Fetal Tissue and the Culture of Death

Sir William Gladstone, the famous 19th-century British politician, was, broadly speaking, a man of principle. Not all of his principles were noble — despite his personal opposition to slavery, Gladstone expressed sympathy for the Confederacy (he was something of a Tim Kaine progenitor in this respect) — but his deeply held beliefs about free trade and liberalism shaped British politics for decades after his death. “The People’s William,” as he came to be known, earned the praise of fellow Liberal parliamentarian John Bright, who noted in his typically English prose that he could not think of one man in the country “who equals” Gladstone “in earnestness.”

Gladstone famously insisted that if he were shown “the manner in which a nation cares for its dead” he would be able to “measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the laws of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals.”

The Trump administration displayed their “loyalty to high ideals” by refusing to continue National Institutes of Health research involving “fetal tissue” — a popular euphemism used to avoid saying the words “dismembered corpses of unborn children” out loud. Reports say that the president acted unilaterally on this matter, defying the expressed will of Health and Human Services head Alex Azar.

In an NBC News report, Dr. Elias Zambidis of Johns Hopkins gets right to the heart of the matter when he asks why society should “put [fetal] tissue in a biohazard box” instead of “[using] it to help others.” This is the crux of the dispute, it seems — are human beings morally similar to wild animals? Are human remains owed certain intrinsic respect that would be violated by wantonly harvesting them for medical cures? And if our society is willing to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of unborn children every year on the altar of bodily autonomy, how degraded a society must we be to use their remains for our own medicinal advancement?

Food for thought the next time you’re accused of being “on the wrong side of history.”

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Author: John Hirschauer