News last month that the state of South Dakota had passed into law a comprehensive prohibition on elective abortion sent shock-waves of different kinds around the country. Pro-choice advocates leapt to defend their understanding of women's rights. Pro-lifers started to fight, embarrassingly publicly, over the wisdom of their friends in South Dakota. Supporters of the South Dakota move embraced those who have all along disliked the incremental strategy that has dominated pro-life politics, and others who think this is the strategic moment to keep up the pressure. Just why pro-life opponents of the South Dakota move chose to be so public in their criticism is hard to see. It may be good tactics to keep the other side wondering what we will do next; it is hardly sensible to tell them we are too busy fighting each other to worry about tactics at all.

Ironically, perhaps, the South Dakota move reminds us afresh of the problems that lie ahead. Should the Supreme Court choose at some time to overturn Roe v. Wade, a goal that has occupied vast political efforts for a whole generation, it will not usher in a golden age. It will merely return abortion politics to the place where it used to be, the legislature. The likely next step, as old laws are dusted off and new ones put in place, will be a patchwork of laws, with some states going the way of South Dakota, others writing something very like Roe into state law, and still others taking one of the middle ground positions that are common (for example) in continental Europe. It is hard to deny that this would be a much healthier situation for democracy. It could have dramatic effects on national politics, by downgrading the appeal (and disappeal) of the major parties' positions on abortion. And it would, of course, continue the slow but sure trend toward putting the proponents of "abortion rights" on the defensive.

Abortion and the Biopolicy Agenda

Some years ago, I asked a candidate for the presidency his views on the emerging biotech agenda. His answer, to a small meeting in Washington, was the "perfect" wrong answer. He said: Once we have dealt with abortion, we need to get onto these new issues. His answer could not have better illustrated the pluses and minuses of the single-minded focus on abortion that has swept millions of Christians into the political arena.

On the one hand, we are primed for the debate about human life. On the other, not one pro-lifer in 100 could articulate the wider and more subtle challenges to human life and dignity being developed under the guise of designer babies, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and the emerging eugenics/enhancement agenda.

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That agenda goes all the way from the U.K.'s latest "designer baby" clinic to gene-doping in sports. It includes the outrageous patenting of human genes—and the claim to have patents on human embryos. A far-reaching patent claim that was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this month drove Michael Crichton to write an op-ed for The New York Times. The industry that has grown around the "donation" of sperm and eggs has pulled Christians into a murky area of ethics in ways that should shame their churches.

Meanwhile, in the Department of Lies …
From 1998 until 2001, the federal government supported embryonic stem cell research, primarily with grant funding through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). This work led to some preliminary understanding of embryonic stem cells and their potential to fight intractable diseases. Unfortunately, in August 2001, President Bush banned further federal funding for the development of embryonic stem cell lines. This prohibition has made it all but impossible for many researchers to obtain the cell lines they need to continue their groundbreaking research to find cures.

That's a quote from a flier announcing the creation of the Stem Cell PAC—designed to oppose candidates who support the President's policy on embryonic stem-cell funding. Various dignitaries are associated with the project, including Hollywood mogul Jerry Zucker and Colorado Rep. Diane DeGette. Its key statements are all lies. Not exaggerations, spin, or rhetoric: lies.

It is interesting to speculate where they came from, just as Dr. Woo-suk Hwang's cloning lies are hard to explain. What they have in common is perhaps wishful thinking. The demonizing of the Bush stem-cell policy has played a big part in the portrayal of the administration as "anti-science."

For the record: While the Clinton administration was looking for ways around the congressional prohibition on destructive embryo research, it did not spend one dime on it. President Bush's policy of funding work on cell lines from embryos that had been destroyed before he made his speech was a modest liberalizing of existing policy—and, indeed, was attacked by many conservative groups at the time. And when it comes to stem cell science, listen to this from The Scientist:

In terms of total number of stem cell publishing, however, U.S.-based scientists have by far authored the most stem cell articles, some 13,663 in 2000-2004—42 percent of total articles. Germany came in second with 10.2 percent of the total, followed by Japan, the U.K., France, Italy, Canada, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sweden.
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It's worth noting that in Germany, which comes in second, an exact parallel to the Bush policy is in place. But the difference is worth noting. If you kill embryos for research in the U.S., you don't get federal dollars. If you do it in Germany, you can get five years' jail time. Somehow, German scientists still manage to outperform the U.K. (where the laws are the most liberal in the world).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous Life Matters columns include:

Our Cloning Friends, the Brits | The U.K. and disaffected American researchers lash out at U.S. cloning laws. (March 17, 2006)
The Truth, the Partial Truth, and Nothing but Evasions | How to sell unethical science. (March 2, 2006)
The Pursuit of Enhancement | The latest from Brave New Britain. (Feb. 22. 2006)
Poaching Eggs | The latest sad story from the Korean soap opera—and a lack of Talent in Missouri (Feb. 17, 2006)
The State of the Human | President Bush sets out a vital agenda for ethics. (Feb. 2, 2006)
Are You My Sperm Donor? | Plus: Another Hwang turn, more small surprises, and other life ethics stories. (Jan. 26, 2006)
Breeding Humans Like Rabbits? | From the frying pan into the fire. (Jan. 20, 2006)
The Prospects for 2006 | Deeper into the (Christian?) biotech century. (Jan. 9, 2006)

More CT articles on bioethics are available on our Life Ethics page.

Life Matters
Nigel M. de S. Cameron is now president and CEO of the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies. His "Life Matters" column, a commentary on bioethics issues, ran from 2005 to 2006.
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