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Life vs. Life

President George W. Bush speaks as (L-R) Doni Brinkman, her son, Tanner, Sharon Tesdall, Tesdall's daughter, Mikayla, and Tesdall's husband, Larry, look on during an East Room event at the White House May 24, 2005.
President George W. Bush speaks as (L-R) Doni Brinkman, her son, Tanner, Sharon Tesdall, Tesdall's daughter, Mikayla, and Tesdall's husband, Larry, look on during an East Room event at the White House May 24, 2005. ((Alex Wong/Getty Images))

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By Richard Cohen
Thursday, May 26, 2005

Sometime after the tragic advent of television, someone ruled that no issue could be debated without a photo op. Thus, if some senator introduces a bill about agriculture policy, it is not enough to drop it into the hopper. The senator must stand before a silo, maybe holding a pig, to make the point that the bill about to be introduced is vital to both. In that very spirit, President Bush posed on Tuesday with real-life babies who were produced from frozen embryos that in godless places (Britain, Israel and, soon, California), might have been destroyed for their stem cells. But, look, the president said, these babies were life itself. One of them even cried.

Now envision a different photo op in which another form of life is on display -- people in wheelchairs or using walkers or maybe on gurneys. They are suffering from various diseases or injuries of the nerves or the spinal column or some such thing. Many are in pain. All of them are uncomfortable, and they could be saved, cured, made better through the use of stem cells that would, if you believed in the logic of Bush's photo op, have come at the expense of those very babies across town.

"The use of federal money, taxpayers' money, to promote science which destroys life in order to save life, is -- I'm against that," the president told reporters earlier this month. The statement plus the photo op made it all so clear: We have to balance one form of life against another. This was not win-win; this was win-lose or zero-sum or some such stupid expression. No matter. We understand.

Yet, offstage, unphotographed (if such a thing is possible nowadays) a determined sperm is making his way up a fallopian tube. This is the way life begins. It is always the way life begins. Now our determined sperm has hit its mark -- the egg. Voila, as the French say, we have fertilization. This is the life Bush is always talking about. Ain't it wonderful! This is what all those religious conservatives are in such a state over. Life, life itself! But, oops, the fertilized egg does not adhere to the womb. No pregnancy results. This happens all the time, as many couples learn the hard way. Call the fertilized egg what you will. Call it life. But calling it life does not make it so. Other things have to happen. Too often they simply don't.

I have no idea if the fertilized egg that does not adhere has a soul or if the soul only comes when the egg adheres -- or if there is no such thing as the soul. I do know, though, that showing cute babies is not quite the same as dealing logically and rationally with the promise of stem cell research. If scientists use the very fertilized eggs that in nature are always falling by the wayside, then where is the great ethical leap -- the danger to us all? I grant you that we are embarking on a wondrous and scary intellectual and ethical journey, but we are doing so to save lives, to make them bearable, to mend the broken and cure the sick. What is wrong with that? We can still have the babies of Bush's photo op and also save lives. This is not an either/or situation. To suggest otherwise is simply not the case.

If you believe, as some surely do, that only God can tamper with the process that ultimately produces life, then I cannot argue with you. You believe what you believe. That's the nature of religion. But it is also the nature of religious debates that they are impervious to rational argument. You either believe Muhammad was God's prophet or you don't.

Whatever the case, religious belief cannot be the basis for governmental policy -- not belief, anyway, that lacks consensus. But Bush and his allies among religious conservatives have imposed their religious convictions on the rest of us. In effect, they are saying to a particular victim of degenerative disease: You must suffer or you must die because I simply believe that a fertilized egg ("biologically more primitive than a mosquito," as columnist Michael Kinsley put it) is as much a life as you are. This is president as pope, as mullah -- as someone who cannot understand the practical, the rational, the logical limitations of his own religious beliefs. Bush and others may be willing to die for what they believe -- but why, oh why, should you or I?

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