ARLINGTON, Va. - Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney has infuriated Harvard scientists by declaring his opposition to stem cell research on embryos created for this purpose. "Some of the practices that Harvard and probably other institutions in Massachusetts are engaged in cross the line of ethical conduct," Mr. Romney told The New York Times.
In a telephone conversation, Mr. Romney told me he thinks the Harvard scientists have "pulled a bait and switch." At first, he says, they agreed that enough stem cells could be obtained from discarded embryos at fertilization clinics, which did not present an ethical problem to him because such embryos would be destroyed anyway. But the scientists are now lobbying for creating and cloning embryos simply for experimental purposes. This he opposes.
The New York Times suggests that Mr. Romney may be taking this position to curry favor with social conservatives so he might pursue higher office.
It is difficult to take such cynicism seriously when one considers that Mr. Romney's wife, Ann, suffers from multiple sclerosis, a disease that backers of stem cell research claim might be cured if they are permitted to do whatever they wish to embryos. That the Romneys would put their principles ahead of self-interest is rare in politics.
Mr. Romney says he has been told by medical and scientific authorities that sufficient stem cells exist or can be obtained from fertility clinics and other sources to avoid therapeutic cloning and the destruction of embryos created specifically for this type of research. "Creating human life for research and human experimentation is ethically wrong," he told me.
The governor's problem - indeed, the greater problem - is that culture has moved beyond objective truth. Science has effectively declared itself god, and scientists are its high priests. What scientists say science can achieve is all that matters. Anyone who refuses to bow to their pronouncements is labeled a heretic.
This is why the slippery-slope analogy applies in cases such as stem cell research. Having abandoned an author and definer of life, it quickly becomes possible and then probable that any value attached to a living thing - particularly a human being - is simply a matter of individual or societal whim. Such values may change at any moment and for any reason, or no reason.
A society that readily tolerates 45 million legal abortions (and counting) and feels a need to "do something" about the financial "burden" of the sick and elderly is not likely to be morally aroused at the destruction of embryos, even for cloning and other experimental purposes. Besides, aren't we killing in order to live? Isn't the goal of healing diseases and lengthening life worth any cost? Only in a world in which the self is deified and nothing stands in the way of getting whatever will give us pleasure and make us "happy."
If a horror such as partial-birth abortion does not shock our moral sensibilities, it is unlikely that destroying human embryos, which have sufficient chromosomes to become fully developed babies, will get our attention.
Mr. Romney's comments came after a bill was introduced to clear up ambiguities in Massachusetts law and allow such research. It's difficult to predict what the mostly Democratic Massachusetts legislature will do, though some members stand with the governor in his opposition to therapeutic cloning and research on embryos created to be killed. Perhaps a majority will come to their senses after considering how we got to this point and where we'd be headed.
If Mr. Romney wins this battle, he will have done so on principle. Perhaps his stand will serve as an example of what can happen when a politician puts more noble things ahead of self-interest.
Cal Thomas' syndicated column appears Wednesdays in The Sun.