Late Edition: The Trouble With Harry

Nearly three decades after its appearance, Justice Harry Blackmun’s opinion in Roe v. Wade hovers like a toxic cloud over American law and culture. In seeking to liberate women from the tyranny of “unwanted” pregnancies, he refused to address the moral status of the tiny humans whose elimination he ensured.

Blackmun claimed with false humility that the Court should not interfere when theologians, philosophers, and scientists disputed life’s origins. After this ritual bow to relativism, he declared ex cathedra that the palpably present but unborn human subject possessed no rights the law was bound to respect. In fact, the issue before the Court was not when human life begins (indisputably, it begins at conception) but whether to protect it once it has begun.

Blackmun’s sleight-of-hand—pretending that the moral question was factual, then feigning dispute about the factual question—continues to influence public policy even when the diverting claims of pregnant women are removed from consideration. Consider, for example, the ongoing debate on human stem-cell research and cloning. In imitation of Blackmun’s studied evasions, research proponents twist themselves into pretzels to avoid addressing the moral worth of the human embryo.

They first say the embryo really isn’t human until implantation in the womb. Since there is no intention to implant, voila!, the embryo never achieves human status. In respect of cloning, they say a human really isn’t human if he or she is created asexually. When all else fails, they say that, whatever the embryonic “thing” is, experimenting upon it will produce miraculous cures for human defects and disease.

In a culture that has accommodated itself to easy abortion and to other utilitarian justifications across a wide range of moral issues, such arguments acquire a certain public resonance. Like Roe’s rationale, they rely on misstatement of scientific fact to accomplish an extraneous purpose. As anyone who works at an in vitro fertilization (IVF) laboratory will affirm, a distinctive human being comes into existence at fertilization. We know, too, that a cloned human being is genetically identical to one conceived by union of sperm and egg. The whole purpose of such endeavors is precisely to create human beings.

Such efforts may fail owing to ignorance or inadequate technique, but their object is unmistakably clear. What researchers now want is a license to experiment at will on these tiny subjects—and the money to do it with. Toward that end, these subjects are referred to by everything but their proper name—human beings.

That is where Blackmun’s opinion comes in handy. It provides the legal and scientific cover that makes moral indifference socially respectable. Stem-cell and cloning researchers endlessly reiterate Blackmun’s faux relativism about the moral status of human beings at the early stages of their existence. And, like Blackmun, they then declare without argument that the value of early-stage human life is essentially zero.

Blackmun’s opinion begged this question: If the human being before birth is of so little value that it may be killed, why may it not be experimented upon? The question hovers like a brooding omnipresence, and although few researchers dare to address it head-on, they answer it nevertheless—in the booming industry that relies on a constant supply of fetal parts and tissue supplied by abortionists, and in IVF clinics that sprang into existence once Roe was decided. Today, some 100,000 “spare” embryos exist in those clinics (with thousands more added every year), and researchers would love your tax dollars to enhance their research upon them. Restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research have temporarily altered their expectations—hence the demand for more human embryos produced through “therapeutic” cloning.

You and I, it bears repeating, began existence as nothing but embryos. Life is continuous from inception to natural death. Because we are no less human at any stage than we are at every stage, justifications for destroying human life cannot be limited to one phase of our existence. What may be done to an embryo may be done to every one of us. Blackmun was blind to that logic even as he relied upon it. He thereby empowered the biogeneticists and made the rest of us vulnerable to their beneficent ministrations.

Michael M. Uhlmann


Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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