Monday, May 23, 2005

Embryonic Stem Cell Research and the Question of Compassion

With South Korea's recent announcement of successfully creating embryonic clones from the skin cells of diseased patients and talk of an impending bill pushing for federal funding of research using "excess" embryos from fertilization clinics, embryonic stem cell research is once again a major news item.

Below is a letter I wrote to Newsweek in response to their July 9, 2001 cover story on the subject. Even though it's four years old, the points made remain relevant to the current debate.

The original article is no longer available online. While searching for it, however, I did come across an elementary school curriculum written to be used in tandem with the Newsweek issue. Its introduction reads:
This week's Newsweek raises philosophical questions about what constitutes human life and about the nature of humanity. Among other topics, students will read about stem cell research; the extradition of Slobodan Milosevic, who will stand trial for crimes against humanity; and the brutal slaughter of Jews by their Polish neighbors in 1941.
Working with this content, students will explore the themes of Humanity, Responsibility and Decision-Making. Activities involve defining a human being, evaluating their own responsibilities as citizens and exploring the process of decision-making.
The class activity tagged to the article on embryonic stem cell research illustrates the confusion that surrounds the process. Students are given a chart with two columns labeled "Human" and "Not Human" along with the following instructions: "In the column labeled "Human," list the arguments that stem cells are, in fact, human. In the other column, list the arguments that they are not." This gives children the false impression that the debate is over whether stem cells are human beings when in actuality that's not what's in question. Opponents to embryonic stem cell research do not maintain that individual stem cells are human beings. Resistance is due to the fact that the human embryos destroyed in the process of extracting stem cells are distinct human beings.

To further clear the fog surrounding this critical issue, check out Joe Carter's "The Bioethics of Therapeutic Cloning: A Brief Primer on the Issues."


In her cover story, "Cellular Divide" (Newsweek, July 9), Sharon Begley presents a superb example of the logical fallacy known as false dilemma. This occurs when only two alternatives are presented when in actuality three or more options exist. Concerning the divergent views of embryonic life, Ms. Begley writes:
If you are a passionate right-to-life activist, you see in the cells an incipient human life, one deserving all the rights and respect of any other human…If, though you suffer from a currently incurable disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer's or love someone who does, then those cells look very different; they look like the seeds of hope, tiny miracles able to dance on the head of a pin.
This suggests that either one contends for the humanity of the pre-born and is therefore unsympathetic toward those afflicted by various degenerative diseases or one's life is touched by disease (either directly or by association) and he or she denies that the embryo is a distinct human being deserving of protection. This is patently false.

I'm sure Russell Saltzman would be perplexed to learn that everyone must fit neatly in one of these two camps. Although he got nowhere the media coverage that celebrities like Michael J. Fox and Mary Tyler Moore received, Russell, a Kansas City minister with diabetes, testified before a Senate committee expressing his opposition to stem cell research. Ron Heagy is further evidence of the false dichotomy Ms. Begley presents. Having become a paraplegic at 17, it can hardly be said that he is disinterested in advances in medical technology. He too voiced his opposition to the federal funding of stem cell research before the Senate committee. "I'm not opposed to research," he said, "I'm not opposed to walking again. I'm just opposed to the process." Then there's Anton-Lewis Usala. It's ridiculous to categorize him as an overzealous pro-life advocate with no personal interest in the hope held out by stem cell research. Usala, a medical doctor and research scientist, also has diabetes yet considers the pre-born life that would be terminated in harvesting stem cells human beings who should not be exploited for the benefit of others in the race. "For the first time," he testified, "the perceived right of the government will supersede the right of the individual."

Russell Saltzman hit the nail on the head when he noted that the critical question is whether the human embryo is a human being or a "mere bit of research material." It is clear from Ms. Begley's article that proponents of this controversial scientific research deny the former. Even Sen. Orrin Hatch whom Ms. Begley describes as "as anti-abortion as they come," inconsistently denies the personhood and rights of the embryos whose stem cells would be harvested. "A frozen embryo stored in a refrigerator in a clinic just isn't the same as a fetus developing in a mother's womb." Unfortunately, Sen. Hatch does not tell us how this is at all ethically significant. Sure, the embryo and the fetus in question are not in the same environment. But what does that have to do with the humanity of either of them? They are both distinct human beings with gender and unique genetic identities. What I'd like to know from Sen. Hatch is since when is physical location determinative of whether an entity is human? Is a human being in a refrigerator less a human being than one somewhere else? Changing where something is doesn't change what it is. If I drive my car out of the garage and park it in my dining room, it's still a car.

The only other difference between the embryo and the fetus is that they are at different stages of human development. But again, this is morally irrelevant. Humans do not become more human with the passing of time. To say that an embryo is different from a fetus is analogous to saying that an infant is different from an adolescent. Both are different points on the continuum of human development.

Begley also quotes Irv Weissman, a biologist at Stanford University. Like Hatch, Weissman appeals to the location of the embryos as if it had any ethical significance. According to him, "Anyone who would ban research on embryonic stem cells will be responsible for the harm done to real, alive, postnatal, sentient human beings who might be helped by this research." Obviously, Weissman doesn't regard the embryos as real people, but on what grounds? Scientifically, there's no doubt that the embryo is alive. The fact that it is prenatal is again an appeal to the stage of maturation, which we have already seen has nothing to do with whether or not a particular being is a human being. And if one argues that one must be sentient in order to be worthy of protection, then we'd best all start sleeping with one eye open.

Ms. Begley concludes by noting that banning stem cell research, while upholding an "extreme view of the sanctity of life," would be at the expense of "doing all we can to improve the lot of the living." This assumes, of course, that human embryos are not human beings and should therefore be used as objects for the benefit of others. All that remains is for Ms. Begley and others of like mind to offer logically and ethically compelling arguments for their position.

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