The David Brooks of bioethics
William Saletan does a little cringe-inducing pop sociology: Oy Vitae--Jews vs. Catholics in the stem cell debate
Here's Saletan on the recent debate at the President's Council for Bioethics about whether it is morally better to clone hobbled embryos to crank out embryonic stem cells than use to ordinary embryos:
Don't get me wrong. The Catholics had caveats, and the Jews had ambiguities. But caveats and ambiguities are different things. The Catholics were clear about what was moral and what wasn't. The Jews were fuzzy. The best part of the show was George's cross-examination of Krauthammer on the definitions of "creature" and "human." It was like Socrates trying to carve up a bowl of chicken soup. Periodically, Kass waded into the fray to say on the one hand this, on the other hand that. The original ban on funding of destructive embryo research "wasn't written at Sinai," he joked. "And even the things that were written at Sinai are"—he groped for a rabbinical exit—"under review."
Later at a Catholic bioethics conference in Rome, Saletan asks Father Nicanor Austriaco what he thinks of the whole Jew/Catholic stem cell thing:
Monday night at dinner, I ask Austriaco if he sees a Catholic-Jewish difference on these questions. He does, particularly among theologians. Jews follow diffuse commentary, he says; Catholics follow streamlined authority. Jews trust intuition; Catholics trust reason. "You don't have as clear a definition of boundaries as we have," he observes. This is why Catholics have an easier time getting over the yuck factor. "We say, 'Yeah, it looks yucky.' But I'm a molecular biologist. We make tumors in the lab all the time. For a Catholic, if I can articulate what I'm doing, it's not yucky."
The Jews on the Council are operating at a disadvantage when it comes to the conundrum of the embryo-derived parthenogenetic blastocyst-like entities--namely that they don't believe in Catholic theology. There aren't really any good arguments for the personhood of the embryos in IVF clinic freezers.* So, it's sort of a backhanded compliment to rationality that many of the panel's members fall back on unassailable first-person assessments of ickiness.
* Saletan is writing about a very rarified subdivision bioethical opinion. The touchy-feely arguments from some Jewish members of the Council have nothing to do with the general tenor of Jewish moral thought (or Jewish ethics as such) and everything to do with rationalization of an incoherent moral position. Most Jews probably reject the whole issue quite succintly: If you think ordinary embryonic stem cell research is acceptable, there's no reason to prefer the EDPBE approach. But if you do believe in the personhood of embryos there's no particular reason to think it's okay to fatally defrost an 8-cell embryo and scavenge it for parts, but not okay to defrost an embryo and use it for stem cells. So, it's not surprising folks in the middle ground are resorting to some pretty touchy-feely rationalizations.