Father: Mr. Fox, I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview. It's quite a coup for my insigificant blog.
Actor: Well, you said we were cousins!
Father: I didn't do that!
Actor: I know; I'm just kidding.
Father: Mr. Fox, obviously we're going to discuss your recent foray into electoral politics. And I want to say I think the attention given to whether you've taken your medicine, or how you might move about--I think these are distasteful. And, if you don't mind me saying so, a little dopey, because isn't what you actually said in your recent ads and appearances what we should talk about?
Actor: No, I agree.
Father: That's fair game isn't it? You have a position--and there's nothing wrong with you advocating it--but your position is part of the debate, that's fair game to respond to, to criticize?
Actor: Sure, absolutely.
Father: We're talking about research, involving stem-cells. You've said they hold a lot of promise.
Actor: That's right. Some very exciting things are happening, and as I said, millions of people care very deeply about the promise of this research. A lot of lives could be changed for the better.
Father: True. Now, to explicate this subject, let me offer this description, and you say if you think it's fair. There are many ways to characterize this stem-cell research, but you can divide it into the following two categories: one set of means of research that involves no significant moral and ethical controversy, and another, that does.
Actor: That's true.
Father: You have stem-cells from adults, from unbilical-cord blood, that--as far as I know--no one has said its immoral, or ethically troubling. That research is happening now, and it receives tax funding.
Actor: That's right.
Father: And you're for that research?
Father: Now, you are well aware of the other aspect of this: that much of the research involves deriving stem-cells from human embryos. And in deriving those cells, the embryo is destroyed.
Actor: Yes, but they would have been destroyed anyway.
Father: I'm not trying to put you on the spot--I'm just trying to be explicit about why this is a controversial issue for anyone. You understand it's because there's a human embryo involved, that's why anyone has a problem with this.
Actor: Yes, I realize that. But that's a moral viewpoint, and I respect it, but we need to see where science will take us.
Father: OK, but you do acknowledge these two categories of this research--that which involves no significant moral questions, and that which does?
Actor: No, that's fair to say.
Father: Because, in your ads, you didn't make that distinction.
Actor: Well, things like that are going to be summary.
Father: But do you think this is a significant aspect of the question?
Actor: I think we need to pursue the research, without being held back. Jim Talent would have made a large measure of the research illegal.
Father: As would I.
Actor: There you go.
Father: You understand why?
Actor: I realize it's part of your church teaching. No disrespect, but it's a religious viewpoint, and I respect that, but I think we should pursue this on the basis of science.
Father: This may surprise you, but I agree with you to a large extent. Not entirely, but maybe more than you know. Neither of us is an expert in biology or genetics and so forth--let's concede that--
Father: --but it happens to be a fact of science that when a sperm and an egg come together, what results is a new life. Not part of either parent. This isn't religion--it's science. So an embryo is not part of someone's body; it's a new life. And by definition, a human embryo is a new human life.
Actor: But we're not talking about a baby, or a full grown human being--not even a set of cells, but a single cell!
Father: I understand that. That's how all of us started life.
Actor: The religious part--I shouldn't try to talk to a priest about religion, but oh well!--but the religious part is when you say that one cell is the same as a full grown person.
Father: That's true. But may I subsitute for "religious," "moral"?
Actor: But it is religious dogma, isn't it? Is for you?
Father: Certainly. My point is that many agree with me about this without sharing my religious dogma. Jews and Muslims and those who don't believe in God, who nonetheless agree with me about the value of that human embryo, clearly can't be said to do so on the basis of my religious beliefs, can they?
Actor: No, but they do it on their own religion.
Father: Not atheists. Do you claim all athiests agree with you? For that matter, are you really saying that this is a matter where God-believers are on one side, vs. all athiests on the other? I don't know your beliefs, and I make no assumptions about them in any way...
Actor: No, no, I don't mean that.
Father: I didn't think you did. What I'm saying is, you can't say it's simply "religious" when you have religious people on both sides; and also, non-religious people on both sides.
Actor: OK, so what do you call it?
Father: As I said, I'd call it a moral viewpoint.
Actor: Are you saying those who disagree with you are immoral?
Father: No, not at all. I'm saying, the difference reflects a different moral calculus.
Actor: All right, but then it's just semantic--I'd still say, we shouldn't bring morality into it.
Father: Now, let's think about that, okay? You don't really mean that.
Actor: Sure I do. People are entitled to their own moral values, but we're a pluralistic society.
Father: Right. And in various ways, we make collective judgments about what's good or bad for our society as a whole. That's what we're going to do in a few days--the election.
Actor: But what I'm saying is that morality shouldn't be forced into this, because it's holding back where we need to go.
Father: But you, yourself, are making an argument from morality -- don't you see that?
Actor: How so? I'm arguing for science, that's all.
Father: Well, I'm not obtuse, but let's take this apart and look closely at the question. Why is it important even to do this research? In your words.
Actor: Because it could save lives!
Father: Right, exactly. Now, here's the question: why is that important?
Actor: I don't understand. Surely you of all people want to save lives.
Father: Yes, certainly. I think we all do. My point is, that's a moral impulse. Or are you advocating saving lives purely as a matter of some scientific advantage? What's your reason for wanting to save lives?
Actor: All right, I think I see your point. But the thing is, that's something we all agree on.
Father: Granted. We all agree on saving lives.
Actor: But we don't all agree on an embryo being human--
Father: Pardon me, but can we say, "we don't agree on the value placed on the embryo, in relation to other human lives"? Because, I have to say, that an embryo is human is scientifically not in dispute.
Actor: Well, that seems like you're quibbling over terminology.
Father: Maybe; but maybe the reason it matters is precisely because merely calling an embryo "human"--carries a moral connotation with it? See what I mean? Language expresses moral values; so depending on our moral values, we prefer or avoid certain words.
Actor: And, as I said, we should leave the morality out of it.
Father: Yes, but it seems to me we can't; especially if our very language, which we use to talk to each other, has morality imbedded in it. What I'm saying is, all of us--you, me, the candidates you are endorsing or opposing--all bring moral values to this question. To put it very simply, we are all trying "to do the right thing." Isn't that true?
Father: Well--I think you are. I don't believe you are acting out of hateful or evil purpose. You want to save lives. Senator Talent--do you deny he wants to do the right thing?
Actor: Well, as he sees it.
Father: As he sees it. And you, as you see it. And me, et cetera. All of us are bringing our own moral values to this question. You can't take the morality out of it. I'd argue if you took the morality out of it completely, I'm not sure what reason there would be for pursuing this research at all.
Actor: Why do you say that?
Father: Well, this is going to sound shocking, I understand: but if we completely removed all moral impulses from this, I'm not sure we'd even care that people died of diseases. We wouldn't even feel bad about it. I'm not sure what we'd say, but perhaps something like, that's natural selection at work. Or, that's what happens. What would be our motive to save the lives of people facing so many diseases, if not the moral impulse that--because they are our fellow humans, we ought to save them?
Actor: I don't know anyone who thinks that way.
Father: Neither do I; or, at least, I hope I don't. But I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue this value-judgment we make about caring for one another as a matter of "science." What's "scientific" about it?
Actor: Aren't we better off, as a human family, if we defeat these diseases? Wouldn't it be good economically? I guess we could even talk about creating jobs...
Father: We might well be. I think so, personally, yes; but I am not claiming I necessarily can prove that, empirically. But I think I detected some distaste on your part, in offering that, particular argument just now. Am I wrong.
Actor: No; to be honest, I think this is a very strange way to talk about this issue--it's so...bloodless and cold.
Father: I totally agree. But I think you're making my point. Look: when have you, or anyone who feels as you do about this, made the argument in terms of Gross National Product, or jobs, or some, concrete measure? The argument you're making isn't of that sort. Rather, you're for this because it's the right thing to do.
Actor: Because it saves lives!
Father: Right--but because...it's the right thing to do. Not jobs; not some concrete, this-world material-value. None of that enters in. Because you're making a moral argument: we should save more lives.
Actor: All right; so what?
Father: So--don't both sides get to make a moral argument? When you say, to your opponents, don't drag morality into it, that's disingenuous, because--as we've seen--you've dragged your morality into it. In fact, you've dragged everyones morality into it: you appeal to a moral impulse we all share.
Actor: I don't see what's wrong with that.
Father: I don't see anything wrong with it. My point is, your opponents are allowed to do that, as well. My criticism of your ad--of the position you advocate there--is that you didn't seem to concede that your opponents also have a valid, moral point to make.
Actor: I don't see that that is my job. That's their job in their ads.
Father: Okay, but--do you think Mr. Talent wants you to die?
Actor: No. I didn't say he did.
Father: No, you didn't. But when I saw your ad--which was very compelling--I thought, "will anyone wonder just why Jim Talent wanted to "criminalize" "research"? We've been talking about "research" for I don't know how many years in this country, for I don't know how many serious problems--when I was kid, the Muscular Dystrophy telethon seemed to be a major thing, and I helped a little with it one year. I can't remember there ever being any question of "criminalizing" any of that research. It never came up.
Actor: Right. And it shouldn't come up here.
Father: But my point is, the very fact anyone even brings it up ought to be a red flag--I mean, unless you're going to accuse the Jim Talents and Martin Foxes and everyone else--and there are millions of us, we're not just a few cranks (maybe cranks but not a few!)
Actor: Laughing. You said it, I didn't!
Father: I did. My point--are you simply going to dismiss all of us who oppose you on this as people with nothing valid to say? That we are, what--morally obtuse?
Actor: No, not at all.
Father: All right then--so my point: that in most cases, most of the time, no one gets concerned about research being problematic. Then along comes this particular question--and now we do have significant numbers of people with very strong concerns. Something is very different here. It's not just another form of research. Regardless of who really is right on this question--it's not simply just another form of research.
Actor: Pause. Is there something you wanted me to say to that?
Father: I guess...I wanted either you to say you agree or disagree.
Actor: I agree, of course. I think it's kind of an obvious point.
Father: Well, if it is obvious, then it undercuts the argument you just made that this is only a question of "science" and that we should just let science go where it will go. Because, of course, that's not what we do.
Actor: Sure it is. You just said in most cases, we let research go where it will.
Father: Well, that's not exactly what I said, certainly not my meaning. What I said was, it seems to me almost all the time, we don't have these debates about the research--and I think that's because most of the time, the research takes place within the boundaries that define what's acceptable and unacceptable. Boundaries that are, in fact, moral rather than "scientific." And it's precisely because this particular question, of research that involves destroying human embryos, we are crossing a boundary--and that is what is awakening lots of reaction.
But I totally dispute the assertion that science simply goes where it will. In fact, as a society, we do place boundaries on where science may go, and how it may carry out its ends.
Actor: How so?
Father: Well, for one, when people participate in research, they must give informed consent. There was a day that wasn't true, as you and I both know. For another, even when we don't involve people, but rather, animals, we insist on being "humane," and even with that, we do have real controversy over whether it's right--note that, that's a moral term--whether it's right even to use animals...at all. And--as you know, there have been times scientists have conducted research on human beings, in cruel and obscene ways--unspeakable ways--but the fact is, it was "research" . . . and while that is past--we hope!--the question remains: is it moral, is it ethical, to draw on the fruits of that horrible research?
Actor: you're speaking of the Holocaust.
Father: In part; but the principle applies any time you have research that crosses ethical boundaries we all agree on. In this country, African-Americans were involved in so-called research without their knowledge or consent. It was--we all agree--wrong. My point is, it is simply fallacious to say we let science go where it will. No we don't. We do set ethical--and here I go again!--moral boundaries.
Actor: So...what's your point?
Father: My point is, it would be nice if you acknowleged that more often. That it's not illegitimate to set boundaries on research. That's what I and everyone else, opposed to embryonic stem-cell research are doing.
Actor: You really think not using those embryos--which will be destroyed anyway--is more important than the cures we could obtain?
Father: I don't accept that either-or. Who says we can't do both?
Actor: But you're putting a huge chunk of the research off-limits. Doesn't that guarantee we'll take longer to get there?
Father: I don't know. It may. But, may I point out, that argument applies as well to every other boundary we place on research. But we still do confine scientific research to certain ethical boundaries, such as we talked about. By your argument, those, too, "slow us down." Isn't that the price we pay to be a civilized society?
Actor: You're saying my disease is the price we pay?
Father: Perhaps we could advance research by cutting off people's left hands--their right hands if they're left-handed. Why don't we do that?
Actor: but that's hypothetical. There is no such research.
Father: All right. There is research we could conduct on human fetuses--babies in the womb. Right now it's legal to get an abortion--
Actor: Wait--I'm not talking about abortion.
Father: No, you're not. I am. Let me finish. Right now, this is legal--and the tissue from the fetus can and is used for research. We could do things we don't, now, do, to have more fetal tissue.
Actor: Like what?
Father: Like, we could pay women to conceive babies, and then...well do you need me to spell it out. It's repulsive.
Actor: It is repulsive. Why do you bring it up?
Father: Because it's a real example of what you just said isn't true: where we slow down research because of a moral scruple. After all, abortion is legal. Using the remains for research is happening. So what holds us back from doing that a lot more -- other than we all find it repulsive? After all, it could save lives...don't you care? You see my point? I'm not trying to accuse you; I'm trying to illustrate another application of your own argument.
Actor: I don't see how this is connected.
Father: Well, it is connected to the question of cloning...
Actor: No it isn't. We're not talking about cloning...
Father: Well, I guess we have to decide what we mean by that. By cloning, I mean creating new embryos, but not in the way we've always created them--that is, with a man and woman contributing a sperm and an egg. As of right now, that's the only way we can "create" a human embryo. But if we go ahead with massive, full-bore embryonic stem-cell research, we eventually run out of the embryos in fertility clinics. Then what?
Actor: But no one is advocating--I mean, I'm not--advocating having cloned people walk around.
Father: That's true. But my point was, you agree that the question of producing embryos eventually comes up.
Actor: Well, but they aren't really embryos--they're just cells.
Father: Oh, now Mr. Fox, I want to be courteous and all, but come on! You can't talk about "embryonic stem-cell research" in one breath, and then quibble over the word embryo! If they aren't "embryos" then it's not "embryonic stem-cell research. The fact is, the proposal is to replicate, through what is commonly called "cloning," an embryo that otherwise would be created by uniting a sperm and an egg. And at some point, that's likely to become necessary.
Actor: But you're calling that an embryo.
Father: With all respect, I think as a matter of science, that's the proper term. We're talking about something that is factually indistinguishable from an embryo. Call it a "synthetic" embryo if you want; but the whole point is that it is an embryo, for purposes of science.
Actor: Well, all this seems pretty arcane.
Father: Are you saying it's not important? These details, and their significance, are irrelevant?
Actor: I don't know. For me, it's pretty simple, I guess; and I think it is for a lot of folks.
Father: Are you saying, in that, that it's "simple" for a majority of folks?
Actor: Well, I guess so. Yes.
Father: Are you appealing to the majority on this? I mean, is your argument, now, that your position is superior, or should win the say, because more people agree with you?
Actor: Well, are you saying your position should carry the day because a majority disagrees with you?
Father: Not at all. What I'm questioning is whether which side is in the majority settles the question of right-versus-wrong.
Actor: How else do you settle it?
Father: You and I are both white males. We haven't, historically, had to worry about being part of a marginalized minority. At least, far less so than many others. I'm saying, sometimes you have to put these questions beyond majority-rule.
Actor: So you don't even want the question placed on the ballot?
Father: That's exactly what I'm saying. I'm saying, I don't care if 99% of the people vote for something--that doesn't make it right. After all--suppose that referendum goes down in Missouri--it may--does that make you wrong? Will you change your position.
Father: I suppose this is as good a place to conclude our talk; I mean, we can't settle this. But I hope you feel you had your say.
Actor: to some extent.
Father: Well, I wrote both parts, so it's a lot harder and riskier to try to come up with what you'd say. I figured this was less unfair to you.
Actor: Hmmm, that's a different way to look at it.
Father: You were gracious to take part. I didn't think I would convince you, although one always hopes! But I thought this is important to get into the substance of the question. Do you disagree? I mean, with that last part?
Actor: No, not at all.
Father: Wonderful to meet you. I've been asked if we were related...
Actor: Funny--no one has ever asked me that about you!
Father: I can't imagine why. Thanks a lot.
*As I rather doubted Mr. Fox would make himself available for such an interview, I have imagined what he might say. Too much cold medicine can have this effect.