Daniel Callahan


The national debate on embryonic stem cells and research cloning has brought out the best and the worst in American culture. The best is on display in many ways. It is a debate that has been marked by an outpouring of sympathy for those suffering from disease or disability or threatened with death. It has drawn on the deep historical reservoir in America of a devotion to research and technological innovation to relieve the human condition. Despite these intensely partisan times, support for the research has easily crossed party lines, among legislators and the public. And it has given hope to perhaps thousands of people suffering from tenacious afflictions and disabilities. Those elements of the debate are impressive and commendable.

Far less commendable were many of the ways in which the campaign in favor of the research was waged to gain money to carry it out. The main focus of this paper is on the early years of the stem cell debate when that effort was most intense. There were, for openers, inflated claims about the value of the research, often in the face of cautions from the researchers themselves. There was also an egregious promotion of what I believe to be an utterly wrong view about a socalled moral obligation to pursue the research. And there was a full display of that most ancient of logical fallacies, the ad hominem argument. Many research proponents did not hesitate to label those on the other side as a noxious coalition of right-wing religious fanatics, the fearful, the superstitious, the ignorant, and those invincibly indifferent to human suffering. Some of that kind of rhetoric has been thrown in my direction. The right, sometimes not to be outdone in throwing mud, labeled proponents as enemies of human dignity, who were well down a slippery slope to manufacturing and instrumentalizing human embryos and thus life itself, the crudest kind of utilitarianism.

There may have been bits of truth in each of these stereotypes, but they did not serve well to advance the discussion. There were some larger issues at stake in this conflict, most notably the excessive hype and hyperbole deployed by research supporters, the use of bad arguments, some ethical window-dressing to move the cause along, and a failure to take account of some little-noted but highly relevant facts.