Doctor, Doctor, will I die?
Yes, my child, And so shall I.
Forgive me for withdrawing from the outrage over recent videos released by the Center for Medical Progress. Don’t think I am not repulsed by them. Absolutely, I am. But what inhibits me from declaring my own revulsion is a disquieting belief that whether Planned Parenthood is defunded elides the true issue. Our righteous censure attends mainly to the symptoms of a disease we are loathe to cure.
That hidden root disorder is our denial of mortality. Modern technical prowess drives the defiance with a welcome roster of desperate appliances, from pacemakers and dialysis machines to artificial hearts and lungs. Add an obsession with fitness and wellness, the Castor and Pollox of holistic mythology. We keep finitude at bay in a frenzy of diet-and-exercise regimes, herbal body wraps, and probiotic capsules from Life Force International. Hit the right formula, and we can live forever. Or pretend to.
There is a dark side to modernity’s variant of ancient quests for the elixir of life. On a policy level, there is the very real temptation to divert resources from adequate care for all onto splendid visions of medical progress that advantage only a few. But that is a different discussion for another day. Here, let me stay with the framework of values that fuels the social and medical ardor for organ transplants.
Celebrated technical successes, born of biomedical refusal to accept mortal limits, encourage us to view our bodies as machines that can be rebuilt. Not only do we have synthetic joint replacements—an undeniable boon— but living tissue, as well. Hubris prompts us to approach organ transplant with the same ease of conscience that accompanies an old Subaru into the body shop for a new carburetor or a remanufactured manual transmission.
Our Obsession with Eternal Life
What are little boys made of? Small change and spare parts, apparently. So long as we think of our bodies in terms of replaceable components, the harvesting of fetal tissue—entire organs—will continue. Embryonic and fetal tissue is the prima materia of modern researchers who, like alchemists of old, are engaged in the magnum opus of turning base clay—the stuff we are made of—into something more enduring.
For all the attention to grisly details of organ procurement, little was said about the purpose of that grotesque quarrying. Abolitionist rhetoric is necessarily sensational. The publicized videos intended to create a climate of disgust for abortion itself and for all desolate profit from it. Consequently, scant attention was paid to the research in organ repair and replacement that underwrites the behavior we condemn.
Traffic in the bloody fruits of abortion is inextricable from increasing popular zeal to obtain transplantable organs. It is wed to medical technology’s quest to gather and implant organs and to devise alternatives to current means. In our lifetime, organ transplant has become an accepted form of treatment for many end-stage heart, lung, kidney, and liver diseases. As a consequence of public and medical enthusiasm, waiting lists for transplants grow longer while scarcity of organs increases. At the same time, concern about methods of procurement—and allocation—continue to stalk developments.
Pressure for Body Parts Will Increase
An unsettling look at where those demands and developments point is “The Threat of Human Cloning,” the subject of this summer’s edition of The New Atlantis. Despite evidence that advances in regenerative medicine can be achieved without resorting to fetal stem cells, the article states this:
One of the long-standing goals of regenerative medicine is to build organs from pluripotent stem cells. But growing organs from stem cells in an extremely complex matter, even more so than the difficult task of differentiating stem cells into particular cell types. Instead of deriving organs from stem cells, it may be more technically straightforward to culture embryos for longer periods of time. There are already biotechnical companies developing methods for transplanting organs from aborted fetuses, but using cloning to produce genetically identical fetuses could well be a more attractive option.
Considering the pressing need for viable human kidneys—there are more than 100,000 names on the U.S. waiting list as of this writing—it is conceivable that in the future we will see increasing pressure to create cloned fetuses for the purpose of harvesting organs.
The 2006 Fetus Farming Prohibitive Act forbids only the use of fetuses gestated for research purposes. That leaves a foothold for researchers seeking ways to grow embryos in vitro to the fetal stage. From there, the next step—already accomplished in animal experiments—takes us into what seems like science fiction: the creation of headless clones as a source of organs.
The Stalking Headless Horseman
Not everyone grants full humanity, or any at all, to prenatal life. Inside or out of the transplant community, many see what begins in the womb as little more than a frail cluster of cells poised for dispersion. Brainless life, devoid of capacity for personhood, would be even more discountable in the grand economy of human flourishing. We already accept brain death as a marker for organ removal. Fabrication, then, of human goods that never had a brain could be embraced as a species of applied compassion toward living persons.
The imperative to save existing persons wields great force. In 2007, Princeton University molecular biologist Lee M. Silver stated that he saw “nothing wrong, philosophically or rationally” with creating headless clones. The new world is braver than we think.
Twenty years ago, literary critic Leslie Fiedler wondered if “perhaps this whole strategy is wrong, misguided—finally monstruous; that forestalling death indefinitely is as impious as hastening it was traditionally thought.” Only two decades later, few of us would comprehend his moral unease. Today, King Lear’s conviction finds little echo: “We must endure our going hence, even as our coming hither.”
New, Technology-Bred Immorality
Technology is hardly neutral. Untethered to a logic outside itself, it establishes new standards for behavior. Silver’s comment would have been unthinkable a century ago. But, as Jacques Ellul understood: “Technique never observes the distinction between moral and immoral use. It tends, on the contrary, to create a completely independent technical morality.”
This technical morality horrifies us when we see it at work on the abortionist’s operating table. Yet we want it both ways. We want to hold the moral high ground by condemning the “Moral Rot at the Core of Planned Parenthood,” as one headline shouted. At the same time, we assent to the spoils of advanced bio-technical research and those laboratory procedures that employ fetal tissue.
Mary Gatter, medical director for Planned Parenthood of Lost Angeles, wants a Lamborghini. The rest of us ache to know that when the dreaded diagnosis comes, as it surely will, some substitute might be had for what time and the hazards of living have worn away. At the end of the day, our own wants are more extravagant than Gatter’s.