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James Dobson, Stem Cells, Nazi Medical Experiments, and the Theater of Politics

Dr. James Dobson, founder and chairman of Focus on the Family, received an unexpected hit in the media recently after speaking to the issue of human embryonic stem cell research. Here’s what he said on the August 3 edition of the Focus on The Family radio program:
People talk about the potential for good that can come from destroying these little embryos and how we might be able to solve the problem of juvenile diabetes . . . . But I have to ask this question: In World War II, the Nazis experimented on human beings in horrible ways in the concentration camps, and I imagine, if you wanted to take the time to read about it, there would have been some discoveries there that benefited mankind.
You know, if you take a utilitarian approach, that if something results in good, then it is good. But that’s obviously not true. We condemn what the Nazis did because there are some things that we always could do but we haven’t done, because science always has to be guided by ethics and by morality. And you remove ethics and morality, and you get what happened in Nazi Germany.
The Anti-Defamation League quickly jumped on the comments. This statement was published on the group’s Web site: “There is no legitimate comparison between stem-cell research, which seeks to find a cure for disease and to counter human suffering, and the perversion of science and morality represented by the actions of Nazi doctors who deliberately tortured their victims in medical ‘experiments,’” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. “While reasonable, decent people may legitimately differ in their views of embryonic cell research, it is a gross distortion – and an offensive misuse of the Holocaust – to compare stem-cell research to the hideous barbarities of Nazi pseudo-science.”
Did Dobson do this? His actual comments do not make any comparison between the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust and the use of human stem cells in medical research. He was making a connection between the utilitarian morality that the Nazis used to defend their perverse medical experiments with the moral arguments used to defend the destruction of human embryos in stem cell research. He is surely right to make this connection. That is not tantamount to the comparison the ADL alleges against Dr. Dobson.
But David Gelernter thinks it is. His op-ed column published in The Wall Street Journal was a broadside against Dr. Dobson. Here’s the central thrust of his argument: Dr. Dobson’s analogy is grotesque. It’s not just that embryos (as he himself noted later) feel no pain when they are destroyed. Not just that they leave no grief-stricken survivors in the sense that full-fledged human beings do, and rip no comparable hole in the community and the universe when they are murdered. Just as important is the gaping difference in the actors’ motives. Stem-cell researchers want to help “mankind,” defined to exclude embryos. Nazi experimenters wanted to help “mankind,” defined to exclude Jews. If the first definition is wrong, it might nonetheless be proposed by morally serious persons. No morally serious person would go anywhere near the second, which epitomizes Nazi evil.
Mr. Gelernter makes a serious moral charge — it just doesn’t fairly describe what Dr. Dobson actually said. I take this column seriously because I admire the work of Mr. Gelernter. He is a serious and thoughtful man whose writings I have admired. [He was also a victim of the Unabomber, whose bomb seriously wounded him.] Mr. Gelernter just misses the point here. I have to wonder if this is not due to two separate reasons. First, there is a Jewish aversion to any use of the Holocaust as a historical parallel. While this is understandable, such parallels are unavoidable, if inexact. No seriously-minded person should use any reference to the Holocaust without due care and respect. But the other reason may be a Jewish concept that the embryo represents something less than a human person. This is widely encountered in Jewish arguments about embryos, reproductive technologies, and abortion. In any event, I have to judge Mr. Gelernter’s accusation against Dr. Dobson to be unfair and unfounded, though no doubt sincere.
I deeply appreciate the clarification offered by Dennis Prager. Mr. Prager, a widely influential Jewish thinker, speaker, and radio host defended Dr. Dobson: It should be clear to any honest reader that Dobson was not morally equating embryonic stem-cell research to the hideous Nazi medical experiments on human beings (mostly, but not only, Jews). If he did, I would join the chorus of protesters.
Further: Dobson was not comparing actions – he was comparing ideas: namely, the idea that because good may result from an immoral action, the action becomes moral. He is, of course, right. The only question is whether this rule applies to embryonic stem-cell research. On this, good people can and do differ. What good people must not do is attribute to James Dobson repugnant views he did not express.
Dennis Prager got it right. The entire episode should remind us all that we must exercise genuine care in speaking of controversial and sensitive issues — and in defending or opposing the arguments of others.
Disclosure Statement: I am a member of the Board of Directors of Focus on the Family.