June 20, 2007
Thrift, Thrift, HoratioBy Paul Shlichta
The current uproar about harvesting embryos for stem cells and 'encouraging' organ donations reminds me of the story about the missionary sailing overseas to take up her post in a primitive country. When she mentioned her destination to a fellow traveler, he gasped, "You can't go there----they're cannibals!". On landing, she hurriedly checked with the consul of the country where she was supposed to reside.
He reassured her, "Oh no, madam, you will be perfectly safe. It is true that, many years ago, we had some very unfortunate customs but these have been completely eradicated; you have nothing to fear"
As she sighed in relief and rose to go, he added, "Of course, if you should happen to die a natural death, you would not be wasted."
It is gratifying to see the Healthcare-Industrial Complex showing similar signs of thrift, even if it's the cynical kind that Hamlet spoke of. But I feel compelled to question the purity of motivation of the advocates of these somewhat surreal activities.
The clamor for harvesting stem cells from embryos, as in the current bill passed by Congress, seems at first glance puzzling. Although their ultimate value has yet to be proved, stem cells are potentially valuable for medical research and treatment. However, they can be produced from adult bone marrow, skin, and many other sources. Why then, this insistence on embryos? The answer is, primarily, to bolster the deteriorating image of abortion.
The pro-abortion bloc has traditionally dodged disturbing moral issues by chanting slogans like "reproductive rights" or "a woman's right over her own body". However, the last few decades of fetal research have left little room for asserting that a fetus is not a human being. And moral issues aside, abortion is so ugly a process that even its advocates cannot bear to look at it. In public debates, pro-choice speakers generally insist on banning any pictures of fetuses or abortions.
Matters came to a head with the issue of partial-birth abortion, where the victim is visibly a baby and a few minutes or centimeters can spell the difference between 'therapeutic procedure' and murder. Here, the pro-abortion bloc was caught in a Morton's fork: if they fought for partial-birth abortions, they would look like baby-killers and if they didn't fight, they might be pushed back, month by month, until abortion became illegal. They chose the former path and lost, not only in the eyes of the law but of the public.
In consequence, they have been more desperate than ever to snatch at any pretext of legitimacy they could find to (as professional marketers say) 'repackage' abortion. Therefore, ignoring all alternatives and compromises, the pro-abortion bloc has rallied round the abortion-produced embryo as the only permissible cornucopia from which all stem-cell blessings shall flow.
In this crusade, they have been abetted by the biomedical research community which, with a tunnel vision understandable in zealots, tends to resent any constraints to achieving its goals. This alliance has succeeded in cowing Congress into passing a questionable authorization for embryonic stem cell research. This same alliance has resulted in a brisk business in the sale by abortion clinics of fetus body parts for medical use, thereby augmenting the profits of the abortion clinics and bympassing FDA restrictions on the use of human tissue for medical research and practice.
In contrast, the pressure exerted by the medical community for expanding the sources for organ transplants by promulgating the concept of 'presumed consent', may be due to altruistic concerns for patients' needs-or it may be tainted with a more venal motive. We cannot ignore the fact that organ transplants involve big bucks. The donors usually give their organs gratis but somehow, by the time they reach the patients, they have price tags of tens of thousands of dollars on them. And, except for an ever decreasing percentage of donated service, surgeons charge thousands of dollars per operation and hospitals run up daily tabs of several thousand dollars per patient. With the total cost off an organ transplant ranging from a bargain basement kidney at $25,000 to ten times that for a heart or lung job, such life-saving operations are mainly for the wealthy or well insured.
You might ask why, if the organs are donated for free, the surgeons and hospitals should not also donate their services-but I don't think you'll get a convincing answer. This 'generosity gap', if I may so call it, may be the reason why there are so few donors. When you check into a hospital and the nurse asks, with the eagerness of Count Dracula inquiring about your blood type, "are you an organ donor?", it may seen safer to say "no". An ever increasing percentage of donated organs come from patients who have been declared 'brain dead'-a term that even physicians admit is highly subjective and flexible.
By now, you've probably concluded that I've succumbed to the paranoia of movies like Coma and The Clonus Horror. As a matter of fact, sch things are already passé. Because of the acute shortage of donated organs, they are often bought from the desperately poor and resold. The sale of kidneys is legal in Iran and commonplace in countries such as Pakistan and India. In China, organs have been forcibly removed from political prisoners and are still routinely extracted from executed felons.
Although organ sales have been illegal in the US since 1984, there have been frequent calls for the lifting of this ban and the rules are already less strict for other kinds of body parts such as bone and skin tissue. This billion-dollar business, although regulated by the FDA with regard to freedom from disease, is rife with black market channels such as the clandestine harvesting, without the consent of the deceased or his family, of corpses in funeral parlors, university medical schools, and numerous other sources. The collusion between grave robbers and doctors, like the ancient firm of Burke, Hare and Knox, is still going strong.
But we've gone even further than the movies. You've probably heard of the so-called "savior siblings" -children conceived and birthed by their parents to provide 'spare parts' (such as bone marrow) for an older child. There seems to be little doubt that such horrors are legal, although some ethical questions have been raised and the need for governmental supervision has been suggested. But these are minor matters compared to the nightmarish prospect of the savior-sibling baby growing up and finding out why his mother bore him, conferring a grisly new meaning to the old pro-abortion slogan "every child a wanted child."
When all these things have become commonplace, we shall have reestablished what a bloody civil war was fought to abolish-the concept that some human beings can be used, against their will or by economic coercion, for the purpose of enriching the lives of other human beings. After all, isn't that what slavery is really about?
It's a pity that Swift isn't alive. The essence of his "Modest Proposal" - that the Irish poor alleviate their poverty by selling their babies to the rich as gourmet food-was a bit crude but the passage of three centuries has enabled our society to refine the idea. Now we use fetuses, babies, and "presumed donating" adults for spare parts, so that the opulent sick can grow well and the Healthcare-Industrial Complex can grow rich. Swift would have been delighted, but then, he died insane.
What's our excuse?