Defining Life: The Moral Case for Stem Cell Research

In a recent political move, Republican Presidential candidate John McCain voiced his opposition to embryonic stem cell research (ESC). Yet, even as the controversy rages on, the real reasons for opposition to embryonic stem cell research are increasingly obscured.

Stem cells are, in simplest terms, the basic cells that replicate and change into the various cells that make up our bodies. Their medical importance lies in the fact that they can produce a virtually unlimited supply of any other cell. Because embryonic stem cells are particularly suited for this purpose, research in this field has tremendous potential to cure disease and help people live longer, healthier lives. To name just two breakthroughs this research may soon make possible: scientists at Novocell say embryonic stem cell research has the potential to revolutionize treatment for diabetes, perhaps even offering a cure. And Greon, a company doing research on spinal cord injuries, just announced that they are ready to test their stem cell treatment on people after spectacular results with rodents—joyous news for the over 250,000 Americans with spinal cord injuries, who cannot walk, feed themselves, or even move their heads.

Despite these and other potential benefits, however, many Americans adamantly oppose stem cell research. Critics condemn the practice of extracting stem cells from an embryo because, identifying embryos as human beings, they hold that destroying them constitutes murder. President Bush, for example, endorsing this perspective, explained that he would not “support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others.”

The embryos used by researchers are microscopic clusters of undifferentiated cells. If we simply compare embryos with human beings, it seems absurd to regard them as “innocent human life”. Embryos are not conscious or otherwise recognizably human any more than plant seeds are capable of photosynthesis. Indeed, a human being is far more similar to a snake or rat than he is to the cell mass that constitutes an embryo in the first trimester. And while embryos are genetically identical to human beings, the same can be said of every cell in the human body. No one considers it murder to have your tonsils removed.

Stem cell research opponents scoff at such analogies. Richard Doerflinger, Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities, reminds us that “[t]he human embryo, at the one-week-old (blastocyst) stage, is a developing human life”. Doerflinger’s point—that an embryo, if left to develop, will become a human being—is, as he aptly describes it, “a basic biological fact, found in the standard human embryology textbooks.” But Doerflinger assumes an additional unstated premise: that because the embryo will become a human being, it is a human being. This premise is at the crux of every argument against stem cell research. Is there any reason for accepting such an idea?

Logically, there is not. The fact that one thing has the potential to develop into another in no way implies that it is the other. We do not treat children as adults, though they have the potential to reach adulthood. If having the capacity to be something were the same as already being that thing, then children would be allowed to drive cars, get credit cards, and have sex. As Dr. Leonard Peikoff of the Ayn Rand Institute observes, by this logic we could “call any adult an ‘undead corpse’ and bury him alive.” We distinguish between children and adults, and adults and corpses, because there is an obvious difference between a potential and an actual. Thus, there is no basis for treating an embryo as a human being simply because it can develop into one.

If there is no logical reason to identify stem cells as human, what then is the basis for the widespread opposition to embryonic stem cell research? We get a clue in this statement by President Bush, made in reference to children who were implanted as embryos: “These lives are not raw material to be exploited, but gifts.”

Gifts from whom? Obviously, from God. Observe that those opposing the life-saving possibilities of ESC research are uniformly religious. Their opposition is not grounded in reason or the facts of biology, but in the dogmas of faith. “God giveth, and God taketh away”—God imbues a soul into the body at conception, and he alone, not human beings, must choose when to sever that tie. This is why, from a religious perspective, there is no important difference between a biologically independent living, breathing human being on the one hand, and an embryo on the other. The observational and logical differences between these cases are irrelevant—they are all flesh in which God has placed a soul, and so they are all equally human life.

The issue of whether to identify embryos as human or not is not merely semantic. The doctrine of treating embryos as actual human beings causes real harm to real people. From the child with a broken spine denied ESC treatment, to the man diagnosed with cancer who may have benefited from the ESC research that wasn’t conducted—all will suffer. Real human beings will pay the horrible price of the slowdown of stem cell research. Whatever the appeals to compassion for the “unborn”, the religionist’s attitude amounts to: “It doesn’t matter if stem cell research could allow you to walk again or save a loved one from an incurable disease. My religion teaches me that an embryo has a soul, so you’ll just have to suffer.” This attitude is not, as ESC opponents would have us believe, “pro-life”. It is obscenely indifferent to human life. No one can claim to value human life while insisting it be sacrificed to microscopic cell tissue, even if that tissue, under the right circumstances, has the potential to become human.

Some religious conservatives respond that no sacrifice is needed, because an alternative exists—adult stem cell (ASC) research. David E. Smith, Executive Director of Illinois Family Institute, writes “Embryonic stem cell research comes at too great a cost to human life. Our efforts and resources should be focused on… the use of adult stem cells.” ASC research, like ESC research, investigates medical treatments using stem cells. However, ASC research extracts the cells from consenting adults, rather than embryos.

Religious people on the Right, like Tadeusz Pacholczyk, a Roman Catholic priest, argue that ASC research “doesn’t raise the huge issue of destroying human embryos.” And this view is shared by growing numbers of Americans, including scientists. It has become commonplace to read articles reporting on successful ASC research that praise it as helping to “resolve a moral dilemma for many.” One commentator happily observed, “this would mean that one of the most troubling aspects of stem cell research for many people—the use of human embryos in the lab—has been sidestepped.”

Much of the debate on stem cells seems to focus on choosing ASC research or ESC research, but this is a false alternative. The central issue is that scientists should not, for fear of offending religious sensibilities, hesitate to conduct ESC research. To do so is to concede that destroying an embryo is murder, and to set the dangerous precedent that religious morality ought to be imposed on science and law. The message to religious groups is that we will sacrifice our own rational interests to respect your irrational beliefs, and close off promising avenues of research merely because you oppose them, even if it means that more people will die or live out their entire lives as helpless invalids.

Research companies and scientists should decide where to devote their energy on the basis of scientific considerations and on the potential for human benefit, not on the basis of fear that they will offend the religious. Real lives of real people hang in the balance.

Guy received his B.A. in political science from the University of Toronto in 2004. He works for a property management/development firm in Hamilton, Ontario.

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