so, how ’bout those Lakers…

I caught the new Ron Reagan/Monica Crowley show on MSNBC this morning. You know, the one where Ron Reagan gets to represent the “left” and you keep hoping the rictus will thaw out of Monica Crowley’s face long enough for that thing she does with her mouth to contort into something resembling a smile.

I have no excuse. It was on.

Anyway, just to make sure everyone knew that Ron is on the “left” and that he is, indeed, a Reagan, they decided to dust off that old war horse, stem cell research. On the pro side they had Alta Charo, professor of bioethics at the University of Wisconsin, and on the con side they trotted out Some Dude whose name I can’t remember, whose personal style is cribbed from a 1957 issue of Gent and whose contention is that life begins at the moment of conception when sperm meets egg and having been thus blessed by the Divine Hand of the Creator it is henceforth entitled to the same protections as an adult human. In fact, more protection than if the life happens to belong to some African American on death row, but now I’m off topic and I don’t even want to get into that right now. The ultimate conclusion is that Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Wrong.

So Alta brings up the conundrum that’s always guaranteed to set wingnut heads a-spinning and green pea soup spewing from their mouths, which is basically a riff on “if a fire breaks out in a fertility clinic, who do you save — a Petri dish with five blastula or the two year-old child?” Suddenly everyone’s yelling, Monica’s mouth starts doing that other thing it does which is not a smile, and the whole show devolves into a split-screen talking head orgy of indignation. Nobody ever answers the question, by the way.

Whenever I hear wingnuts arguing about stem cell research I always get the feeling that they are doing so under duress, like reluctant Visigoths who’ve been forced to carry the battle into a town they really don’t care about sacking. But having made the argument that women should not have control over their own bodies and be entitled to an abortion because even the littlest zygote amongst us is sacred, and not because they hate and fear women and want to relegate them to the social role of biological functionaries, they have to naturally extend the argument and oppose embryonic stem cell research as well. You know, for consistency’s sake and all.

This is going to surprise a lot of people, but I actually respect that argument. If you really believe that life begins at conception and that all life is sacred, and therefore the destruction of any life is unethical, I really can’t argue with you. Because I can only say what I believe, which is obviously not that, but I can’t claim to have some sort of ultimate dispensation of knowledge that will answer the question of when life begins. So if someone wants to claim that life begins at conception, and works diligently against any, and I mean ANY procedure that would result in the creation of a cluster of cells that might one day result in the development of a human being only to ultimately thwart that process with its destruction, I have to respect that as an honest position.

But here’s where it starts to get prickly. Because Ron then proceeds to point out that during the in vitro fertilization process numerous embryos are created but only the first one to “take” will produce a child. Mr. Needs to Update His Personal Style then argues that this is actually okay, because the embryos that are not used are not destroyed; they are merely frozen for all eternity. And since I was consumed at that moment with peeling an orange and drinking half of a flat Coke from yesterday I didn’t get it all down word for word, so I’ll have to paraphrase, but in a nutshell Ms. Charo’s response was that after a certain length of time the embryos are no longer viable anyway so who are you fuckin’ trying to kid, Jack.

Well now I’m consumed by curiosity about how the wingers address this thorny issue so I cruise on over to the NRO to consult that self-professed Oracle of all things Right, K.J. Lopez, and I found an article by her on in vitro fertilization cleverly entitled Eggheads. It’s filled with the usual NRO “ooh, Science scary” tocsins, as well as a dig at working women (“The demand side of the market comes mostly from career-minded baby-boomers, the frontierswomen of feminism, who thought they could have it all”). But then she goes on to note that 15% of all mothers in this country get a little help on the fertility front from science, and since that probably includes no small number of Iowa fundies looking to increase the flock of the faithful, she stops short of casting Joe and Sally Christian who just want to breed, breed breed into the fiery ovens of eternal damnation if they happen to brew up a few extra embryos they never intend to use along the way. A strange omission.

Or maybe not. I surfed around to various anti-choice websites, trying to find out if there was any kind of consistent voice on this front, and it took me to a lot of dillies, but I found that most of them simply sidestepped the issue altogether. Some didn’t, several of the Catholic ones were vocally opposed to in vitro fertilization, and I tip my hat to them for the consistency of their argument. I can hardly claim to have made a comprehensive and exhaustive exploration of the subject, because, you know, I had to finish the rest of that Coke. But on the whole it seems to be a bit of a sticking point that the fundies would just rather not address.

But it does lead to this other question that nags at me. When John M. Opitz of the University of Utah testified before the President’s council on Bioethics in 2003, he noted that between 60 and 80 percent of all naturally conceived embryos are simply flushed out in a woman’s normal menstrual cycle in the first 7 days after fertilization, and that women never even know that conception has taken place.

(As a side note, at the same meeting, Harvard government professor Michael Sandel, also a member of the Bioethics council, noted that “If the embryo loss that accompanies natural procreation were the moral equivalent of infant death, then pregnancy would have to be regarded as a public health crisis of epidemic proportions: Alleviating natural embryo loss would be a more urgent moral cause than abortion, in vitro fertilization, and stem-cell research combined.” Although I enjoy Dr. Sandel’s sense of humor and appreciate the presence of a smartass on the Bioethics council, I really do, let’s just chalk this one up to “God’s will” for the moment and proceed with the question at hand.)

Now, I’m certain by most fundamentalist assessments that when I die, barring some sort of deathbed recant of the Lee Atwater variety, I am going to hell. (That last vote for John Kerry probably put me over the top.) But say by some fluke God has a soft spot for unrepentant preacher’s kids who are good to their dogs, and I wind up in heaven. Is 60 to 80 percent of the population going to be filled out with people who never made it past dome stage blastula? I mean — conversation is liable to be a bit thin, don’t you think? What can you really say beyond “congratulations on winning the big swim?”

The sensible answer is, of course, that God works in mysterious ways that man cannot always comprehend. But if medieval theologians spent endless hours contemplating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, I’m sure some sad bastard has put a great deal of thought into cogitating an answer. And one day, thanks the to the internets, I sincerely hope to hear it.