Art Imitates Life

  Commercials for NBC's Law & Order series often describe upcoming episodes as being "ripped from the headlines." The show's producers aren't shy about art imitating life if there's a good story involved. And that's what happened on a recent episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, titled "Waste." Only in this instance, it was a case of art helping to make sense of an important issue in American life. The episode began with the discovery that a comatose young woman in the hospital is pregnant. The police assume that one of her caretakers had raped her. As it turned out, the woman hadn't been raped at all. Instead, she was one of several comatose women who had been artificially inseminated by their neurologist. Why? In order to harvest the stem cells from the subsequently aborted fetuses. A millionaire with Parkinson's disease paid the doctor for this service. And the doctor justifies his actions by calling stem cells the "Holy Grail of medical research." This messianic belief in embryonic stem cell research manifests itself at the trial. The millionaire testifies that Parkinson's has destroyed his life. He describes embryonic stem cell research as a potential "gift of life for millions." The prosecutor, while sympathetic, insists that neither his suffering, nor the potential cures, justifies the doctor's actions. She argues that alleviating suffering cannot be obtained at the price of the helpless women's dignity. Moved by the millionaire's illness and testimony, the jury convicts the doctor of a lesser charge, and, in the last scene, the millionaire sues for custody of the unborn child. Why? Because, as the DA tells the audience, the umbilical cord is rich in stem cells. It's hard to imagine a more balanced presentation of the issues raised by the stem cell debate, balancing the questions of privacy and life against the hope for a cure for dreaded diseases. The show was fairer and more thorough than the handling of this issue on another NBC series, ER, and certainly surpassed anything I've seen on network news, which usually gives all the sympathy to Christopher Reeve and other celebrities who promise "miracle cures." Like the jury, viewers of Law & Order probably felt sympathy for the man with Parkinson's. Hearing about his sufferings naturally causes us to want to alleviate suffering. Christians need to understand and appreciate these compassionate motivations. But at the same time, his actions and those of the doctor serve as a metaphor for the price of alleviating suffering with embryonic stem cells: It assaults our most treasured beliefs about the sanctity of human life. The lawsuit to obtain the umbilical cord reminds us as well that, in the rush to cure Parkinson's and other diseases, people are being treated as a means to an end, not as ends in themselves. The comatose women, like the embryos, are defenseless, which makes them the ideal source for human spare parts. But in the end, while we may prolong human life, we see that it will be at the price of our own humanity. So, three cheers for the folks at Law & Order. By taking on the difficult issue fairly, they showed that, sometimes, when art imitates life, life can be served. For further reading and information: BreakPoint commentary no. 021115, "Swept Away: ER and Stem Cell Research." Find out more about NBC's Law & Order: SVU. Gilbert Meilaender, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians (Eerdmans, 1996). Nigel Cameron, ed., Bioengagement: Making a Christian Difference through Bioethics Today (Eerdmans, 2000). Charles A. Donovan, "Attack of the Conscience? Hollywood and the Genetic Revolution," Council for Biotechnology Policy, 10 September 2002. "A different kind of 'reality TV'," CNN, 20 November 2002.


Chuck Colson


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