Life, war and embryos

October 01, 2006|By Michael Kinsley

It was, I believe, Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts who first made the excellent, bitter and terribly unfair joke about Ronald Reagan: that he believed in a right to life that begins at conception and ends at birth. This joke has been adapted for use against various Republican politicians ever since.

In the case of President Bush, though, it appears to be literally true.

Mr. Bush, as we know, believes deeply and earnestly that human life begins at conception. Even tiny embryos composed of half a dozen microscopic cells, he thinks, have the same right to life as you and me. That is why he cannot bring himself to allow federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, or even for other projects in labs where such research is going on.

Even though these embryos are obtained from fertility clinics where they would otherwise be destroyed, and even though he appears to have no objection to the fertility clinics themselves, where these same embryos are manufactured and destroyed by the thousands, the much smaller number of embryos needed and destroyed in the process of developing cures for diseases such as Parkinson's (which I have) are, in effect, tiny little children whose use in this way constitutes killing a human being and therefore is intolerable.

But President Bush does not believe that the deaths of all little children as a result of U.S. policy are, in effect, murder. He thinks that some are, although very unfortunate, also inevitable and essential.

You know who I mean. Close to 50,000 Iraqi civilians have died as a direct result of our invasion and occupation of their country, in order to liberate them. The numbers are increasing as the country slides into chaos: more than 6,500 in July and August alone. These numbers are from reliable sources and are not seriously contested.

The number does not include the hundreds of thousands who have died prematurely as a result of a decade and a half of war and embargoes imposed on the Iraqi economy. Nor does it include soldiers on both sides, most of whom are innocent too. This month the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan surpassed the number of people who died in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Bush is right, of course, that the inevitable loss of innocent life in wartime cannot be a reason not to go to war, or a reason not to fight that war in a way intended to win. Eggs, omelets and all that. "Collateral damage" should be a consideration weighed in the balance, of course. But there is no formula to determine when you have the balance right.

It does seem to me that both of our wars in Iraq were started and conducted with insufficient consideration for the cost in innocent blood. Callousness, naivete and isolation - isolation of the decision makers from democratic accountability, and isolation of the citizenry from the consequences, or even the awareness, of what is being done in their name - all have played a role. I don't see anything coming out of this war that is worth 50,000 innocent lives, although a case can be made, I guess.

But it is hard - indeed, I would say it is impossible - to reconcile Mr. Bush's absolutism over allegedly human life when it is a clump of unknowing, unfeeling cells with his sophisticated, if not cavalier, attitude toward the loss of innocent human life when it is children and adults in Iraq.

In all discussions weighing the cost of something-or-other in terms of human life, a philosopher pops up at this point and says that the crucial difference is a matter of intentions. Terrorists purposely target innocent civilians. We try hard not to kill innocent civilians, even if we know it can't be avoided. The terrorists are worse, even if our score is sadly higher.

But are stem cells any different? Stem cell researchers don't want to kill embryos. They know that the deaths of embryos are a consequence of what they do, and they think that curing terrible diseases is worth it - just as President Bush thinks that bringing democracy to Iraq is worth it. In the case of stem cells, there is the added element that the embryos in question will be killed (or pointlessly frozen indefinitely) anyway if they are not used for research. And - oh, yes - there is still the question of whether a clump of half a dozen cells you can't see without a microscope is actually a human being in the same sense as a 6-year-old girl blown up as she skips off to kindergarten in Baghdad.

A commander in chief who must face life-or-death questions like this deserves a bit of sympathy. I would sympathize a bit more with President Bush if his answers weren't so preening and struggle-free. It is very wonderful to be so morally pure that you won't allow a single embryo to be destroyed in the quest for medical cures that could save lives by the thousands. You are way beyond Mahatma Gandhi, sweeping the path ahead to avoid stepping on an insect; insects have more human characteristics than a six-cell embryo.

And regarding Iraq, you are quite the man, aren't you? "Making the tough decisions," as Mr. Bush likes to say. A regular Harry Truman, consigning thousands to death in order to bring democracy and freedom and peace to millions. But Mr. Truman actually produced democracy and freedom and peace, whereas you want credit for your hopes.

That's not how it works. If you want to be the tough guy, you get judged by results. And you can't be Mr. Gandhi and Mr. Truman at the same time.

Michael Kinsley is a social commentator.

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