This century’s gold rush?

When California voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 71, which provides $300 million per year over the next decade for embryonic stem cell research, they couldn’t have known all that they were doing. As usual with moral minefields, the proposal’s advocates promised something for nothing. Their hope that presently unseen cures might result from embryonic stem research became a promise. Their intention that California’s economy would flourish with new investment and discovery was compared with days when miners found gold nuggets on the ground. That was at least the picture painted when Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante called embryonic stem cell research “this century’s gold rush.”


Really? Three billion is a lot of money to recoup in the fruit of the hitherto unprofitable destruction of human life. That’s what it is, you know. A fertilized human egg, plus time, plus nurture equals you or me. If the embryo is not both human and alive, no one even imagines a benefit from pulling it apart. Let’s take Mr. Bustamante’s example apart instead.


America’s first gold rush took place in Georgia in the 1820s. At that time settlers of European descent and the Indian tribes there lived peaceably together. When gold was discovered in Cherokee County, that changed. Greedy newcomers who wanted the gold found the occupancy of the land’s legal owners inconvenient. The eventual solution to this problem was to march Georgia’s Cherokees across the South to modern-day Oklahoma. The Indians called the route “Trail of Tears” partly because about 4,000 people died as a result of this removal.


Our nation’s second gold rush was more lucrative, to some. When gold was discovered in California, a call went round the world in the late 1840s. People came from China, Mexico, Europe, and from North America’s east to search for gold and to start businesses of use to the newcomers. As more people came, gold was harder to find. “Foreigners” became inconvenient and the cry became “t1:State>California for the Americans.” As this implies, European, Mexican, and Chinese miners and businessmen were run out, sometimes violently. Again, “gold rush” meant one thing to the powerful and another to the relatively powerless.

It’s a little ironic that California’s first Hispanic lieutenant governor would sanguinely use a term that held more threat than promise to his own forebears. How easily he forgets the misery a majority may inflict on those less powerful or numerous than themselves. Is any human life less powerful than the unborn in our society?


Mr. Bustamante is not alone in his enthusiasm. Politicians in other states are rushing to compete for a supposed growth industry. Governors in Wisconsin and New Jersey are also working to apply state money to embryonic stem cell research. Our own Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has expressed the fear that Texas will not get in on the bonanza. Presumably, Mrs. Hutchison would favor applying Texas state funds to this research in the event she runs for, and is elected, governor one day. Some have also guessed that researchers will abandon Texas if public money and new stem cell lines are not readily available for embryonic stem cell research. All this activity on the part of state leaders is focused on embryonic stems cells because this is the type of stem cell research the federal government will not fund. This is the place where the competition between states ensues.


Maybe this is all true. There was gold in them hills, after all. Perhaps the destruction of human embryos will result in extended lives for some of the rest of us. Perhaps states that invest will get both a financial windfall and an influx of the nation’s best scientists. Do these things change the right and wrong of the whole matter?


To how many moral issues could we apply this same utilitarian thinking? Slavery benefited (for a time) some state and personal fortunes. Vivisection could have some imagined benefits to research and teaching. Clear-cutting our great forests could drive down the price of housing and make some people and states rich ? for a while. These ideas each present myriad moral objections and practical problems for every imagined benefit. Can we beat the law of unintended consequences this time, for the first time?


Frankly folks, this is why politicians; lieutenant governors, governors, and governors-in-waiting, need oversight by their constituents. They evidently are not temperamentally equipped to learn from past results or present morality.


A second moral shortcut involves cloning human embryos for the purpose of harvesting useful stem cells. Advocates are quick to point out that they do not favor reproductive cloning, which, if successful, would produce a genetic duplicate of an existing mature person. They favor therapeutic cloning only, which produces an embryo that is the genetic duplicate of an existing mature person for the purpose of pulling it to pieces for research.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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