cloned embryo isn't transferred into a woman's womb--while also creating a constitutional mandate to destroy human embryos. More startling, however, was the window intentionally left open for fetus farming. If the technology of artificial wombs is perfected, cloned embryos can be developed in artificial wombs and then harvested not only for stem cells, but for developed cells and even organs. This, it appears, is what the doctors in the Ukraine are after. What guarantee do we have that they aren't after the same thing here?

Ryan T. Anderson is a junior fellow at First Things. He is also the assistant director of the Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ.