Column: Inconsistency in treatment of young life hard to take

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 11, 2001

The name of the second Star Wars movie – or is it the fifth? – was announced this week.

Saturday, August 11, 2001

The name of the second Star Wars movie – or is it the fifth? – was announced this week. They’re calling it &uot;Attack of the Clones.&uot; I assume this is a reference to the Clone Wars, which have been referred to in other installments of the sci-fi saga.

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But it was interesting timing, since the same day’s news included stories on European doctors planning to clone humans and President Bush deliberating on stem-cell research.

Suddenly, science has forced us to reexamine how much we value something we can’t quite grasp – microscopic life. The first stages of creation. The common roots we all share.

It’s something science gives us control over but does not help us understand.

The abortion debate has had America’s best minds splitting hairs on the issue since the ’60s. Some say it’s not a life when it’s really small, but once it starts to look like something we recognize, apparently it is a life. After it’s big enough, it becomes protected b law. Others draw their own boundaries, saying it becomes life when it leaves its mother, or at some other arbitrary point along the developmental track. 183 days old? Not a life. 184? Oh, that changes everything.

The philosophical contortion has continued this year with the debate over stem cells – embryonic cells which can potentially become body tissues from any number or organs. Biological spare parts, so to speak.

Surely, many think, we can’t place the same value on a cluster of cells as we do on a full-fledged, walking-and-talking person. Let’s harvest the stem cells from unwanted or cloned embryos, they say, and use their regenerative abilities to cure lots of terrible diseases.

The way the debate is framed makes it automatically difficult to oppose such research. Who wants to be painted as opposed to curing terrible diseases? Would anybody vote for a candidate who’s motto was &uot;Terrible diseases – they’re a bummer, but we’ll just have to live with them&uot;?

The cloning debate seems to get more people into moral-outrage mode. Playing God by finding discarded embryos, taking their valuable tissue and then chucking them in the incinerator is OK; however, playing God by creating the embryos and letting them grow into real babies is considered appalling. Again, as soon as it turns into something with a pair of blue eyes and ten fingers, it’s no longer OK to mess with it, the popular culture seems to think.

If it’s microscopic, we don’t know it personally. It doesn’t have a name. We can’t identify with it or have an emotional connection. So it’s fine to trash it. If it can look at us and wave its arms, it reminds us of ourselves and we want to protect it.

Apparently, people are also much more willing to accept stem-cell research if it’s done on embryos that would have been discarded anyway (isn’t there something automatically wrong when we use the word &uot;discarded&uot; when we’re talking about embryos?). A poll on the Tribune’s Web site found that some people supported all stem-cell research at any cost, some supported none, and most said it’s fine as long as the embryos weren’t created just for that purpose.

Nobody’s saying all this moral wrangling is a piece of cake. Bush tried his best, coming up with a watered-down compromise that managed to irk everyone. Only stem cells that have already been harvested and reproduced can be federally funded, Bush says; not ones that are created in the future.

Some say that’s no good because Bush is still allowing discarded human life to be used for research, setting the dangerous precedent that this kind of microscopic tampering is fine and dandy.

Others say that’s no good because limiting the research will make it harder to cure all the terrible diseases.

Maybe if I had a terrible disease, I’d feel differently. But I can’t see how you can draw some kind of line a person crosses to become they are &uot;officially human.&uot; At what point does it happen? If we believe in the soul, at what point does it swoop in and start inhabiting the body? The 184th day? The 200th day? Do souls have calendars?

And where would any of us be if somebody decided we weren’t valuable enough when we were just a cluster of cells?

It’s not a new debate, and it’s not one about which it’s easy to change minds. But the questions are there, and nobody has provided satisfactory answers for me. A life is a life, beginning to end, and I don’t see any other way to slice it.

Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays. E-mail him at