“At its core, the issue of embryonic stem-cell research forces us to confront fundamental questions about the beginnings of life and the ends of science,” President George W. Bush said in a recent address.
The President announced in his speech that he had concluded that federal funds could be used for research on more than 60 genetically diverse stem-cell lines that already exist, where the life-death decision has already been made. These cell lines were created from embryos that have already been destroyed, and the have the ability to regenerate themselves indefinitely.
He went on to add that this allows us to explore the promise and potential of stem-cell research without crossing a fundamental moral line by providing taxpayer funding that would sanction or encourage further destruction of human embryos that have “at least the potential for human life.”
The President also opposed human cloning, and he supported aggressive federal funding of research on umbilical cord, placenta, adult and animal stem cells which do not involve the same moral dilemma as embryonic human stem cells.
“As the discoveries of modern science create tremendous hope, they also lay vast ethical minefields.” What are some of those minefields?
The moral problem is framed in large measure by in vitro fertilization. The typical in vitro fertilization procedure involves the production of more embryos than will be implanted in the mother. Those that are not immediately placed within the womb are placed in frozen storage. Once the fertility program has been completed, the clinic will ask parents what they want to do with their “left-over” embryos. Do they want to continue to pay to have them kept in storage, or would they prefer to have them thrown away, or given to science to for research?
In discussing these questions there are a number of facts that we have to keep in mind:
First of all, the materials kept in frozen storage are human beings. They are not just fertilized eggs or random collection of cells. They are whole human organisms that have resulted from the union of the husbands’ sperm and the wife’s ovum (normal and best case scenario). These frozen human embryos contain a full set of human chromosomes. They are human beings at a very early stage of embryological development. Whether or not one is a human being does not depend upon size or one’s location in the physical world.
Secondly, these human embryos are alive. They are not “potential” human life. They are precisely what human beings look like at that point of their lives. Freezing an embryo does not kill it, but merely arrests its development.
(As an aside, for those who accept in vitro fertilization, would not the better solution be to research method of freezing ova? This would eliminate the creation of additional embryos and their subsequent freezing, which is contrary to their human dignity and puts them at risk for subsequent research. In this way there would be an end to the corrosive link between in vitro fertilization and the destruction of human life.)
Thirdly, this form of research would allow the embryos to be stripped of their cells and their integrity, reducing them from a subject to an object, from a human being with dignity to a source of organic material.
Fourthly, the difficulties are compounded when human embryos are created solely for the purposes of research. Therapeutic cloning is an additional affront to human dignity. Scientists have long recognized that the principle that no experimental or research procedure should be conducted on human subjects if it provides no direct benefit or if the risks to the subject are inordinately great. In the case of human embryo experimentation, not only is there no direct benefit to the subject, but the embryos is directly killed. This cannot be done for whatever reason, even in view of the possibility that it might provide advances in science and medicine that would benefit others.
No amount of public benefit can ever justify the deliberate killing of a human being. The argument is particularly hollow when the same results could be achieved by alternate means such as the use of adult stem cells or the stem cells derived from umbilical cords or placentas. Such research would have no ethical complications and has already shown highly promising results.
No human being, including the embryo, should ever be used as a means to an end; no human being should be considered as “surplus” or “spare.” It is always wrong to destroy another human being even to help another. Both the means and the objective must be good; there is no middle ground. We cannot kill in the name of science.
President Bush has elevated the public ethical debate on the issue of stem cell research and attempted to find the middle of the road by setting some limits, i.e. by only granting funding for research on existing stem cell lines, “here the life and death decision has already been made.”
Nevertheless, his position is not without moral difficulties. We must remember that the existing stem cell lines have been obtained by the deliberate destruction of human embryos for the sake of research. Such funding has already been declared “insufficient” by some, that there are relatively few existing lines and they eventually degrade, and that the existing guidelines must be broadened and expanded. It short, the door has been opened for further legitimation of the destruction of now-living embryos.
We would do well to keep in mind the words of the Psalmist: “You created my inmost self, knit me together in my mother’s womb. For so many marvels I thank you; a won-der am I, and all your works are wonders.” [Ps.139:13-14]
☩ Frederick Henry
Bishop Emeritus of Calgary