Stem Cells: This Time It’s Personal
President George Dubya "My Own Reality" Bush
with "Snowflake Babies" and their families
Sure, to the mansions of the blest,
When infant innocence ascends,
Some angel, brighter than the rest,
The spotless spirit’s flight attends.
On wings of ecstasy they rise,
Beyond where worlds material roll;
Till some fair sister of the skies
Receives the unpolluted soul.
That inextinguishable beam,
With dust united at our birth,
Sheds a more dim, discolor’d gleam
The more it lingers upon earth.
Closed in this dark abode of clay,
The stream of glory faintly burns:—
Not unobserved, the lucid ray
To its own native fount returns.
But when the Lord of mortal breath
Decrees his bounty to resume,
And points the silent shaft of death
Which speeds an infant to the tomb—
No passion fierce, nor low desire,
Has quenched the radiance of the flame;
Back to its God the living fire
Reverts, unclouded as it came.
--Unitarian President John Quincy Adams
Did you hear about the press conference/spectacle Dubya staged at the White House today to rally opposition to stem-cell research? He invited a bunch of families to bring their cute-as-the-dickens toddlers to help him. He dressed the kids in t-shirts that said, “I’m a snowflake baby”. You see, these kids had once been surplus embryos from in-vitro fertilization (IVF) therapy that were frozen for storage, then thawed out and given to other infertile couples for gestation. Bush’s point was that every embryo is a precious baby waiting to be born, and that using them for experimentation rather than giving them the opportunity for birth is a grossly immoral affront to our common humanity.
Heart-tuggingly sympathetic, isn’t it?
Maybe, but it’s also a freakin’ cynical, bald-faced, goddam lie.
Fausto and Mrs. Fausto know a thing or two about this. You see, twelve years ago, after several years of trying to conceive the normal way, we went through IVF treatment. The treatment was enormously stressful, but also enormously successful, and resulted in almost two dozen viable embryos. Five were implanted, and one of them gestated into the graceful pre-teen known to the blogosphere as “Faustoette”, whom attendees of the Philocritics’ picnic actually met in person a few weeks ago. Five were frozen for a possible second pregnancy attempt. Two years later, upon thawing, it turned out that only one of those five had survived freezer burn -- and even that one was a near thing, because two of its four cells did not survive -- but Fausto and Mrs. Fausto watched in amazement as the two remaining cells divided into four again before our eyes under the electron microscope. Those two cells are now the rambunctious, scary-smart Game Boy addict first known in utero as “Nanook” or “the Popsicle Kid”, and now known to the blogosphere as “Fausto Jr.”, whom some of you bloggers also met in person at our picnic.
Faustoette and Fausto Jr. haven’t been told any of this yet, but one day soon, perhaps when Fausto Jr. takes OWL, they will be amazed to learn that they are, in fact, twins born two years apart.
The rest of the dozen or so in the litter, tragically, weren't so lucky. Our fertility clinic explained to us that, because it is impossible to control how many ova will be harvested in a given cycle and how many of the harvested ones will fertilize and become viable embryos, there are many more viable embryos produced by IVF programs than there are mothers (either natural or adoptive) willing to gestate and bear them. Some can be frozen for later use, as we chose to do, and as Bush’s “snowflake babies” exemplify, but many more are either simply discarded or frozen and never thawed. Moreover, there is substantial attrition in the freezing-and-thawing process, and the shelf-life of frozen embryos is not long, as we ourselves learned firsthand. Of our total embryonic brood, four were implanted but did not gestate, four were frozen and did not thaw successfully, two resulted in healthy live births, and a dozen were simply discarded as surplus.
And our doctor considered us an amazing success story.
One day soon after Faustoette was implanted, Fausto with very conflicted feelings wandered out of his office building in downtown Boston, stared at the closed doors of Kings Chapel across the street, walked a block and a half further to the open doors of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, lit a dozen candles, knelt in a pew, and said a dozen silent, wistful prayers for Faustoette’s discarded siblings. May they be restored to their perfect union with the God of infinite love and grace, who so generously and profligately created them that we might be blessed with the miracle of Faustoette (and, later, Fausto Jr.). Dubya has this much right: all embryos represent potential life, and all life is precious.
Yes, Faustoette and Fausto Jr. are miracles. To have two of them is more than we honestly or rationally expected. It would have been even more miraculous if some other childless parents had volunteered to try to gestate the rest of them, and more miraculous still if any of those had been successfully born.
But this is where Bush goes so wildly, disgustingly, blasphemously, psychotically wrong. His position, when you boil it down, is that each one of those “snowflake babies” represents not an utterly improbable miracle, but an inviolable entitlement. Embryos are precious life, yes, and carry the potential to gestate into born babies, yes, but the odds for any particular single embryo in any of the many IVF clinics around the nation and around the world successfully to be implanted, to gestate to term, and to be born alive are dauntingly small. To prevent the many embryos that will never have even a chance for implantation from being used to help improve other lives, and to force them to be destroyed instead, is cruel and monstrous. It is delusional; it is elevating a schizoid fantasy over objective reality; it is doing evil and imagining it to be good.
If Mrs. Fausto and I had been told that Faustoette’s dozen embryonic siblings would be used to start stem-cell lines or further immunological or regenerative organ research rather than be discarded as so much waste, we would have danced for joy, rather than grieved and prayed. And I believe with every fibre of my being that God would have been right there dancing with us.